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Faculty dissidents report vote of no confidence in Catholic University leadership

Catholic University President John Garvey, shown at his inauguration in 2011, has lost the confidence of the faculty, a group of professors said.
Catholic University President John Garvey, shown at his inauguration in 2011, has lost the confidence of the faculty, a group of professors said. (Dayna Smith/for The Washington Post)

A sizable group of Catholic University faculty members voted to express no confidence in the school’s president and provost after months of campus debate over proposed cuts in the teaching force, several veteran professors said Friday.

In an electronic canvass of faculty members, 76 percent of the 225 who responded said they had no confidence in Provost Andrew Abela, and 78 percent said they had no confidence in university President John Garvey, according to Michael Mack, an associate professor of English.

Mack is one of seven faculty members on the executive committee of a group called the Faculty Assembly, which has convened in recent weeks as a forum for faculty members at Catholic to express their grievances.

Binh Tran, another committee member and an associate professor of biomedical engineering, said the no-confidence vote “stems from concerns from faculty across campus regarding the strategic vision and direction of the university, lack of shared governance, and financial stewardship and management of the university’s resources.”

The rebellion comes as Catholic’s Board of Trustees prepares to convene Monday to consider what the administration calls an “academic renewal” plan for the university in Northeast Washington.

Under the plan, 35 full-time faculty positions would be eliminated through retirements, resignations and other means to save about $3.5 million a year. That represents a 9 percent reduction from the current level of 379 faculty members. The administration said the reductions are virtually complete and have been accomplished through voluntary departures. Critics had wondered whether the university would try to fire or lay off tenured professors, but university officials said they were trying to avoid that.

The plan also calls for adjusting teaching loads; preserving academic programs; creating a school of music, drama and art; and increasing spending in targeted fields in coming years.

By itself, the no-confidence vote, first reported by Religion News Service, is nothing more than an expression of opinion. Garvey, president since July 2010, reports to the Board of Trustees. Abela is his top lieutenant.

Neither Garvey nor Abela was available for comment, a university spokeswoman said Friday evening.

“It’s difficult to respond to an anonymous opinion poll from an unofficial, outside organization,” Catholic said in an email through the spokeswoman, Jacquelyn Malcolm, the associate vice president for marketing and communications. “For example, we don’t know who was invited to vote.”

The university statement noted that Catholic’s Academic Senate — an official body that includes professors and administrators — voted 35 to 8 last month to send the academic-renewal proposal to the trustees.

“We know we have had some difficult conversations this semester,” the statement said. But officials noted that the proposal was developed in consultation with committees of the Academic Senate.

Catholic, unlike many colleges and universities, does not have a faculty senate consisting primarily of professors.

The university has faced financial challenges in recent years in part because of stagnating undergraduate enrollment. It had 3,315 undergraduates last fall, down 11 percent from four years earlier. The university also has about 2,700 graduate and professional students, for a total enrollment of more than 6,000.

Catholic was founded under a papal charter in the late 19th century and is overseen by the Board of Trustees, which includes numerous bishops, archbishops and cardinals. The school competes for students with many other Roman Catholic-affiliated institutions in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Some of those competitors have grown in recent years.

Linda Plitt Donaldson, an associate professor of social service, said the Faculty Assembly at Catholic was established in 1965 but has not been active in recent years. It reconvened last month, she said, with 58 members approving new bylaws. Donaldson is on the assembly’s executive committee.

“Ultimately, we think discussing these problems in the open will allow us to move toward positive and constructive solutions that will benefit the entire university community,” said Julia Young, an executive committee member who is an associate professor of history.