The USF Board of Trustees did it once. There was some discussion, then it faded away.
The same situation happened again. People discussed, but, the administration got the benefit of the doubt.
But now, with it scheduled to happen again in a few weeks, a new grumbling may not fade away.
What is this reoccurring pattern of behavior? Well, since its inception 18 months ago, the BOT has made several of its important and controversial decisions at times and in places where few faculty and students are involved, for instance, between semesters, or during the summer.
At other times, the board has made decisions via conference call, or at a campus location other than Tampa.
BOT critics say decision timing is crucial because, with no one on campus, there is no healthy feedback or reaction to controversy, or any widespread knowledge of important policies.
The BOT says problems must be handled when they happen.
The problem is evident from when the board was named. Some critics have commented that the announcement of the board did not get the kind of coverage it deserved because it came in the summer.
While two of four regular board meetings have taken place with the university closed, the most significant decisions have been made in a string of emergency conference calls. During those proceedings, members call in and do not answer questions following their decisions. Many of those policies are voted on after only a few minutes of discussion.
And, while it may at times be a necessity for the board to vote via telephone, the distance and abruptness of the practice only add fuel to the fire.
Is the board, as the critics say, hiding its decisions in down times? Or is that the last thing from members minds?
More importantly, what effect does the board’s scheduling have on reactions to its decisions?
In answering these questions, it seems that conclusions can be drawn from the individual cases:
December 19, 2001
This was the one that began a national controversy that continues today. The board called an emergency conference call to pass a resolution encouraging USF President Judy Genshaft to terminate professor Sami Al-Arian. The vote itself came while the university was closed for winter break and almost three months after Genshaft first reported the situation to the board in a similar emergency conference call.
But what upset many critics was the fact that the board had a regular meeting less than two weeks before, while classes were in session. The board, however, did not make a decision until after the president had received a report from her attorney.
May 16, 2002
The board met for a regular meeting during the early days of the summer semester on the near-deserted Sarasota campus. At issue was a controversial plan to raise parking decal fees by $5. The reason the plan was controversial was because the increase came on the heels of a $2-per-credit-hour parking access fee. Student Body President Mike Griffin was against the measure, but despite his arguments, it passed.
This meeting revealed a whole new aspect to claims that the board is “hiding.” Detractors noted that not only did the meeting occur during the barren summer months, it was held on a campus far from the students who would be affected by the controversial measures.
That argument was renewed during the board’s Nov. 21 meeting when the board voted on a highly debated set of rules that will govern the faculty when the collective bargaining agreement expires Jan. 7. The meeting was held on the remote Lakeland campus, which upset several faculty members.
Board members argue that the meetings are scheduled months in advance, and that at the time of scheduling, they had no idea what would be on the agenda.
However, it can be pointed out that of the past three regular meetings, the two that were held while classes were in session took place at the two most distant campuses. The one held at the Tampa campus took place while classes were not in session.
June 21, 2002
In an emergency conference call that lasted barely 10 minutes the board voted to raise tuition. The reason the call was deemed an emergency was because the board wanted to implement the increase at the start of the fall semester.
The board caught several questions about the timing, mainly because the demographic most affected by the increase were out-of-state students. Those students saw increases of almost 20 percent.
Critics wondered why the board would increase tuition so drastically for out-of-state students who are rarely on campus during the summer.
August 22, 2002
In a regular board meeting that took place during a between-semester break, the board voted to extend the tuition increase throughout the entire 2002-2003 academic year. Again, the schedule was set for this date well before the agenda was decided. But, as before, some claimed it was a bad policy to make tuition decisions with few students on campus.
August 21, 2002
Just one day before, Genshaft made her long-awaited decision.
Arguably one of the top administrative controversies of the past year was the timing of Genshaft’s announcement to take Al-Arian to court. The announcement itself was a surprise, but the timing has been the basis for heated criticism in the months before and after.
The decision came while classes were not being held. But more importantly, the decision came almost a year after Al-Arian was placed on paid leave, and almost eight months after the board passed its resolution.
Whenever asked throughout the summer if her intention was to wait until faculty and students left for the summer’s end break, her response was usually a laugh. Genshaft said she had to take time to make her decision and that administrative decisions are almost always made in between semesters so they wouldn’t disrupt the flow of classes.
She was widely criticized for her second response. Many pointed out that Al-Arian was not teaching classes, and therefore a firing or a reinstatement during a semester would have little effect.
Others, however, drew parallels between Al-Arian and the case of former St. Petersburg campus CEO Bill Heller. While his departure from the CEO position didn’t take place until August, Heller was forced out of the job by Genshaft in June. His replacement was named well before the end of the summer semester. Critics, therefore, said that such a personnel decision could be made during a semester and that Genshaft was stalling on the Al-Arian case.
Now a year’s worth of concerns have come to a head in the form of a new controversy. On Dec. 18, the board will call an emergency conference call meeting to, it seems, rubberstamp a new salary and benefit package for Genshaft. The president stands to see substantially more money.
Many have already expressed disapproval of the raise. Some have suggested that the president is being rewarded for being the board’s puppet.
But most of all, the complaint has arisen stronger than ever that the decision will be made with no one around.
What will happen if the board continues in its current behavior? One thing that seems certain is that the faculty’s response when it comes back in January will be interesting. Faculty members will return to a collective bargaining agreement that will be expiring, threats of more budget cuts and an uncertain future.
They may not respond well to a massive salary increase that took place while they were away for a president who, after she sided with the board concerning the new employment rules, many feel does not stand up for their rights.
So, just what will happen while the campus is empty for this year’s winter break? Will there be major decisions that affect the future of USF? Or will very little be decided?
If the board’s previous behavior is any indication, it seems that a return in January will be filled with some surprising changes.