The more I talk to people at the UA (that pesky off-the-record stance making me wonder if accusations about ‘fear of retribution’ are actually true), the more I’m beginning to think that this brouhaha over the Transformation and calls for no-confidence votes of UA leadership are really due to Provost Meredith Hay’s lack of personal social skills more than anything else. In other words, it isn’t so much the message of “We’ve got to cut” as the way that message is delivered.
Over and over I hear from faculty, department heads and even deans, the same thing: “We know we have to change our model. We do have to adjust to new economic realities. We know we have to spin gold out of straw here but she’s just asking us to do it in the wrong way.” (Example: One dean says Hay called him into her office last fall and told him what he’d need to do and when he said, “I don’t have any more to cut,” she said, “Well, then, you can quit and I’ll find someone in the department who can do the job.” That’s teamwork for you.)
So, would UA Defender have launched; would department heads that had heretofore covered Hay’s backside now be calling for her head; and would graduate teaching assistants/students be trying to decide if they should have a massive walkout to protest rumors of further cuts IF Hay and/or Shelton had been a little more deferential to the academic masses during these transformative days?
As an observer of Hay since she arrived at UA, I can attest that she is uncomfortable in crowds, that she senses she isn’t the most popular kid in the Wildcat playground and that she is very much a matter-of-fact woman. She trusts few, if any, people, and trusts the press least of all. She’s more than happy to be your cheerleader if you pony up and get with her program, but if you don’t, she has no problem being the person to tell you to get out of her way. She takes her job seriously and when she was given her marching orders by Shelton in re: the Transformation, she said her version of “Yes, sir” and got to business.
That is, after all, how people get to be successful: They get things done and are willing to be unpopular to do it. As a woman of power, she probably had to be tough as nails to get where she is. Problem is, Hay’s at UA in laid-back Tucson and folks here don’t take too well to that kind of my-way-or-the-highway attitude. It isn’t just that academia moves at the speed of a glacier melting, talking things to death while Rome burns, it is that Tucson itself has a hard time making any decisions. (Exhibit A: Rio Nuevo. Exhibit B: No cross-town freeway. Sometimes I’m surprised that people even show up for work anywhere in this town.)
Whether no one informed her of what she’d be up against, or whether she just doesn’t understand how to let down her guard in order to get buy-in from academic types, Hay is now the center of a storm that I think both she and Shelton wrongly believe will blow over. The decision at the end of August to not hire six women, five of them minorities, who had been recruited – at the behest of Shelton – was the nail in the coffin for some department heads who’d been trying to go along to get along.
When you have heads and directors who, up until now, had been trying to keep UA’s internal arguments in-house now feeding the flames of discontent, you’ve got a major problem on your hands. Shelton and Hay need to take some serious steps at reconciliation with faculty, deans and department heads or there’s a really good chance they’ll regret it come the next Arizona Board of Regents meeting.
And, as one major UA grant-getter and lead faculty told me today, those make-nice attempts need to be authentic and well-thought-out. “They need to be more than just those campaign-speech memos he sends out,” the faculty said. “No one believes he means anything he’s saying.”
POSTSCRIPT: UA isn’t the only unversity dealing with some awkward decisions made by administration. Radford University in Virginia had two nasty firings that were handled so poorly the incident made Inside Higher Education blogs.