Some analysis of the University of Arizona no-confidence poll

Survey image courtesy of Flickr user roboppy
Survey image courtesy of Flickr user roboppy

As promised yesterday, here’s the dope on how the University of Arizona faculty poll regarding confidence in President Robert N. Shelton and Provost Meredith Hay may show more faculty disapproval of the central administration – or at least of Hay – than one might gather from simply looking at the raw numbers. This comes courtesy of an interview with a patient and thoughtful Lynn Nadel, who is a UA Regents Professor of Psychology (among other things) and one of the faculty leaders who developed the poll and is helping slog through the written responses that were not tabulated by computer.

As reported by the dead-tree media and yours truly, the poll shows that only 31 percent of faculty eligible to vote in the poll actually did. The problem with that number, Nadel said, is that “eligible faculty” include the retired tenured faculty and “we have no way of knowing how many of them voted.” The only thing the faculty leadership can go on is past participation by emeriti faculty in various votes (i.e. casting ballots for Faculty Senate contenders) is slim to none.

So, if one assumes, as the faculty leaders think they probably should, that few if any of the 750 emeriti faculty voted, the “eligible voters” number drops to about 2,000 active faculty members. Then (stay with me!) if you also account for the fact that the poll had problems getting to people and once it did get to them, they had problems voting due to computer glitches, the number of “eligible voters” could have dropped even further. Meaning, Nadel said, that the 858 people who voted might actually represent a response rate closer to 40 percent, not 31, and maybe even up to 50 percent.

“We didn’t think to put a box on the poll that emeriti faculty could have checked to identify as such, which would have helped,” said Nadel, with an oh-well-next-time shrug.

Regardless, 31 percent response is “a non-trivial number of people” he said. This is confirmed by the ever-helpful David Cuillier, UA assistant professor of journalism and database reporting guru. (Let us pause for a moment here while journalists who’ve been helped by Cuillier pay their respects by bowing in the direction of the UA School of Journalism.) Cuillier was one of the faculty and department heads who contacted me Tuesday to politely say I might not know what the heck I was writing about. Cuillier’s analysis:

… a 31 percent response rate is pretty typical today in polling, and a 50 percent response rate would be great. …I’ve done a fair amount of survey research, including national phone surveys and surveys of specific populations, and 31 percent is pretty usual nowadays. I think you can get better response rates with a population like this (UA faculty) through multiple contacts and a longer polling time, but a growing amount of research indicates that 31 percent is not a problem and does not hurt the results.

The bigger question isn’t the response rate but rather the technique for recruiting people to fill it out. If the method was sporadic (e.g., some departments not hearing about it in time), then that would be more of an issue because some particular voices might not be heard. Overall, though, I don’t think the methodology is problem with this survey. If there are folks who think the results do not represent the sentiment of the faculty, then they can do their own survey to replicate this. I imagine they would get similar results.

Nadel said he thinks the poll is open to multiple interpretations and was careful to stress that his viewpoint about what it meant was his alone. That said, he thinks one message came through “loud and clear.”

“Whatever position one had on the actual decisions regarding funding cuts, there was a general dismay in the faculty over the level of communication,” he said. “That lack of communication brings a loss of trust and, in the end, the decisions are difficult to understand absent full detailed information behind them.”

Whoa, Nellie, is what the UA administration would say. Stephen MacCarthy, VP for External Relations said last week that the President and Provost have bent over backwards with memo after monthly campus memo to get their ideas across.

“Well,” Nadel said, “I know Steve MacCarthy, and he’s a smart guy, but there is an issue of interpretation. I believe they feel they’ve tried to communicate but there is effective communication and not so effective communication. So now is there a problem because they think they are communicating effectively, but the faculty has not been able to be effective in communicating to (UA administrators) that they aren’t communicating effectively. There has been a lack of transparency about why certain decisions are being made and the people who are upset are not just the people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick.”

Nadel, who had met with Hay a few hours before meeting with me, does not belong to the “hang ’em up by their toes” group. He doesn’t believe Shelton and Hay are out to get anyone and concedes that they’ve got to consider multiple audiences whenever they open their mouths: the Arizona Board of Regents, the Legislature, the Governor, the campus. He recognizes the budget realities and knows the UA duo has to pay serious attention to those realities. (For those who’ve been living in a cave, the budget reality is: Arizona is broke)

“Still, even in a situation as tough as the situation we are in, it is possible to do a good job communicating, and this poll is a big time warning message that they haven’t,” the professor said.

Nadel was circumspect when asked if this poll was more about Hay than Shelton.

“She has her strengths and her weaknesses, just like all of us,” he said. “She’s a strong, gutsy, courageous person. That said, I think (Shelton) has become increasingly aware of her weaknesses. Does he have the wherewithal to work with her on improvement? I hope so. I think his memo shows awareness in that, you’ll notice, he is addressing larger groups while she is meeting with smaller ones.”

Nadel said it would be bad idea to oust either Shelton or Hay during this time of budget crisis.

“I don’t support that because the price of going in that direction is really high,” he said. “I believe they deserve a chance to prove they heard the faculty. In the end, all of us should be about what is for the good of the institution, and I think they are. But we have to see if they can communicate that.”

Shelton’s a smart man, and seemed, in his memo, to be admitting that there were some difficulties and those needed to be borne by him and Hay.

Many people on campus are frustrated.  Many feel that they have not been heard.  Others feel that the Provost and I should have provided more detail on how we planned to approach the differential cuts that most (though not all) believe are the best way to tackle the enormous challenge before us. For some, personality and personal communication style are the issues. (Emphasis mine.)

To truly show that they “get” the communication issue, Nadel said Shelton and Hay would have to forthrightly address what really has faculty and department heads worried – and it isn’t just that they are afraid of losing their departments.

“We become academics because we have a deep sense of what a university is,” Nadel said. “This isn’t an idea that started a few years ago. This is a 700-year-old idea, that a university preserves and enlarges human values. It is the life of the mind, but more. And it is that sense that the university at its core is being squeezed that is causing the angst. It’s fear that the essential core of what a university is, is being sacrificed on the corporate altar. The people who pay our salaries (the Legislature) seem to have a restrictive view of what a university is – as just a place to train people to get jobs. But a university is more than that. And the undercurrent of anxiety and anger is at least part about faculty wanting to know that (Shelton and Hay) are committed to protecting and preserving what a university is.”

Nadel said a bunch of other insightful things, like how the people in the sciences – who have more leverage because they draw in more grants – need to stand in the gap and speak up for “people on the other side of the street” like humanities and social sciences, and that faculty should work together to find ways to share funding and raise money, and how tuition may have to go even higher, but in the end, it got back to Shelton and Hay and communication.

Since I’m a Godgeek, I thought that Nadel’s comment on giving the dynamic duo a second chance sounded a little like Regent Ernest Calderón last week when he told me he believed in redemption. Calderón is Catholic and we Catholics are big into redemption, so it isn’t surprising he would use those terms even though he was referring to Shelton’s ability to pull the family together at UA. But when I checked back with him this morning to make sure I understood him correctly, he tweeted me this clarification that sort of sounded like a warning to UA administration and definitely sounded like St. Paul:

I do embrace redemption and forgiveness, but there also must be good works.



One thought on “Some analysis of the University of Arizona no-confidence poll

  1. All that I can do is laugh at a GodGeek who is oblivious to the persecution of the gay employees of UA by the State and wants to obsess about the Provost.

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