SXU and HLC: Who gets the (dis)credit?

November 4, 2021

The recent online discussion among colleagues who assess the current Administration of SXU in opposite ways has led me to reflect, once again, on where we are as an institution. As I prepare my comments for HLC next week, I find myself reflecting on issues like agreements and disagreements and how to navigate them fully and respectfully, “love/hatred of SXU,” sabotage/”disruption” of HLC, and, perhaps most of all, how so many of us feel traumatized and depressed by institutional life at this university in 2021—where the conflicts and destabilizations of our own community are compounded by those prevalent throughout both higher education and our society as a whole .

Suffice to say, the SXU community is divided on how best to plan for, invest in, and pursue its future. Some point to the current administration as being instrumental in turning the university around, making operations leaner, saving money, and investing in programs in new ways so as to focus and strengthen the SXU “brand.” Others point to the administration as weakening longstanding programs, creating end-arounds on faculty ownership of the curriculum, reducing the role of faculty input, damaging established governance structures and processes, and promoting a climate of perpetual crisis and need to anticipate potential crises on the horizon.

Both sides seem motivated by worthy intentions to shape the university into a sustainable and successful institution of education. Their means and ends vary. Divisions abound—among those who have been long-serving and those who are newly hired; among those serving in tenured and those in non-tenured roles; among staff and faculty members; among those in the president’s inner circle and those not; among those who are well-compensated and those who are not; among pragmatists and justice seekers; and more.

Not enough has been done to heal divisions. I have been a vocal critic of the president and of those I’ve considered her enablers, and so, I must accept some responsibility in not always promoting the conditions of unity. I have placed blame at the feet of the president and Board of Trustees for promoting divisions and ignoring pleas for conversations and joint problem solving. I believe that the current administration has embraced a dynamic of “you’re with us or you’re against us.” I believe their actions have been power moves above all else and strategizing for strengthening their base and weakening opposition.

My convictions along these lines have prevented me from adopting a more balanced rhetoric.

This semester in my Rhetoric, Writing, and Society class, we have studied some alternatives to the (essentially male) rhetorical tradition that focuses on persuasion and argumentation by proofs to get the audience to accept a pre-established conclusion that the speaker (as a kind of leader) would have the audience accept. In contrast, certain versions of emerging feminist rhetoric place less emphasis on “changing the audience,” or even “adapting the message to the audience,” and instead features “bearing witness” of a speaker, who often attempts to relay the ways in which they have been hurt, but yet who, often with  brutal honesty, confide their own weaknesses, contradictions, and deficiencies—all in an effort to “raise consciousness” and possibly enlist humanizing consubstantiality of other conflicted, complex individuals.

Karlyn Kohrs Campbell presents the outlines of a feminist rhetoric that features personal, concrete, and individual experience—even in addressing exigent circumstances that carry life and death implications—and that would seem to require focused and directed or “led” collective action. In contradiction to a traditionally rhetorical, “persuasive” response, a feminist response could be oriented around consciousness raising as the sine qua non or starting point:

The only effective response to the sensation of being threatened existentially is a rhetorical act that treats the personal, emotional, and concrete directly and explicitly, that is dialogic and participatory, that speaks from personal experience to personal experience.

“The Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation”

And so, what would it look like if those of us on opposite sides of our SXU chasm were to attempt such rhetoric?

Even now as I write with a conscious desire to take a more unifying stance, as I try to bear witness to my experience, rather than call out the misdeeds of others, I find myself rehearsing my grievances, unable to let go of the rationales, defenses, attacks … the list of breakdowns, the threats … that I “know could be remedied, if only”—If we just could come to the table, direct our energies, and start pulling in the same direction. That is, I am trapped by my traditional, argumentative, prove-my-point, male rhetoric that ever propels me to shout, louder and louder, the validity of my thesis.

How do I retrench? My own history has been full of so much emotion and heartache; I should have little trouble being “personal, emotional, and concrete.”

In bearing witness, I have to ask, “How did I become a ‘faculty leader’?” It is not something I sought, and for many reasons: I am not a particularly good public speaker; I am not the best informed on the history of issues; I don’t think well on my feet; I am one who will always shift the focus from specific tasks at hand to some kind of “larger picture”—that, whatever its value, would always seem to subvert timely action. But when I was offered the position to lead—first, through mere representation on the Faculty Affairs Committee, and then to the position of chairperson, I felt that I did possess certain strengths that might be of help—qualities of character, emotional maturity, patience, right-sized ego, courage, right-sized assertiveness, general goodwill, and—yes—love of SXU, where 3 of my children have graduated, where, in 1996, my wife, an Irish Catholic, and I, an Italian Catholic, both alums of Loyola University, felt blessed to be able to plan on setting down roots and becoming members of a campus that reinforced the best aspects of our Catholic identity—both for ourselves and our young children who might someday attend. I felt the integrity of my intentions in accepting a leadership role would compensate for my deficiencies of leadership and organization. The challenges were all-consuming, but the work, ultimately, led to responsible purpose and action.

Much of the difficulty of serving on a faculty committee involves the “herding of cats” problem that ensues when so many independent, intelligent, and often strong-willed people, as faculty are, find themselves trying to organize and serve a collective purpose. There were divisions in FAC, as there were in the general community, and those divisions could be intense and stymieing.

Yet, above FAC’s divisions was a deep consubstantiality of the value of the committee’s work. For years we had had such exemplary leadership from colleagues like Arunas Dagys. I say “colleagues like,” though truth be told, I’ve never seen another like him. He’s larger than life—physically, emotionally, morally. He exudes strength, humility, and pragmatism all in equal doses, all with confidence and intelligence and resilience. I hesitate to call Arunas my mentor, for fear that I, in my failures, might cast some shadow over his excellences. I don’t mean to be sycophantic in my adulation, but I know no proper way to “eulogize” Arunas. Whether or not he was my mentor, he was certainly my inspiration.

I think of my failures when I relive the phone call of May 28, when Board Chair, Patricia Morris, with a quaver in her voice, in the “presence” of me, Associate Chair Jackie Battalora, and our attorney, Robert Bloch (“presence” in quotes because the message was sent via a conference call in those early days of the pandemic) took a stab at faculty governance and severed the university’s longstanding relationship with both the union and the Faculty Affairs Committee. Even then, I, in my arrogance thought “This will not stand.” Or I was, “Okay, okay…our move. We’ve got Robert Bloch. We got a new faculty unity. We have a new approach of exposing in public and with reason and professional calm and direct statement.”

But I was foolhardy to have hope, and that hope has not been helpful, and the damage done by FAC’s arrogance to take on the president rather than retrenching and waiting her out and preserving the union structure is inestimable. Throughout my time as chair, I would rehearse the first principle of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” And here it was: under my watch, the university union was crushed. My ensuing depression centers on this failure. And a vortex of anger and disappointment and licking of wounds has left me confused and despondent, but also scrambling, as I find my resilience, fortunately, has not reached its limit.

For one, I mustn’t elevate my role so as to take on that full responsibility. The truth is that the May 28th action was but the logical endpoint of many prior actions, all set in motion through a decision made years earlier in the hiring by the university of an expensive anti-labor law firm. This action, while regrettable, was not illegal, or perhaps not even immoral. But as Arunas’s voice echoes in my head: it was not pragmatic—not in the “big” sense of pragmatic, the sense that the union and the university could work together to find a sustainable path that protected all with some basic minimums of compensation and working conditions that laid the necessary groundwork for future developments. Arunas’s rhetoric of pragmatism was always so persuasive, since its fruits, always, were so visible in principled decisions over many years that featured the big view of sustainability. “Neither side should be allowed to game the system.” And in listening to the comparisons, analyses, and solutions he would propose in recommending policies, it was clear he had done his homework, a lot of it.

The busting of the union struck me to my core. Beyond the personal disappointment in myself for not knowing how to sidestep this disaster, there was the transformation of SXU, there was the setback to the labor movement in world-historical terms, there was the collective failure—of the FAC group to unify the faculty, but also of the faculty to understand what was happening, to trust the leaders as to implications, to commit to doing whatever was possible to forestall permanent damage, and to honor the tradition that had been built, with such promise and potential, for 40 years.

The PR campaign of the administration to point fingers at FAC for the decision they made also hurt. For the year prior to the action, public communications between Admin and FAC were strained, verging on hostile, while always delivered under some veneer of professionalism. But there was a dishonesty, slander even, in many characterizations of our committee by the Administration. We were accused of distributing “erroneous, flawed, and misleading” data; despite our proofs of the correctness of our information, no retraction of such accusations took place. In one notable public slander made directly by the president, we were blamed for the decision not to record negotiation sessions; and post-May 28, we were accused, without evidence, of behaviors and advocacies on our part that led to the breakdown in negotiations.

The slander, mischaracterizations, and imputing of motives by the Administration were indignities, yes, but most of all they hurt me as a person. To quote another feminist critic, Natanson, the hurt is more than just a passing blow:

When an argument hurts me, cuts me, or cleanses and liberates me it is not because a particular stratum or segment of my world view is shaken up or jarred free but because I am wounded or enlivened—I in my particularity, and that means in my existential immediacy: feelings, pride, love, and sullenness, the world of my actuality as I live it.

Claims of Immediacy

The busting of the union was unnecessary, immoral, and unproductive—and the hurt it caused me sent me into a depression that, dark as it was, was primarily a private matter of me adjusting to a new reality. I was thrown, as one colleague put it, “into a fugue state” (or was she talking about herself? Not totally clear…). But what happened the next year went beyond me, and beyond the union.

What happened the next year, in the context of Covid, was a barrage of brazen actions by the Administration to solidify their centralized and unchecked power. The counterpart success of unification by the faculty in response produced a strong Senate voice, who pronounced clear and important decisions on matters of bylaws, faculty voice, and curriculum. I needn’t rehearse here the faculty vote of no confidence, the Board’s doubling down in their knee-jerk affirmation of the president’s leadership, the dismissiveness of the entire administration of 2/3 of the faculty in expressing such dissatisfaction with the direction of the university: What FAC had seen in private for the first three years of the Joyner presidency was now laid bare, obviously and loudly, for all to see and hear.

Where are we now? We are as divided as ever. But I hold out hope that, through some adjustment—I hope on the part of all, including me—we can begin moving forward and shore up our mission and collective resolve to realize it in its strongest aspects.

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