Barry Dornfeld

Barry Dornfeld


The news from “Hawk Hill” in Philadelphia has been distressing. In May, the business school faculty at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia issued a vote of “no confidence” in the President, Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie. This followed close on the heels of a Faculty Senate vote of no confidence in two top administrators a few months earlier, reacting to the University making public their budget shortfall of $8.7 million for this fiscal year. And from reports in the press, acrimony is running very high between faculty and administration. These troubles were public enough that the Middle States accreditors on campus reported a “deep crisis in the governance process” and suggested that the board had overstepped its role in setting school policies around enrollment and other matters.

As a Philadelphian with no direct ties to St. Joe’s other than appreciating its presence in the regional community and my ongoing interest in its always competitive basketball team, this news is quite disturbing. But as a consultant to universities and colleges, it is even more troubling.

In the terminology of our soon to be published book, The Moment You Can’t Ignore, we would call this period for St. Joe’s “an unignorable moment,” a public crisis that reflects underlying challenges for the culture and business model of the university. At a time when schools like St. Joe’s – mid-sized, residential, private, expensive, and enrollment-driven – are facing difficult challenges to create a viable future in an extremely turbulent environment for higher education, we see battles like this as unfortunate examples of campus infighting. Actually  the greater threat to the institution comes from the outside. Like most unignorable moments, this one is not only public, it’s a systemic problem that challenges the university’s identity – and St. Joe’s is not the only academic institution facing challenges like this.

As a former faculty member, I can feel the frustration of facing bad economic news with inevitable cuts to budgets and threats to salary raises, without a sense of control and decision-making in managing issues. And as a former administrator, I know the difficulties of increasing enrollment in a highly competitive market while maintaining academic standards. St. Joe’s is being squeezed by the kinds of financial and environmental forces that many other schools are currently facing. As part of a survival plan, they have adopted a strategy of heavily discounting tuition to boost enrollment, though we know from other schools that this can be a difficult strategy to sustain over the long term, particularly given shrinking margins and increasing debt.

What would most benefit the school is to take a hard look at the problem in a way that engages administrative leadership, the board, and faculty so all are aware of the challenges and the kinds of changes that may need to be made to survive. The polarization between faculty and administration only hurts the school’s culture and reputation; it ties up a lot of good minds in non-productive meetings and discussions, and will likely hold back the kinds of innovations that may be needed to resolve this conundrum. A strategy process that includes staff, board and faculty could help get everyone thinking in productive ways and engage the critical stakeholders in a process of finding a shared understanding of what’s needed and implementing solutions to get through these financial challenges and emerge as a healthier institution.

Perhaps the University of Southern Maine offers a useful counter-example. The President made a bold invitation to the faculty to develop a counter-proposal to her less than popular plan to address a $14 million budget shortfall (Troop, D, (2014, June 4) U. of Southern Maine Faculty Awaits President’s Reply to Their Budget Plan. The Chronicle of Higher Education). The faculty senate took up her invitation and developed a plan that addresses a large chunk of this deficit. Although there is apparently still a lot of ground to cover to create a plan that works for all, this represents an interesting model for how organizations can work across the faculty-administration divide and tackle strategic challenges together – consensus and coalescence being a critical element of the complicated process of making strategic change.