No-confidence votes are a last resort that should never be needed

Rather than attempting to block resolutions, university leaders should focus on creating people-first cultures, says Hanfu Mi 

January 27, 2023
People raise their hands in a meeting, illustrating no-confidence votes
Source: iStock

In 2021, no fewer than 24 US higher education institutions passed no-confidence votes in their leadership. This was the highest number yet in an era that has witnessed a surge in such votes at almost every type of higher education institution from Maine to California.

High-profile examples of faculty-led no-confidence votes include Harvard University in 2005, the University of Illinois System in 2012 and New York University in 2013, as well as, just last year, California State University Sonoma and the University of Maine System, to cite just a few.

According to Wikipedia, the first no-confidence vote was cast in March 1782 by the British Parliament after news reached it of the British defeat at Yorktown in the American Revolutionary War the previous October. However, there is a paucity of scholarly literature on the procedure and, arguably, no higher education institution in the US has established formal policies on it. Even the AAUP does not have explicit standards for confidence votes.

Nevertheless, this lack of procedural guidance does not prevent faculty reinventing and embellishing the concept of the no-confidence motion to express displeasure in their own institutional leadership in the way they see fit (from who gets to vote to how the vote is reported). A 2021 shared governance survey by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports a strikingly high number of no-confidence incidences taking place at participants’ institutions over the past three years.

This trend would appear to indicate a growing crisis in leadership within academe. While a vote of no confidence may not carry any binding power or result in any concrete action, it can affect public perception of a leader by raising red flags about their competence and effectiveness.

Still, like anything else, if confidence votes are overused, their impact will be diminished. Faculty should regard them as a last resort, to be used only when all other shared governance structures to promote productive institutional change have been exhausted, leaving a change in leadership as the only remedy. Moreover, they should be undertaken with great caution and care – not least because such votes may place their organisers at risk of retaliation from their fellow faculty members and/or the administrators they are attempting to replace.

But university leaders also need to tread carefully. In response to the negative publicity that many recent no-confidence resolutions have generated, some are considering how they might prevent these votes taking place. This is needlessly defensive and probably hopeless. A much more effective prevention strategy would see them focus hard on cultural change, cultivating a diverse, equitable, inclusive and supportive university environment, where all members of the community are respected and valued.

An institution’s soul and spirit live and breathe in its people, rather than its policies and practices. Hence, successful academic leaders adopt a people-first approach, whereas unsuccessful leaders tend to adopt a more supervisory or managerial posture, often autocratic and adversarial in nature. The latter are the kinds of leaders who are more likely to face a confidence vote. For example, a provost from a Midwestern regional university was recently the subject of a no-confidence resolution citing him for creating a toxic campus climate (among several other issues of concern).

Healthy university cultures emphasise the value of collaborative and collegial relationships, shared governance, and transparency in communication and decision-making. Their policies move beyond a primary focus on traditional benchmarks, metrics, efficiency, structure and reorganisation. They foreground cooperation and good faith between faculty and administrators, celebrating faculty strengths, encouraging engagement and welcoming deep reflection and alternative perspectives and points of view at all levels of the organisation.

A no-confidence vote is a significant and dramatic event on a university campus. However, in and of itself, it has very limited power to precipitate substantive and sweeping institutional change. For leaders and faculty alike, it is much better to foster the kind of mutual respect and validation that minimises the chances of faculty ever feeling the need to resort to a vote of no confidence.

Hanfu Mi is professor of literacy education and linguistics and a former dean at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is a public voices alumni fellow of The OpEd Project.

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