Marist College's (Somewhat) Happy Faculty Family

The Poughkeepsie college’s administrators and professors speak out on shared-governance grievances.

​Shared governance, which the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) characterizes as “meaningful faculty participation” in institutional oversight, has become a hot-button issue around the country. Rising tuition prices, increased compensation for university administrators, and a greater reliance on part-time teachers have all contributed to a fractious atmosphere around the topic.

“The goal is for the administration to not simply act unilaterally, but to work together with faculty and to make sure faculty expertise is included in decisions,” elaborates AAUP Associate Secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede.

And while Poughkeepsie’s Marist College demonstrates relatively peaceable relations among leadership compared to some other area schools, it still contends with rumbling undercurrents of unease. Of the 40-plus faculty members across Marist’s six undergraduate programs interviewed for this story, more than half of those who spoke on record cited a growing divide over shared governance. Another 25 professors and two administrators declined to comment, while 14 spoke on condition of anonymity.

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Moreover, Marist’s just-released 2016 “Climate Survey” (it is not available online, though Hudson Valley was able to obtain a copy upon request) suggests a decline in overall job satisfaction rate among full-time professors from 79 percent to 69 percent since the first such study was taken in 2014. When asked to judge the quality of communication between faculty and administrators, 37 percent of faculty surveyed responded as dissatisfied, compared to 24 percent in ’14. Close to 80 percent felt insufficiently involved in campus decision-making.

This isn’t all bad news. As Elizabeth Quinn, psychology professor at Marist and chair of the committee that administered both surveys, points out, “You can’t begin to bridge a gap unless you know what the issues are that separate you.”

Although one of the underlying problems the study does not address is how a perceived lack of shared governance has made many professors hesitant to speak out, especially newer ones. “This is probably true at most institutions,” explains Marist History Chair Nick Marshall. “[The thinking is] keep your head down when you’re untenured, and then you can say what you want when you’re tenured. But I think here, it goes beyond that to the point where people do limit what they say.”

Martin Shaffer, the dean of the School of Liberal Arts, concurs, but stops short of intimating that a more vocal employee is putting their future stability in jeopardy. “A person coming up to tenure, there’s no doubt that you want to make sure that you take care what you need to take care of, which is teach well, do a lot of service, and do scholarship,” Shaffer details. “We have junior faculty that are doing things that people might perceive as rocking the boat, but I don’t see any repercussions for that.”

The administration, for their part, views the study from a more glass-half-full perspective. Thomas Wermuth, Marist’s Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, cites the overall 90-percent faculty satisfaction rate, arguing, “Compared to most colleges around the country, these are enviable results.” He also pledges to “dig deeper and see why almost nine percent of those surveyed are not satisfied and why some others are not as satisfied as they would like to be.”

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Not to mention Wermuth himself acknowledges disparities in the way professors from different departments have been testifying. For example, the study posits the School of Computer Science and Math at the high end of satisfaction with 85 percent, while the School of Liberal Arts registered the lowest at 60 percent. Some faculty has a very simple explanation for the disconnect.

“[The administration] lives in a very different world than we do,” offers Richard Grinnell, a professor of English at Marist. “What they think about in terms of education is really different. They’re about the money.”

Wermuth does, in fact, offer that the ebb in positive feedback from some corners of the campus “may have been related to contentious compensation negotiations that occurred since the last survey,” though he cautions against looking at the date in a vacuum, adding, “It’s difficult to see a trend on anything with only two to compare.”

There is some broader evidence, however, that the downturn in contentment didn’t occur overnight. Since the 2008 economic recession, Marist has struggled to attract more creative majors. Per Marist’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning, undergraduate student enrollment in its School of Liberal Arts declined 35 percent between 2005-’15, while enrollment in the School of Management and School of Computer Science and Mathematics increased by 42 and 71 percent, respectively. That divide likely speaks to the perception that certain degrees lead more directly to well-paying jobs than others.

Accordingly, Marist is encouraging liberal arts students to take on challenging internships, study abroad, and become double majors in marketable subjects. “We have to recognize what employers are looking for,” concedes Shaffer. “It’s the multiplicity of the things you do that are going to make you successful.”In an e-mail to faculty last year outlining the college’s budget priorities, Marist President Dennis J. Murray elaborated on the need to be flexible toward higher-education trends by focusing on creating “programs that respond to marketplace demand” and exploring “alternative revenue streams that leverage our world-class technology capabilities.” He cited “demographic shifts, increased price resistance, increased emphasis on gainful employment, and declines in the liberal arts [as] significant challenges for Marist.”

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Jan Stivers, a member of the Budget Priorities Committee, which advises Murray on budgetary issues, understands that some faculty are concerned with how the administration allocates funds, including prioritizing building renovations. But she echoes the sentiment that the onus, in part, is on every student to make the most out of their time.

“[Marist] is a 24/7 operation,” she says. “I certainly hope a good portion of the change students see in themselves come from the faculty, but it must come from other things as well—experiences with their peers, residential life, extracurriculars, clubs and sports.”

But one professor in the School of Management, who spoke on condition of anonymity, sums up the feeling that administrative motives to fortify Marist’s reputation as a competitive institution should not compromise shared governance. “In the administration’s attempt to rightly focus on building a viable future,” the professor concludes, “It’s not paying enough attention to the well-being of the present.”

*Mallika Rao also contributed reporting to this story.  

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