Where’s the President?: Faculty leaders concerned with Caboni’s lack of Faculty Senate attendance

This story originally appeared in the Herald’s news magazine edition, published on Nov. 28.

Michael Crimmins, Administration reporter

Faculty leaders at WKU have made it clear they want President Timothy Caboni to address the university’s Faculty Senate – something he has formally done just three times since taking office in July of 2017.

The issues of shared governance and transparency sprang up during the Oct. 10 Senate Executive Meeting. Numerous senators expressed their displeasure at Caboni for not speaking to the Faculty Senate as a whole.

According to Faculty Senate meeting minutes, Caboni first appeared before the Faculty Senate on Jan. 25, 2017 for a Q&A session, months before he was sworn in as president. An informal reception with the Faculty Senate also occurred at the president’s house on Aug. 24 that same year.

All three of Caboni’s formal appearances before the Senate came in 2020, and all were to the Senate Executive Committee.

Antonia “Toni” Szymanski, Faculty Senate chair, said in the meeting that during her conversations with the president she has “extended the offer” for him to address the Senate, but said Caboni views it as the job of the provost, Bud Fischer.

“He views that as [the provost’s] job […] and that’s why the provost is at the meetings,” Szymanski said. “[Caboni’s] job is external money raising and working with the legislature and things like that.”

Caboni’s lack of attendance at the Faculty Senate has created frustration among faculty leaders. His attendance record is unusual among peer university presidents throughout the commonwealth as most either regularly attend Senate meetings or submit a written report.

Shane Spiller, faculty regent, said in the meeting he has looked to other universities in the commonwealth to gauge how often their presidents appear before their respective Senates.

“In my role, I benchmark what other universities are doing, and the president goes to the Faculty Senate and if they don’t go to the Faculty Senate they write a report,” Spiller said. “My own personal thing is that I believe that this is the year the president needs to make a connection with the faculty.”

Richard Crosby, Faculty Senate chair at Eastern Kentucky University, said President David McFaddin “gives a report at every meeting” and meets both formally and informally with the Senate and the Executive Committee before official business.

David Roach, Faculty Senate chair at Murray State University, said President Robert “Bob” Jackson “regularly attends and speaks” at Murray State’s monthly Senate meetings. He also said Jackson meets with Senate leadership twice a semester.

“President Jackson’s amount of communication with faculty, staff and students is higher, by far, than any former President in my experience over the last 22 years,” Roach said.

Eugene Mueller, who serves as Faculty Senate chair at the University of Louisville, said the university’s presidents have attended roughly 33 of 66 Senate meetings dating back to 2017. According to Mueller, this has caused “low rumblings” among some senators who say the president’s attendance is “not as frequent as it once was.”

Jay Blanton, chief communications officer for the University of Kentucky, said President Eli Capilouto “typically addresses the full University Senate once each semester.” Blanton also said Capilouto has standing meetings with faculty and staff leadership and “monthly conversations with a selection of faculty and staff.”

Kirk Atkinson, professor and former Faculty Senate chair, said in the meting it would be nice to hear from Caboni due to the amount of turnover in the provost’s office.

WKU has had four different provosts since Caboni took office. The current provost, Bud Fischer, has been in place since July 1, 2021.

“I know he said it’s the provost’s job to do that and honestly […] the provost has only been there for a little over a year now,” Atkinson said. “He doesn’t have some of the answers. I don’t know how else to say it; there’s times where he’s like, ‘I don’t know any more than you guys do.”

The four individuals who have served as provost since 2017 have either attended faculty meetings or employed a substitute at every meeting. Szymanski said she has monthly, even weekly, meetings with the provost.

Jace Lux, university spokesperson, said the provost is the “most appropriate university leader to respond to detailed and technical inquiries from the Faculty Senate.”

“Allowing the provost and other members of Academic Affairs leadership to serve as the primary points of contact with the Faculty Senate is a long-standing precedent that was in place prior to President Caboni’s and Provost Fischer’s tenures at WKU,” Lux wrote in an email.

Julie Shadoan, professor and another former Faculty Senate chair, said in the meeting that the lack of appearances from Caboni is very upsetting.

“I think what you, Toni, shared about the president basically deciding that he didn’t have time for faculty is, in my opinion, one of the most disturbing things that has come out in this meeting,” Shadoan said.

Gordon McKerral, professor and at-large senator for the School of Media, said in the meeting that before Caboni was hired he was “all about hanging out with the faculty” and now, six years later, McKerral finds it strange that he will not address the whole senate.

McKerral and Shadoan were frustrated by Szymanski’s answer, saying in the meeting that the faculty “are affected by everything that happens on this campus.”

“It is incredibly frustrating to me that the president of the university will not make time for shared governance, and I think that’s what he’s saying when he’s telling us that he doesn’t have time to come, or that it’s not his role,” Shadoan said.

McKerral said in the meeting he lacked confidence in a president who did not want to speak to the whole body.

“Ultimately, the president makes final decisions here, we’ve learned that, so to me if that person, who makes the ultimate decisions, is unwilling to come and speak with us then I lack confidence in that person’s ability,” McKerral said.

Faculty Senate leaders are not alone in feeling that the president is less accessible than he should be.

According to the 2021-22 Faculty Work Life Survey conducted by the Faculty Welfare and Professional Responsibilities Committee, 47.17% of 318 respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that Caboni “seeks input from faculty most directly affected by decisions.” Only 14.78% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed.

On the question of whether Caboni “engages in open dialogue with the faculty on important current issues,” 47.48% of the 318 respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with 16.67% selecting agree or strongly agree.

While Caboni has only appeared before the Senate Executive Committee three times, Shadoan, who served as chair for 2019-20 and 2020-21, said they used to have informal receptions at Caboni’s house at the beginning of each fall semester, but these stopped due to COVID-19. Atkinson, who served as chair from 2018-2019, agreed he remembers the receptions.

“I know we had some [get togethers] at his presidential address where he invited members of the Senate to kind of socialize with the board, get to know the board a little bit better,” Atkinson said in the meeting.

Szymanski confirmed in the meeting that Caboni does not plan to reinstate the tradition.

“We used to go to the president’s house for hors d’oeuvres and cocktails and stuff like that, but he told me those days are long gone,” Szymanski said in the meeting.

Lux said during Caboni’s first three years as president he held an annual holiday reception which was initially well attended, but “interest and participation waned” over the years which caused them to rethink their approach. The pandemic helped put an end to the receptions as well.

“COVID provided an opportunity to rethink engaging with faculty in new, targeted, intentional ways,” Lux wrote. “In addition to large fall faculty picnics and the spring faculty awards ceremony, now President and Mrs. Caboni regularly hosts smaller groups of faculty members for dinners, an approach that has proven much more effective at fostering meaningful interactions.”

All past Faculty Senate chairs, from Eric Kondratieff in 2017-18 to Szymanski in the present, agreed that they had regular, monthly meetings with Caboni.

“Upon arriving at WKU, President Caboni established monthly meetings with the peer-elected chairs of both the faculty and staff senates in order to strengthen WKU’s shared governance structure,” Lux wrote in an email. “Those meetings continue today, and this practice provides the leaders of both bodies the opportunity to discuss issues with him directly. Additionally, President Caboni holds regular meetings with the academic deans, which allows them to bring to his attention [the] concerns of faculty members within their colleges.”

Atkinson said he doesn’t believe a meeting with just the Faculty Senate chair is sufficient to hear all of the faculty’s concerns.

“We met monthly and his philosophy was that meeting with the Senate chair was sufficient, that the chair represented the Senate,” Atkinson said in the meeting. “I didn’t agree with that assessment, but we never truly debated the point. My point with him was that I was still just the Senate chair. I could not possibly voice all the concerns, or all of the issues, for the Senate.”

Szymanski said the president believes in the guidance of the American Association of University Professors when it comes to shared governance, as does the provost, saying “it works the best here than anywhere else.”

“In [the provost’s] view, according to the AAUP, shared governance means faculty are in charge of the curriculum and make recommendations for faculty welfare but your only control, if you will, is over curriculum,” Szymanski said in the meeting. “We can make resolutions and make recommendations, but the decisions are with those who are paid to make them.”

The AAUP wrote its first statement on shared governance in 1920. That statement was refined over the years and developed into the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.

“The role of the administration, led by the president, is to ensure that the operation of the institution conforms to the policies set forth by the governing board and to sound academic practice, to provide institutional leadership, to make sure there is effective communication between components of the institution, and to represent the institution to its many publics,” the statement reads.

Atkinson, after reading the AAUP guidelines, disagreed with Szymanski’s statement.

“I looked at the AAUP guidelines for shared governance […] and one of the things that’s in there for the president is institutional leadership,” Atkinson said in the meeting. “That’s odd that that’s in there, isn’t it? That means the total institution and not just the parts that he wants to pick and choose.”

Atkinson said he is disconcerted that Caboni has not frequently addressed the Faculty Senate, especially since he has addressed the Staff Senate and the Student Government Association.

“I think the fact that he has refused to come to address the Senate when we know he’s come and addressed the Student Government Association […] it’s sort of demoralizing a little bit,” Atkinson said in the meeting. “It kind of makes you feel less valued, less respected. I’m sure he has reasons. I’m not sure what those are.”

Atkinson suggested faculty should have a place to ask Caboni questions about various topics, issues and concerns either anonymously or in a public online forum.

“I think at the very least he should come up with a place online where faculty can post questions,” Atkinson said in the meeting. “At least it’d be a line of communication.”

Administration reporter Michael Crimmins can be reached at [email protected].