Let’s talk with: John Zipp

Below is the second installment of The Buchtelite’s “Let’s talk with” series.

This week’s letter is from John Zipp, professor of sociology and president and spokesperson for the Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors (Akron-AAUP), the faculty union. Zipp is also a member of the “Tiger Team,” which was designed to address some of the University’s immediate problems following the departure of former president Scott Scarborough.

The last few years at UA have been challenging, to say the least, but perhaps we can use them as “teachable” moments.  When UA started to stray, many rose up in opposition.  Decisions were questioned and criticized, alternative views were offered, and neglected voices rang out in opposition. (Disclaimer: I was one of these many voices.)  Rather than see these efforts as attempts to undercut or harm UA, I think that it is more accurate and productive to see them as needed correctives to mission drift, as well as significant reminders of UA’s importance in the community and the tremendous support that we enjoy from our stakeholders.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”  

Ideally, this energy can be drawn upon to restore and rebuild UA.  However, my sense is that the likelihood of this occurring will vary directly in proportion with the degree to which UA embraces reconciliation and then engages in meaningful shared governance.  

Many have suggested that it is no time for finger-pointing or playing the blame game; rather, it is time to come together as one.  But coming together as one – reconciliation – requires mutual respect and a commitment to work together in a manner that values each other.  Any harm that one’s actions had must be acknowledged, as we have learned from various “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions in South Africa and elsewhere.  The principle is simple: Accountability is realized through the public admission of responsibility, after which healing can occur.  

In all cases, reconciliation is a joint, social process.  The reputation of UA and our internal culture have been damaged.  Talking with literally hundreds of faculty, staff, students, and community members in the last year has convinced me that far too many of our colleagues feel undervalued and have experienced a great deal of suffering.  History teaches us that those who have suffered harm have long memories – longer than those who have inflicted this harm.  Without an acknowledgement of this harm and a commitment to reconcile, it will be much harder for UA to become the institution that so many of us want it to be.  As Truth and Reconciliation commissions throughout the world have discovered, trying to come together as one without justice is a weak foundation for real healing and genuine cultural change.

Perhaps not surprisingly, meaningful shared governance also has been in too short supply in recent times, and those constituents who have largely been left out – faculty, staff and students – need to be at the table, need to be taken seriously, and need to be able to see the tangible impact of their presence.

A commitment to shared governance is hardly a radical idea; in fact, it is an old one that badly needs reviving.  Fifty years ago this fall, the American Council on Education, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the American Association of University Professors released a remarkable report, the “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.”  These three groups – the primary representatives of university administrators, Boards of Trustees, and faculty, respectively – came together to define and affirm the roles that board members, administrators, faculty, students and others should play in how universities are governed.  What they wrote 50 years ago is still relevant, and especially so at The University of Akron: “appropriately shared responsibility and cooperative action” among board members, administrators, faculty, and students is crucial to the success of any college or university.  Each group has an important role to play, and each needs to recognize the rights and responsibilities of the others.  

One tangible step for meaningful shared governance here at UA comes from the Tiger Team, a group of faculty, staff and students who met throughout this summer to address our most immediate problems.  (I was a member of the Tiger Team.)  One of their recommendations strikes at the heart of the problem: adding faculty and/or staff as non-voting members of various Board of Trustees’ Committees (two students already sit as non-voting members of the BOT).  Adding faculty and staff will be a way both to have the BOT hear from more campus voices while at the same time allowing faculty and staff to better understand how the BOT operates and the constraints that it faces.  With the Higher Learning Commission once again coming to campus to evaluate our level of shared governance, making these appointments, and doing so ASAP, would send a strong signal regarding UA’s commitment to the meaningful involvement of its stakeholders in decision-making on campus.

In conclusion, no one wants to repeat or relive the last two years here. My hope is that we have learned from these failures not only what we should not do, but also what we must do.  

-John Zipp