No confidence: Provost Heller subject of faculty petition

Heller, pictured here in 2016, is the subject of a faculty petition which raises concerns about his ability to do his job. FOGHORN FILE PHOTO

By Kalan K. Birnie, Annika Dahlberg, Holden Fatheree

A petition has circulated amongst USF full-time faculty in recent weeks expressing no confidence in Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Heller. At the time of print, it has been signed by approximately 20% of the USF Faculty Association (USFFA).

The official title of the petition is “Resolution: The Faculty of the University of San Francisco have No Confidence in Dr. Don Heller, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, University of San Francisco.”

Organized by several professors, the petition spans six pages and cites five general areas which “have demonstrated the Provost’s inability to understand and lead the University of San Francisco.”

This is the first time a no confidence petition has been brought to the union. In recent weeks, Faculty Association leaders have been developing formal mechanisms for a no confidence vote, as none existed prior to the circulation of the petition. Should a vote of no confidence pass, it would signify that, collectively, the full-time faculty view Heller as unfit to set the University’s academic agenda and serve as its provost. It would not guarantee his removal. 

A petition of no confidence in an administrator must be signed by a minimum number of union members to trigger the official procedures, but that threshold has not been finalized yet. The union currently has 428 members, approximately 90 of whom have signed the petition of no confidence in Heller. However, this does not mean that only 90 union members support the resolution — according to Professor Keally McBride, vice president of the USFFA, some faculty members may have declined to sign the petition out of fear of retribution.

“That’s one of the real fears,” said McBride. “If you sign something like this, are you basically signing your job away?” McBride was not involved in the creation of the petition, but has worked as a union leader to develop the procedures of a no confidence resolution, which were then sent to the USFFA Policy Board, the body responsible for making decisions on behalf of the faculty.

“That’s one of the real fears. If you sign something like this, are you basically signing your job away?”

Professor Keally McBride

In an official statement to the Foghorn, USFFA President Sonja Martin Poole said, “It’s important that the USF Faculty Association’s Policy Board is responsive to our members’ concerns. At the same time we want to establish processes and procedures that are transparent and fair to all involved. That’s why our attention is on the development of a formal mechanism for bringing about a vote of no confidence.”

The first area of the petition concerns the Provost’s “lack of inspiration and academic vision” for the University. It condemns Heller’s leadership style as one that Professor Mike Stanfield, the contact person for the petition, alleges creates an “authoritation, hierarchical, non-collegial” atmosphere within the University. The petition claims that Heller has cut financial support for faculty in their work, ignored clear feedback from faculty, instituted poor hiring practices, and has even intruded on faculty peer review procedures by issuing instructions for “holistic” review  — despite peer review being an area over which the Provost’s office does not have jurisdiction. 

“The lack of interest in communicating with faculty, staff, and students has undermined his effectiveness as an administrator at the University,” Stanfield said. 

He is not alone in those sentiments — the 2018 Campus Climate Report found that in 2017, 50% of tenured and tenure-track faculty disagreed with the statement: “Faculty opinions are taken seriously by senior administrators.” Many respondents directly cited Heller in their response. Only 23.8% agreed with the statement. 

“My Dean is very supportive and open to feedback,” one professor wrote in the anonymous survey. “I do not feel the same about the Provost.” Another wrote, “We have basically no confidence that our voices are being heard.” There was no shortage of similar sentiments: “Faculty are not listened to by administrators who would much prefer to reduce faculty roles to nothing more than an employee to be hired and fired at will”; “The positive work environment and support for faculty and staff, which had been steadily built over the last two decades, have now gone down the drain under current top administration at USF in the last couple of years.”

“It’s an oppressive, bureaucratic, corporate environment of interference, surveillance, bean-counting, and top-shelf narcissism.”

Anonymous professor surveyed in the 2018 Campus Climate Report

The second area of the petition addresses Heller’s “consolidation of power and authority.” It asserts that Heller has micro-managed the newly acquired Star Route Farms and Honors College programs while neglecting to consult faculty with relevant expertise. 

“I think he’s offensive in both the sense of being a person who moves in to other people’s terrain to expand his power base, but also offensive meaning his inability to show respect to those he’s working with or interacting with,” Stanfield said. 

Section three then discusses Heller’s failure to “meaningfully dedicate” himself or his office to shared governance of the University. According to the petition, the Provost makes decisions and then has them “communicated” to faculty, rather than encouraging dialogue and facilitating “participatory decision making.” It alleges that Heller has failed to follow established decision-making processes, including consultation with the faculty union’s Policy Board. Minutes from a Policy Board meeting on Sept. 5, 2018 confirm that Heller sought to establish a “faculty senate,” despite USFFA already fulfilling the role of a faculty governing body. 

According to Stanfield, Heller scheduled a meeting on Oct. 7 to discuss shared governance of USF at the same time as the largest faculty-administration meeting at the University without consulting with the USFFA. According to Stanfield, this created a situation where “those people participating in what was already functional shared governance could not attend his initiative.” As recalled in a letter posted on the USFFA website by union president Professor Sonja Martin Poole, Heller allegedly refused to reschedule his initiative when the issue of the time conflict was raised.

Section four details Heller’s perceived shortsighted financial decisions and lack of transparency with the budget process. It expresses dissatisfaction at Heller’s vision, or lack thereof, for long-term financial concerns, as well as at the suppression of information in regards to the proposal for a new School of Engineering.

The 2018 Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior Colleges and Universities Commission (WSCUC) Reaccreditation Report documents “a lack of knowledge on the part of the campus community about the processes of strategic planning and financial priorities.” The petition claims that Heller has instituted continuous budget cuts since his arrival at USF without cultivating new sources of revenue and argues that “simply pointing to adverse national trends does not constitute a strategy for how this particular institution [USF] will survive those trends.” 

The final area of concern addressed in the petition is “declining morale” amongst faculty, staff, and students due to the actions of the Provost. This is credited to the Provost’s perceived lack of professional conduct and failure to respect USF’s core values and policies, both on campus and on social media. 

The Provost’s behavior has contributed to what Stanfield describes as the lowest faculty and staff morale since he started at USF in 1993.

The petition concludes with a list of requests and demands that the petition signatories believe should be required of the Provost, some of which include dignity and respect toward staff and proactivity in seeking advice and feedback from others. 

The next step for the petition is that its signatures must now be verified and brought to the union’s Policy Board. At the time of print, specific procedures had not been ratified, but the document gives an idea of what the process may ultimately look like.

The petition suggests that once the Policy Board has verified the signatures, the union would notify Provost Heller, who would then have 10 business days to review the petition and submit a rebuttal. After the 10-day period, the issue would go to a vote. Members of the USFFA would be able to read both the petition and Heller’s rebuttal, then vote either “confidence” or “no confidence” in the Provost.

If the union votes to hold Heller in no confidence, he would not be automatically removed from office. Instead, the resolution would be forwarded to the Board of Trustees, who will also be considering whether or not to renew Heller’s contract in 2020. Heller’s current contract began in January 2016; upper administration contracts at USF typically last around five years.

The Foghorn requested comment from the University and Provost Heller via the Office of Marketing Communications. President Paul Fitzgerald provided the following statement on the petition via email: “Among USF’s many strengths as a community is the recognition that this is a place for the free and open exchange of ideas, opinions and interests. In this spirit — and as always — both Provost Heller and I look forward to further discussions with members of the faculty and the USFFA regarding this matter.”

Due to print deadlines, the print version of this article was finalized on Nov. 19. As this is a developing story, this online version will be updated accordingly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *