Investigating Anonymous Petition of No Confidence Against President Fitzgerald: Petition Fails to Gather Signatures Needed to Pass 

President Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. was elected to his role in Apr. 2014, and began his tenure in Aug. of that year. Photo courtesy of USF’s Flickr.

Throughout the past seven weeks, full-time faculty and librarians have had the option to sign an anonymous letter titled “A Petition of No Confidence: The Narcissism and Incompetence of President Paul J. Fitzgerald.” This letter arrived in full-time faculty and librarian mailboxes, and the Foghorn’s newsroom, on Feb. 22.  

The authors of the letter self-identify as “seven faculty members and librarians at the University of San Francisco who are gravely concerned about the future of this university.”  

The six-page letter presents 13 reasons why they are petitioning for a vote of no confidence against President Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. The letter states that “[a] review of President Fitzgerald’s performance over the past decade strongly suggests he ought to retire or step down from his position.”

USF spokesperson, Kellie Samson, stated on Mar. 25 that Fitzgerald “supports the right of the members of the faculty and librarians to express their opinion, to raise questions and concerns about university operations, and to engage with the university leadership on productive solutions to challenges.”

The Foghorn reached out to Fitzgerald on Apr. 1 and Apr. 4 for direct comments on each of the following accusations covered in this article. He did not respond to these emails, and on Apr. 5, Samson contacted the Foghorn confirming that Fitzgerald had received the requests for comment. She referred to her earlier statement, noting there was “nothing further to add at this point.”

The authors of the petition worked independently from the USF Faculty Association (USFFA), but adhere to the union’s protocol. A petition like this is the first step in the process of removing a university administrator at USF. According to the Procedure for Vote of Confidence/No Confidence from the USFFA, for a vote to occur, 15% of USFFA members would need to sign the petition.

The period to submit signatures ended on Apr. 1. “Petitions were counted on Tuesday [Apr. 2],” said Michael Webber, USFFA president and sociology professor. He confirmed that they  received 43 out of the 65 petition signatures needed to reach 15%. Though this petition cannot move forward into vote, there is still a possibility that a full-time faculty member could draw up another petition of no confidence, which could then result in a vote if it reached the 15% threshold.

On Apr. 8, Webber provided the Foghorn with a statement from the minutes of USFFA’s Apr. 4 Policy Board meeting: “A motion was made to form a subcommittee… to seek feedback from members on the University President and the issues raised in the petition with the task of… determining appropriate next steps based on this feedback. Anyone who wants to be on the committee can write to the USFFA Secretary by the end of next week.”

This is the second time in recent years that the USFFA has enacted a petition of no confidence regarding a member of the university’s administration. In 2019, history professor Mike Stanfield was one of the organizers behind a petition of no confidence against then Provost Donald Heller. Those petition organizers were on the record and the union held a vote which resulted in Heller stepping back from the Provost position. “I said publicly that we need to go after Heller, because if we don’t, the future of the faculty and of the university will be damaged. I put a public face on it, and I wasn’t afraid to do so,” Stanfield said.

Unlike the 2019 petition of no confidence, this petition against Fitzgerald was sent anonymously. The Foghorn was unable to confirm the authors’ identities. There is no confirmation that any petition writers were members of the USFFA. To proceed with a vote, the union would need to confirm the petition was drafted by a full-time faculty member.

“It would [have been] really useful if some of [the anonymous authors] went privately to union leadership and said, ‘We drafted this petition, you can be assured that we are members of the USF Faculty Association,” said Stanfield. “Some people were worried that, if we don’t have that assurance, how can we get behind this petition?”

Many allegations in the letter use anonymous sources to comment on personal and professional accounts of negative experiences with Fitzgerald. As these cannot be verified by the Foghorn, focus will be given to claims with a public record. This article examines four claims: “Minimal enrollment management skills,” “A poor record of strategic investments,” “Deteriorating facilities,” and low faculty and staff morale.

In response to concerns highlighted in the letter, Samson wrote, “The Board of Trustees and senior university leadership take concerns like those expressed in the letter very seriously. The factual and operational matters outlined in the anonymous letter were all known to the university leadership, including members of the Board of Trustees, before the letter was circulated. These operational matters were also presented to and discussed with the university community in many formats (town halls, emails, meetings, etc.) in our ongoing efforts to communicate in a timely and transparent way. Matters of opinion are those of the anonymous writer or writers.”

Michael Hammond, President of USF’s Part-Time Faculty Association and an adjunct rhetoric professor, stated “regardless of where the petition leads, it is my hope that the questions raised inspire a renewed conversation on the need for transparent and participatory governance that includes all faculty, staff, and students.” 

The Foghorn contacted Provost Eileen Chia-Ching Fung on Apr. 1 regarding the petition, but she declined to comment.

“Minimal enrollment management skills.”

To reify declining enrollment claims, the authors compare the percentages of 2017 and 2021 enrollment at 11 universities they believe “operate in a similar space as the University of San Francisco.” 

Within these cited universities, Golden Gate University has had the largest decrease in students, at -6.5%, and Chapman University has reported the largest increase, at 6.4%. In contrast, USF has suffered an enrollment decline of 9.4% from 2017 to 2021. Between 2017 and 2023, USF  suffered an enrollment decline of 16.9%. In 2017, USF’s population consisted of 11,080 students. In 2023, there were 9,212 students.

USF’s Strategic Plan for Academic Years 2022 – 2027 lists the enrollment goal as 11,000. Reaching this number requires an increase of 19.4% by 2027. Since 2017, however, enrollment at USF has decreased by approximately 3% annually.

In an effort to resolve the decline in enrollment, the Strategic Enrollment Division alongside the academic deans constructed strategies involving “expanding digital marketing, providing additional scholarships, and enhancing yield efforts for admitted students,” according to Samson in a written statement. “Longer term, academic units are working to reinvigorate degree programs and certificates in areas that prepare students for professional success, including in healthcare and wellbeing; climate, energy and sustainability; and AI and technology.”

The Foghorn reached out to Fitzgerald regarding university enrollment rates on Apr. 1, but he declined to comment.

“A poor record of strategic investments.”

The authors of the petition complained about the budgeting and investment of the university’s finances. “Faculty have been told, time and time again, that the university’s balance sheet is severely constrained,” the authors alleged, questioning such expenditures as the blood bank purchased in 2022, Star Route Farms acquired in 2017, and the Innovation Hive in the Harney Science Center that opened in 2022. The letter also criticizes USF’s attempted acquisition of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 2022. Ultimately, the university backed out of that deal.

The petition alleges that USF lent “6 million [dollars] to the San Francisco Art Institute, which then promptly went bankrupt and defaulted on USF’s generous loan.” 

On Apr. 1 and Apr. 4, the Foghorn reached out to Fitzgerald regarding the investment record of the university, and he did not respond. On Fitzgerald’s behalf, Samson referred us to her earlier statement that prior to backing out of the deal “USF had loaned funds to SFAI for its operation,” and that “the loan is secured.”

While the Foghorn can find no external confirmation that SFAI defaulted on the loan, the secured status of the loan means it is backed up by some form of collateral. This means USF would receive assets from SFAI should they not pay back the loan.

Charlie Cross, USF’s vice president of Business and Finance, declined to comment regarding the loan.

In regards to progress on renovations on the former blood bank, within her written response, Samson stated, “architects are working with USF to finalize design details” for turning the former blood bank into “what is envisioned as a Life and Health Sciences Campus.” 

Samson stated “The Office of Development is working to secure philanthropy to fund” renovations to the former blood bank. This clarification means that the money used to renovate the building will not come from tuition funds, but rather from donations.

Michael London, the associate vice president of facilities management, stated that the new Life and Health Sciences Campus is anticipating “opening fall 2027.”

“Deteriorating facilities.”

The authors stated that there has been “poor prioritization” when dealing with facilities around
campus, which the university denies. Harney Science Center, pictured above, is mentioned by
name in the letter. Photo courtesy of USF’s website.

The authors allege “student complaints about black mold in residence halls and faculty complaints about leaky ceilings and pipes in Harney [Science Center] are commonplace.” They argue that because of  “poor prioritization,” the university lacks money to address these problems. 

On Apr. 1 and Apr. 4, the Foghorn reached out to Fitzgerald regarding the alleged issues with facilities. He did not respond. On Fitzgerald’s behalf, Samson referred us to her earlier statement.

“During the last 10 years, USF has spent in excess of $95 million on major maintenance projects and another $110 million in the decade prior,” Samson stated. “Additionally, in the last 10 years, USF has spent more than $200 million on new construction. USF has prioritized maintenance projects, which are funded through philanthropy, debt and operating budgets. The University has identified approximately $80 million in upcoming maintenance projects, as well as approximately $10 million in digital infrastructure work that will be undertaken in the next five to seven years.”

The writers criticized expenditures like the purchase of the blood bank, which is slated to
open as the Life and Health Sciences Campus in Fall 2027. Photo by Beau Tattersall/SF Foghorn.

The Foghorn reached out to Cross regarding the backlog of maintenance. He declined to comment.

In London’s written response, “Facilities has a recurring, but limited, annual budget to cover maintenance. Larger maintenance needs… are covered out of other university funds which [are] handled when those funds are available.”

Regarding the specific critiques of Harney Science Center and residence halls, London confirmed, “from time to time Facilities receives work orders to investigate perceived mold issues. Most of these requests are localized and related to specific incidents like a plumbing leak, windows being left open, or other window issues. Occasionally we receive reports of mold or mildew that are related to poor housekeeping habits of the occupants.” 

London continued, confirming “there have not been any lab results indicating toxic mold conditions. Facilities partners with Housing to help educate students, and staff, on ways to eliminate or reduce mold or mildew in their spaces.”

Fromm Hall, a dorm that has previously had mold issues, underwent a roof replacement that began on Aug. 22, 2022 according to Facilities’ Construction Updates page. According to London, Fromm will have its windows replaced this summer to “improve the weather tightness of the window system.” This replacement is intended to aid Facilities’ “efforts to reduce the risk of mold due to exterior moisture intrusion,” he said.

Regarding Harney Science Center, London said, “last summer, USF replaced the roof of Harney at a cost in excess of $1,000,000. Though the roof replacement resolved most of the water intrusion issues, several additional locations with leaks unrelated to the roof were identified over this extremely wet winter.”

These additional water intrusions are slated to be addressed this upcoming summer. London continued, describing having “experienced at least two significant and unforeseen pipe failures which have been resolved.”

According to USF’s Construction Updates page, the most recent construction on Harney took place on Jan. 19, where contractors repaired a leak that was reported on Dec. 1, 2023. 

“Morale that continues to decline, with no end in sight.”

A decline in faculty and staff morale was another point cited. While the letter used anonymous sources from representatives within the University Budget Advisory Committee, Staff Advisory Council, the President’s Leadership Team, as well as term faculty and program assistants, we will not be publishing these claims as they could not be properly vetted by the Foghorn.

However, the topic was brought up during interviews with faculty and staff members. Stanfield said, “…our sense of being an academic community has severely eroded since Father Privett left in 2015. Many of these people are my friends, and I respect them. It hurts me when they get hurt, so I feel like I have to speak up and embrace faith, not succumb to fear.”

Hwaji Shin, an associate sociology professor, said, “We’ve been asked to do less with less, but students deserve more. It’s demoralizing for us to work less… when the demand for the students is far more than years ago…yes, we have fewer students, but that doesn’t mean the amount of work and care that each student deserves today is less than it used to be.”

According to the USFFA’s “2023 State of the Faculty and Librarians Survey,” disclosed to the Foghorn by an anonymous union member, 44% of those surveyed reported their workload to be unsustainable. Additionally, 25% said they disagree with the statement that “they feel supported by the USF administration.” 33% of full-time faculty and librarians responded to the 2023 survey, which “was lower than in previous years, approximately 50% in 2022 and 2011.”

On Apr. 1 and Apr. 4, the Foghorn reached out to Fitzgerald regarding concerns with low faculty morale. Fitzgerald did not respond and Samson declined to comment. 

The Foghorn will continue to report on breaking updates to the petition of no-confidence. 

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, News Editor: Niki Sedaghat

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