BY: TIM GIBSON AND BETHANY LETIECQ
On February 24, 2020, George Mason University’s Board of Visitors (BOV) announced the hiring of our new President, Dr. Gregory Washington. As Mason’s faculty advocacy organization, GMU-AAUP welcomes Dr. Washington to our community, and we look forward to a collegial and constructive relationship with the new President as we continue to advance the values of academic freedom, transparency, and shared governance.
While we join everyone at Mason in looking forward to the Washington administration, we also believe it is important to take a moment to reflect on the search process itself — the good, the bad and the ugly.
First, Mason faculty, students and staff all deserve a standing ovation. Back in September, we at GMU-AAUP kicked off our campaign to pressure the BOV to hold an open and public presidential search. Our demands were far from radical. We were simply asking the BOV to uphold the Faculty Handbook, which states: “the search and selection process must include opportunities for the General Faculty to meet with candidates who are finalists for the presidency.”
The community’s response to our campaign was deeply gratifying. Our thanks especially go to the nearly 300 faculty who signed the GMU-AAUP resolution calling for a public search, the Faculty Senators who passed a similar resolution advocating for public presentations through the Faculty Senate, and our allied student organization, Transparent GMU, who supported the campaign in innumerable ways from the very beginning. And finally, we’d like to thank all those who attended our successful “Dear Candidate” rally and press conference in December. Because of you, our call for an inclusive and public search process was greatly amplified (as featured in a front-page Fairfax Times article).
The stretch run of the campaign in February was a blur of activity. Over 100 people flooded the search committee and BOV members with emails seeking public presentations from finalists. Faculty, students and staff also packed public meetings with the search committee and the BOV to ask pointed questions about the secretive search process and to demand, with both passion and civility, that the public not be excluded from opportunities to engage with and vet all presidential finalists.
All of these efforts paid off with tangible results. At the start of the Presidential search process, it was crystal clear that Rector Davis and the BOV had no intention of requiring finalists to give public presentations to the faculty and the community at large. But by February, our collective efforts had resulted not only in the BOV publicly endorsing the spirit and letter of the GMU Faculty Handbook, but also in forcing a compromise. In this compromise brokered by the Faculty Senate Chair, Rector Davis invited Faculty Senators, as representatives of the General Faculty, to meet with the four finalists in meetings closed to the public. Although far from ideal, this level of faculty engagement would have never happened without our collective action. Together, we built our power and won a victory for the public good.
Now to the bad and the ugly. These meetings with finalists were far from open and public. Only Faculty Senators, one student representative and one staff representative were included — and all attendees were required to sign non-disclosure agreements swearing them to a lifetime of secrecy. Clearly, this use of NDAs to stifle community discussions of finalists and their records runs counter to AAUP presidential search best practices and violates the values of transparency and openness central to all public universities.
Adding insult to injury, these closed and secretive meetings were scheduled to take place early on a Saturday morning, and invitees were given only a few days’ notice to rearrange their calendars. Invitees were not told how long the meetings would run, nor were they told the location of the meetings until the night before the sessions were held. Not surprisingly, only 24 of the 50 voting members of the Faculty Senate attended — hardly a representation of the General Faculty. Many eligible to attend had existing plans, and others were unable to find child or family care on such short notice. Indeed, if these were either official BOV or Faculty Senate meetings, such inadequate notifications would have violated the rules established in both Faculty Senate policies and BOV public meeting laws.
In the end, this search process still excluded the voices of our large and diverse university community. Mason’s staff and undergraduate students were represented by one person each. Graduate students and adjunct professors had no representation at all. And what about retired faculty, alumni or other community leaders? No one in the room. Even Deans, who are ex-officio members of the Faculty Senate, were shut out. Put simply, the great diversity of our community was not represented in any meaningful way, and it’s equally clear these meetings violated both the spirit and the letter of the Faculty Handbook. As we argued from the beginning, any such meetings with the finalists should have been open and accessible to all.
Clearly, we can and must do better at an institution whose namesake took a principled stand and refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights. Like George Mason, the BOV should also defend the principles that bind us together — transparency, shared governance and inclusive practice as codified in our Faculty Handbook. Moving forward, the BOV and our new president should commit to a public search process in the hiring of all university executives including future Presidents, Provosts and College Deans. For their part, Faculty Senators should fight for public and transparent searches and to stave off further erosion of shared governance here at Mason. And together, we should all fight for a transparent university committed to the public good.
At GMU-AAUP, we remain hopeful and inspired by all who stood with us in advocating for a public search. Our campaign forced a bright shaft of daylight into a search the BOV clearly wanted to keep darkened and closed. That was a victory. We have learned that, working together with faculty, students and staff united in hope and solidarity, we can accomplish amazing things. Together, we can shape our university and grow our collective power. Join us!
Tim Gibson is the Secretary and Treasurer of GMU-AAUP. Bethany Letiecq is the President of GMU-AAUP.