Tompkins loses campus vote

Referendum embarrasses university, president says

The Daily Mining Gazette
Dec. 19, 2003; pp 1,10A

HOUGHTON -- After years of budget turmoil, Michigan Tech University staff and faculty say they've lost confidence in President Curt Tompkins' leadership.

By a 3-1 margin, faculty and professional staff passed a no-confidence referendum conducted over the past week by University Senate.

Senate President Robert Keen, an associate biological sciences professor, said the vote shows employees’ general dissatisfaction with Tompkins’ administration.

“This is just a way of telling the administration and the board that the professional staff and faculty don’t have a lot of confidence in the way the administration is running the university,” Keen said.

Referendum results

A no-confidence referendum related to the job performance of MTU President Curt Tompkins reads as follows:

"I no longer have any confidence in the leadership of Curtis J. Tompkins or in his ability to effectively or prudently manage the human and financial resources of this university."

Vote total:

Yes -- 480


No -- 168

Of the 648 ballots returned, 74.1 percent supported the measure against Tompkins (see graphic).

Tompkins said he’s not surprised by the results coming amid state budget cuts and resulting university cuts. He said the vote attracts embarrassing publicity to the university, not just himself.

“I’ve worked hard for 12 years to build a positive image for Michigan Tech locally, regionally, nationally and internationally,” Tompkins said. “And the senate, with whatever intention they might have had, has had a detrimental effect outside the university.”

The non-binding vote is mainly for publicity — only the governing board of control can hire and fire the university president. Tompkins said he has “great support” from the board.

Tompkins said he’s been aware that some members of the faculty and staff are dissatisfied, but the vote doesn’t add new information.

“I don’t think this is helpful to the board, this is not helpful to me,” he said.

The University Senate sought the campuswide ballot Dec. 10. During the past week, ballots were sent to 831 faculty and professional staff across campus. About 78 percent of the ballots were returned before the Thursday deadline.

During the debate on the campuswide vote, some senators said employees are being unfairly forced to absorb cuts in pay and benefits.

Last week, the MTU Board of Control approved budget cuts, including benefit cuts and five days of unpaid furloughs for non-union staff and faculty through the end of the year. The cuts, totalling about $2.5 million, are geared to absorb a round of mid-year state funding cuts.

Adding to MTU’s financial woes is a recently discovered $7 million tuition miscalculation.

During the past year, Michigan Tech has had to absorb state funding cuts totaling $7.5 million — about 15 percent of its state appropriation. To balance this year’s $116.5 million general fund budget, the university in June raised tuition an average 12.9 percent — the highest in the state. MTU also cut $6.5 million from the budget, including the elimination of 60 mostly vacant positions.

The senate called for a similar campuswide vote in April, but canceled it because of concerns that Tompkins' negotiating efforts with state officials would be harmed.

However, Keen said frustration regarding the university's performance has been mounting for years.

"I think it's the result of chronic budgetary problems that have gone on for the last six or seven years," he said.

Tompkins says he is focused on improving Tech's budget. He said he's asked the senate to play a constructive role by providing him with feedback and facilitating communication throughout the university.

"We all need to be pulling together for the best interests of Michigan Tech," Tompkins said.

Keen said the senate will continue to work on solving the university's budgetary problems regardless of who is president.

"The senate and our committees are committed to Michigan Tech and what's best for the Michigan Tech," he said.

In 1991, Tompkins became MTU's eighth president after serving as dean of the College of Engineering at West Virginia University. His contract, with an annual salary of $210,000, extends through 2007.

Regardless of the results, a no-confidence vote rarely has any dramatic significance on a campus, according to Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the Washington-based American Council on Education. The organization is an umbrella group representing 1,800 colleges and universities.

"They're a cloud over the campus that dissipates rather quickly," Steinbach said.

Julianne Basinger, a national reporter covering college leadership for The Chronicle of Higher Education, said the vote's impact depends on how the MTU Board of Control views the results.

"It just depends totally on the temperature reading of the people who do the hiring and firing of the president," Basinger said.

During the past year, the Chronicle has covered nine no-confidence votes on college presidents, chief financial officers and governing boards. In two cases, a college president resigned after a negative vote.

Even if a college president survives a no-confidence vote, Basinger said it can be more difficult for a leader to work with faculty and staff.

"No matter how you look at it, as a president, it's going to make your job harder," Basinger said.

Steinbach said no-confidence votes can occur more frequently during harsh economic conditions, although they are still rare. He said the tuition miscalculation could be reasonably resolved instead of having the senate sanction the administration.

"Wouldn't the institution be better off to pull together for the sake of all members of the Michigan Tech community?" he asked.

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