The recent controversy surrounding President Emeritus Judith Woodsworth’s resignation has once again ignited debate about governance at the university.
“For a crazy institution, you need a psychiatrist,” a professor was quoted as saying.
Coincidentally, Concordia’s new Interim President (and president emeritus), Frank Lowy is a psychiatric consultant.
The Issue in Context
Concordia is no stranger to questionable practices in top-tier governance. It began in 1992 when Professor Fabrikant shot several of his colleagues, an event which came to be known as the Concordia University Massacre, and the Fabrikant Affair. In short, the Fabrikant Affair led to major revision in policies considering governance and accountability.
After cycling through Presidents like projector slides, the university finally settled in on Frederick Lowy, who completed two terms, and now returns again as Concordia’s Interim President, taking over Judith Woodsworth’s job.
Judith Woodsworth recently stepped down from the presidency, and the official story from the university states that Woodsworth cited personal reasons. However, Woodsworth herself stated that she was forced to resign. Of course, this sent the university student unions and professional associations into Armageddon mode, specially considering that Concordia is still sticking to its original story. Only Peter Kruyt is allowed to speak on this matter, and Deans and Associate Deans will not even touch it.
The situation bears all the hallmarks of what not to do in a crisis (here’s what to do in a crisis situation). It is evident that public opinion is not in favor of the executive board. Based on Mr. Media Training’s advice, here’s my commentary on the situation:
You Need to Communicate Immediately
When the issue arose that Woodsworth was forced to resign, it was a couple of weeks before Kruyt even issued a press release. Although Kruyt did acknowledge that people perceived them as “not forthcoming,” he went on to immediately talk about the university itself, and not really address the issue at hand.
If You Don’t Talk, Others Will
In the meantime, the community began talking (and it remains to be seen if this is speculation or not) about the great severance package that Woodsworth received, which is akin to one of forced resignation. This issue has not yet been addressed. At the same time, people are speaking to the media, including professors about what’s been going on, and their take on it. It has come to light that some of the board members have lapsed their terms, and it is illegal to continue beyond the term mentioned in the governing policies.
Your Response Needs to be About the Victims
While the press releases have spoken of the greatness of the university itself, the real (and perceived) victims have not been acknowledged. The real victims are of course, the student, staff, and faculty. Pending further information (which is at the moment, speculative), the perceived victim seems to be Woodsworth.
Facts Are Not Enough
Mr. Media Training says, “During a crisis, facts get obscured by perceptions.” This cannot be more true in this crisis. Everything is about perceptions and public opinion: the board is evil, corrupt. Woodsworth got a sizable severance package which does not confirm to a voluntary resignation. There are a number of other things that have been perceived. What is true or false does not matter. What matters is how the perceptions are addressed.
The board has failed to do this, save one attempt at requalifying the official story.
I won’t go further into what is wrong in this case. But since I began to write this article on 29th January, some good things have happened.
Concordia’s Effort to Reconcile
Lowy has just begun his official term as interim president, and had the following to say:
It is clear that there is a worrisome degree of turbulence at the moment. Motions, sometimes expressing anger, have been passed by the Senate and many academic departments. Faculty, staff members, students and Board members…feel aggrieved and misunderstood. Adversarial relationships have developed where there is usually a collaborative spirit. Misunderstanding and mistrust are evident. (Read the full message here).
That’s a great start, at least on Lowy’s part. Finally a problem has been acknowledged. Lowy has unified all of Concordia by identifying mutual interests. A lot of it has to do with emotions, and Lowy clearly identifies the “demoralizing state of affairs.”
Lowy also uses the word “I” frequently, making this more about the people involved, and less about a corporation. In doing this, Lowy has identified the next steps that his team and himself will take in order to bring the state of affairs back to equilibrium.
I think that there is great promise here, and an opportunity for Concordia to enhance its relationship with the stakeholders, fostering a mutual relationship of trust, reciprocity, and progress.