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Lack of bylaws causes tension in MU math department

Tuesday, December 11, 2007 | 6:31 p.m. CST; updated 1:58 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — In 2000, Elias Saab was asked to step down a year early as chairman of the MU Department of Mathematics after allegations that an election for a seat on the department’s personnel committee had been tampered with. A short time later, a committee was organized and given one year to revise the department’s bylaws. Carmen Chicone, a professor of math, was part of the committee, which eventually disbanded after its members couldn’t come to a consensus.

“After many meetings, I walked out and resigned from the committee due to lack of progress,” Chicone said.

In March 2004, Saab’s successor, Mark Ashbaugh, gave Chicone and professor Alex Iosevich another shot at drafting new bylaws for the department. Ashbaugh said that what Chicone and Iosevich presented was “haphazardly drawn up” and contained certain “radical” amendments. He decided against putting them to a department-wide vote.

“People think they’re correcting one thing or another,” Ashbaugh said, “and they’re not really thinking about how that impacts the other thing.”

The dispute over bylaws epitomizes the political turmoil that has gripped the math department since a divided faculty voted to ask Saab to resign as chairman. A handful of professors among the 41 regular faculty say that his replacement, Ashbaugh, is part of an autocratic leadership that has failed to ease the strife that has existed since Saab’s departure.

The department has been in mediation for a year now, since Stephen Montgomery-Smith, a professor, sought to file a grievance with the university regarding the lack of bylaws. Campus Mediation Service has been charged with drafting new bylaws for the department.

Iosevich and Chicone say the bylaws they drafted did not propose anything controversial or represent a radical departure from the status quo. Iosevich said it is the consequences of having bylaws, not their content, that has stalled the process.

“My personal view is that it is easier for that proverbial small group to be in control if there are no bylaws to interfere with the free exercise of their will,” Chicone said. “Bylaws are meaningless unless there are democrats who agree to live by them.”

Robert Kreiser, Senior Program Officer of the American Association of University Professors, said bylaws are necessary in order for academic departments to govern themselves. Bylaws outline the department’s hiring process and voting procedures and address matters such as promotion, retention and evaluation, salary increases, budgetary priorities and strategic plans.

More importantly, he said, bylaws spell out the “shared governance” of a department. Unilateral authority is a danger, and the ability to define how decisions are made and power is shared is critical.

“There should be some predictability.” Kreiser said. “A lack of that can create chaos, can create a situation where the department chair can fill the vacuum and accrue more authority and power than he or she should be able to.”

Montgomery-Smith said the lack of bylaws discourages needed change in the department. Faculty and executive committee meetings are torturous affairs, he says, where very little is accomplished.

“They are very dispiriting events,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get real business done.”

The MU Faculty Council is awaiting a decision by the Board of Curators on a resolution that would require all academic units on campus to have bylaws. Council members have cited the troubles in the math department as a reason why bylaws should be required campus-wide, said math professor Michael Taksar, who represents the College of Arts and Science on Faculty Council, and is also a former member of the math department’s executive committee.

Taksar recalls that a discussion on bylaws was repeatedly placed low on the committee’s agenda and never came up for discussion. “There was no time to discuss the third item on the agenda,” he said. “Nobody’s pushing.”

Taksar, a member of the Faculty Council’s fiscal committee, said bylaws could help lift the curtain that has been drawn over the department’s fiscal situation. Right now, he said, financial decisions are not discussed or shared with the rest of the faculty. Bylaws could provide more openness, he said.

“I could always count on the chairman to say how much we have for computers,” said Taksar, who has been a university professor at MU and elsewhere for 27 years. “Here it’s so secret — no talking about the budget.”

Ashbaugh said the department would benefit from bylaws, if only to quiet those who are blaming their frustrations on the lack of them. The department needs a set of rules that spell out certain procedures without the threat of micromanagement, he said, and they should have a consensus backing of the department.

“There’s got to be a right mix of these things,” Ashbaugh said. “Not too much detail, but with the intent.”

Ashbaugh is hopeful something will come out of Campus Mediation Services, which took up the math department’s case a year ago. The process has been slow going, Montgomery-Smith said.

“I think there’s one half of the department that just doesn’t want bylaws,” Montgomery-Smith said. “At the end of the day, (campus mediation) may be spinning their wheels for nothing.”

Iosevich, who joined the department in 2000, worries that the turmoil has had a negative impact on students.

“From the very beginning, I realized that undergraduates were sort of an inadvertent part of this political football that’s been going on in our department,” Iosevich said. “The bottom line is not what sort of an education are the students getting. The bottom line is what does this mean for us and how comfortable are we going to be.”

Iosevich is critical of the department’s failure to keep track of where its graduates go after they receive their MU degree. “There’s no better way to say ‘I don’t care,’” he said, “than to not keep track of the people you educate.” Ashbaugh said he will not seek re-election as department chair when his term expires in May. Nor will the faculty get to choose his replacement. That job, Ashbaugh and other faculty say, will go to Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science. O’Brien declined to comment for this story.

Perhaps surprisingly, in a department seeking greater democracy, no faculty members objected to not having a vote on their next chairman. All of them, however, hope whoever is chosen can at least ease the tension in the department.


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