Sunday, November 13, 2005

Reflections on the 'Town Hall' meeting with AU Board members

The last few weeks, culminating in last Thursday night’s ‘town meeting’ represent a sea change in the culture of AU’s once insulated Board of Trustees. Board members attempts at outreach cannot simply be dismissed, though this has been suggested by detractors, as a public relations effort intended to win sympathy for past misdeeds.

Here are things that stand out in my mind, three days later.

  1. Many board members have close ties to AU. Probably it was no accident that all of the Board members selected to participate in the open meeting, excepting the Methodist Bishop, were AU graduates. At least one – Pamela Deese – has been a scholarship student.
  2. The Board Members are a Diverse Group, with diverse perspectives and styles. Some were skilled in public relations and ‘spin’. They seemed most concerned with justifying their decisions. Others, not chosen as spokespersons, seemed more comfortable presenting themselves authentically, acknowledging the doubts and moral dilemmas recent events had posed for them. Clearly Board members were not unanimous in their decisions, though they felt compelled to present a ‘unanimous front.’ Personally, I am not sure the unanimous front stand was best, though I can understand the motivation for it.
  3. The messages from respective campus constituencies are getting through. I know that student organizers of Thursday night’s event were disappointed in the turnout. I thought it would be larger as well. But what needed to be said was said. What needed to be heard was heard, and had an impact. The meeting was scheduled to last an hour, but some Board Members were still dialoguing with their critics well after 10 PM.
  4. Issues of ‘governance’ and even whether to affirm or withdraw the severance package are more complex, and less easily to mobilize around than the simple imperative of terminating Dr Ladner. A majority of Board members had decided, in advance of the meeting, that providing Dr. Ladner with a generous severance package, and avoiding litigation was in the best interest of AU. Whether this decision was affirmed at Friday’s meeting I don’t know as I am writing. But clearly – and the meeting reinforced this – there are good arguments that can be supported by reasonable people on both sides of the issue. This will be true of ‘governance’ issues, such as the form of student and faculty representation as well.
  5. Cultural change takes time. In process is an attempt to radically alter of the Board of Trustee’s culture in the direction of transparency, accessibility and accountability. Faculty and students in anthropology and international development, among whom I am numbered, know that such processes take time. Personally I think a good start has been made,

Two images will remain in my memory, both from long after the formal discussions ended. The first was of Pamela Deese engaging in an animated, passionate discourse with a graduate student who had previously identified herself as a student in ethnics and pronounced herself ‘disgusted’ with her AU degree. The second was of an obviously fatigued Gary Abramson (who was not in the front of the room) listening patiently to a group of students and ignoring his wife’s obvious concern that he should have a good night’s rest before chairing the next days meeting. Finally, I intervened and suggested it was time to conclude.

All in all, it was a productive evening, if not an easy one.


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