How Three Bad Decisions Signaled Doom at Mizzou

November 19, 2015

My office is in the business-school building next door to the "tent city" that students, supporting a hunger striker, erected on a University of Missouri quadrangle this month. The protesters sought redress for institutional racism. Whether you agree or disagree with the students’ complaints or tactics, this entire situation could have been avoided had the university administration not been dismissive of or slow to deal with their concerns. On multiple occasions, administrators were their own worst enemies. Had the climate not been one of authoritarianism and autocratic decision-making, Missouri would have far more to be thankful for during this November’s break.

With the advantage of perfect hindsight, three autocratic decisions foreshadowed the more serious disruptions that led to the unprecedented resignations of the institution’s top two administrators (President Timothy M. Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin), a huge loss in our reputation, and a leadership vacuum that we are struggling with today.

The first event was President Wolfe’s unilateral decision to close the University of Missouri Press in May of 2012. Wolfe made this decision within a few months of assuming his office and buried the announcement in a news release about a continuing "focus on strategic priorities." The press was highly respected and noted for many achievements, including the multivolume Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the series Mark Twain and His Circle. The national outrage that ensued caused Wolfe to reverse his decision after six weeks.

Did he have the legal authority to make the decision as he did? An emphatic yes. Did he make the decision in an appropriate manner? An equally emphatic no.
I chaired an ad hoc faculty committee to examine this entire episode. The complete committee report can be summarized very succinctly: Did he have the legal authority to make the decision as he did? An emphatic yes. Did he make the decision in an appropriate manner? An equally emphatic no. In closing down the press, Wolfe failed to recognized that stakeholders existed for whom acceptance of, or commitment to, the decision was required for the decision to succeed.

The second event was a campus decision, as opposed to a systemwide decision, to eliminate full tuition waivers for quarter-time graduate assistants having teaching or research responsibilities. The new policy was announced in June and was to take effect with incoming students in the fall of next year. This decision was made without any faculty involvement or consultation in spite of assurances six months earlier to the Graduate Faculty Senate that "Chancellor [Loftin] wants to create a Task Force on Graduate Student Funding. … This will be faculty driven to examine funding and how funding for graduate students should be set up." That task force was never created. Perhaps there is no bungle within the leader’s decision-making role that is bigger than promising a voice to others and then failing to fulfill this heightened expectation.

Shortly before the formal announcement, the same faculty senate was given a "heads up" that the tuition waivers would be eliminated. However, a "heads up" is not consultation. Consultation is seeking the input and ideas of participants, even though the leader remains the ultimate decision maker. This decision was reversed, or at least indefinitely suspended, after five months of uncertainty.

The third event was the announcement on August 14 that the graduate-student health-insurance subsidy would expire within 24 hours, leaving many (if not most) students without insurance the next day. Graduate students marched, threatened to strike, formed Facebook groups, and earned the widespread support of the full-time faculty and other graduate students nationwide. Within a week, that decision was reversed. Yet this episode has produced lasting acrimony and mistrust. A list of demands has grown well beyond insurance, and a very serious graduate-student unionization effort is underway.

All this angst could have been avoided if input had been sought from students and faculty in the major decisions that would affect them.
The University of Missouri is a great university for students to attend and for faculty to work for. But you wouldn’t know it for all the recent turmoil the university has experienced. Mizzou administrators have seemingly shot themselves in the feet on a regular basis. All, or much of, this angst could have been avoided if input had been sought from students and faculty in the major decisions that would affect them. When a leader assumes that certain people will be difficult, but fails to test that assumption and pushes forward autocratically, that leader creates people who are difficult. The prophesy is self-fulfilling.

Alternatively, you can invest a bit of time in asking stakeholders what they might think and — the research on managerial leadership is clear on this — your investment will reap huge returns. Consultative decision-making brings greater information to bear on the problem, greater understanding of people’s roles when the decision is put into place, and far greater acceptance of the course of action. People support what they have contributed to and helped create or build. Autocracy is quicker; but quicker is not always better.

In commenting on the institution’s ineptitude in the graduate-student insurance fiasco, Chancellor Loftin declared to the Faculty Council: "What I’ve learned in over 41 years in higher education is that process is king. We have to have process. We have to have you — the faculty — and the students involved in the conversation." In light of the events I have described and the many people negatively affected by these flawed decisions, some of us in that meeting found the chancellor’s words disingenuous. Nonetheless, there remains one point of consensus:

Process is king; long live the king.

Arthur G. Jago is a professor of management and a member of the Faculty Council on University Policy at the University of Missouri at Columbia.