Lingering tensions between Auburn University faculty members and Provost Bill Hardgrave could reemerge Tuesday.
The University Senate will stage a no-confidence vote Tuesday afternoon regarding Hardgrave, who has been the target of several faculty members dissatisfied with his handling of class scheduling around the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Thursday, the no-confidence vote is the only thing on the meeting’s agenda, according to Greg Schmidt, senate secretary. Hardgrave is expected to participate in the meeting.
Schmidt didn’t speculate on a possible outcome in an email response to the Opelika-Auburn News, but he did credit the provost for reaching out to the campus in recent weeks.
“The Provost has done numerous town halls since November and I think that has helped significantly in garnering a greater ‘we’re in this together’ spirit and a greater appreciation for the complexity of COVID-era operations on campus.”
Auburn President Jay Gogue defended the university’s handling of COVID-19 in a December interview with the newspaper.
“Going into spring term, I think the hope would be that we could do more face-to-face, in person than we did in the fall, but I have said throughout that that totally depends on the virus – we are not going to put people in harm's way to do that,” Gogue said.
Gogue followed up Thursday afternoon with the following statement to the newspaper: "In all my years in higher education, I haven’t witnessed a situation as contradictory as this one. A no-confidence vote in the midst of a global pandemic and social unrest when student, faculty, staff and administration leaders have worked diligently together for the best interests of our campus is unprecedented and destructive. If the vote proceeds, I urge faculty to participate and follow their instincts to support our guiding principles on protecting the health of campus, fulfilling our mission and adhering to shared governance."
Neither Hardgrave nor University Senate President Don Mulvaney responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
However, Hardgrave did comment in November about the ongoing tensions with faculty in an email to the newspaper.
“I have worked closely with the University Senate and have provided updates at every senate meeting, the general faculty meeting, meetings with student leaders and many individual faculty members regarding spring plans. Our decisions have been and will continue to be informed by these conversations, input from the medical community and our experiences this fall.
“While the faculty’s voice is critical, it must also be balanced with the voices of our students and staff. Through this dialogue, our stakeholders – including many faculty – have articulated a strong desire to resume in-person instruction next semester,” Hardgrave stated.
Over 500 faculty members met via Zoom in a November University Senate meeting to discuss what to do about their concerns about Hardgrave and his insistence on returning to primarily in-person classes in the spring.
Economics Professor Mike Stern asked for a no-confidence vote during that meeting, but was declined by senate President Don Mulvaney – who has scheduled Tuesday’s upcoming vote – because Gogue and Hardgrave were not present for that November meeting.
Mulvaney announced Tuesday’s upcoming vote in a campus email this week, after receiving a faculty petition. He explained in the email that “the Faculty leadership is constitutionally bound to honor this petition and are therefore calling a Special Session of the Faculty on Tuesday, January 12 at 3:30 pm via Zoom.”
Stern said Wednesday that his concerns still haven’t been adequately addressed. He said Hardgrave and other officials need to better assess teaching spaces with regard to how to ensure sufficient social distancing and better protect instructors and students alike. He said the work was started before students returned to campus last August, but not completed.
“I volunteered to teach face-to-face in the fall and spring (of the 2020-21 school year) and they promised it would be safe,” Stern said. “Then they did the opposite.”
Stern has been at odds with campus leadership before. He sued Auburn University in 2018, claiming he had been treated unfairly by administrators. A final pretrial conference is scheduled for late this month, with a jury trial tentatively scheduled for Feb. 21.
Over 80 percent of the attendees to the November meeting voted in favor of several proposals made by Auburn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), including a new appeals process for faculty when their teaching plans – in person, online or a mix thereof – are declined by their college deans and/or Hardgrave’s office, allowing faculty to determine their own plans and more faculty representation on the university committee that oversees COVID-19 policies.
Mitchell Brown, president of Auburn’s AAUP chapter, said Wednesday that the advocacy group would not take an official position on the upcoming no-confidence vote.
Over 500 faculty members participated in the November meeting. There are over 1,800 faculty members at the university.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the amount of AAUP membership on campus. We regret the error.