A hotly-debated renewal plan for the Catholic University of America, which included the elimination of 35 faculty positions, the reorganization of some departments and a recommitment to the arts, was approved by the school’s board of trustees Tuesday.

The Academic Renewal proposal has undergone deliberation and study since September, and was first approved in May by a 35-8 vote of the Academic Senate, a group of administrators, deans, and elected faculty members and student representatives. After passing the Academic Senate, the proposal was sent to the Board for final approval.

The plan includes, among other things, the opening of a new school of music, drama, and art in fall 2018, the establishment of a new Center for Teaching Excellence, plans to add new programs and faculty in areas of growth, and renovations to several facilities on campus.

“I am grateful to the Board of Trustees for its support for Academic Renewal, and especially to Provost Abela, the Academic Senate, and all of the faculty and students whose participation in the process, ideas, and recommendations were invaluable to the development of the final plan,” Catholic University President John Garvey said in a press release following the board’s decision. He added that the plan will now “immediately move forward.”

Whether debate surrounding the plan will be assuaged in the following days and months remains to be seen.

The crux of the debate surrounding the plan was whether the elimination of 35 faculty positions would mean the termination of tenured faculty.

In the week leading up to the board’s vote, an unofficial ad-hoc group called the “Faculty Assembly” released the results of an anonymous electronic poll it conducted, which purported to show that numerous faculty members had “no confidence” in Provost Andrew Abela or President John Garvey regarding the renewal plan or the future of the university.

The group sent the poll to 448 people, including ordinary professors, associate professors, faculty emeriti and contract faculty. The 15 faculty who report directly to the provost were not included in the poll.

CUA representative Susan Gibbs told CNA that the university has 391 full-time faculty members, and because some faculty members were not polled by the group, only 376 of those who received the poll could have been full-time faculty members.

38 percent of those who received the survey, 171 people, said they had “no confidence” in Provost Andrew Abela. 176 people, 39 percent of those surveyed, said the same for President John Garvey. Roughly half of those surveyed, 225 people in total, responded to the poll, The Washington Post reported.

A lack of confidence “stems from concerns from faculty across campus regarding the strategic vision and direction of the university, lack of shared governance, and financial stewardship and management of the university’s resources,” Binh Tran, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at CUA and another leader of the assembly, told The Washington Post.

In a statement following the release of the poll, Catholic University said it was “difficult to respond to an anonymous opinion poll” and that it would instead rely on the votes of the elected officials of the Academic Senate and on faculty and student feedback received throughout the proposal process.

“The proposal was developed in consultation with committees of the Academic Senate, which also oversaw a campus-wide consultation widely attended by faculty and students,” CUA said in the statement. “Input from this consultation resulted in additional initiatives and revisions that were incorporated into the final document.”  

Gibbs told CNA that while the school’s administration and Academic Senate understands that job elimination is a sensitive issue, nearly all of the eliminations of the faculty positions have been made through voluntary terminations and buyouts, and that the involuntary termination of tenured faculty had thus far been avoided.

“They’re wrapping up a few loose ends and finalizing a few things,” Gibbs said, but “it’s virtually done” and has all happened through voluntary means.

Dr. John Grabowski, associate professor of moral theology and ethics and a member of the Academic Senate at CUA, told CNA that while he understood the Faculty Assembly’s initial concerns over tenured positions, he believed those concerns should be allayed by the revised final edition of the proposal.

“I feel like I can see both sides,” he said, since he is a faculty member that was part of the Academic Senate involved in deliberation over the plan.

“But I can also see the concern generated among the faculty, because as it was initially described, it seemed like it was going to willy-nilly terminate faculty in certain units, whether they were adjunct, contract or tenured faculty, so that in many people’s minds set off alarm bells that the university is arbitrarily firing tenured faculty,” he said.

“I don’t think that was the intention” of the administration, he added, and after hearing the concerns of faculty, students and the broader CUA community regarding tenured positions, “a lot of the ambiguities of that language was cleared up.”

“By the time the Academic Senate approved the proposal, we were told that the provost was eliminating 35 faculty positions, and he had gotten to about 31 or 32 through voluntary retirement or severance. People were not being willy-nilly terminated, and he was confident that he could get the number he needed to make it work financially without having to involuntarily terminate any tenured faculty,” he said. “So in other words, we don’t even need to go there.”

Dr. Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at CUA, told CNA that while he received the electronic poll from the Faculty Assembly, he chose not to participate in it since they are not an officially recognized group.

He added that he “strongly supported” the Academic Renewal proposal, especially after he felt that his concerns about tenure were heard.

“I serve on the Committee for Faculty Economic Welfare, and helped draft my only concern which was to safeguard tenure,” he said. “Once the Provost clarified that tenure would not be harmed, the proposal passed the Academic Senate by a wide margin.”

Grabowski said that he responded to the electronic poll that he had confidence in the provost and the president, though he said he experience technical difficulties with the link and is unsure if his vote was cast.

Furthermore, he said he was not sure if the faculty assembly was “sufficiently cognizant” of numerous efforts made by administration and the Academic Senate to consult faculty across the campus throughout the creation of the Academic Renewal proposal, during which may students and faculty did weight in to express their concerns.

“I think their concerns were heard and registered and the proposal that was put forward was heavily amended, and I think we ended up with a position that brought the two sides a lot closer together than when they started out,” he said.

The Faculty Assembly told CNA in an email that even if the plan were to be approved and proceed without the firing of tenured faculty, the proposal process “highlighted multiple serious deficiencies in the leadership of the Provost and the President” and that their concerns “extend well beyond this proposal to issues broadly and deeply related to leadership and direction of the university.”

They said they planned to hold a meeting with the board and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Assembly in order to relay their concerns “related to the future of shared governance, financial management, executive performance and compensation, and still other serious issues.”

Gibbs told CNA the group declined an opportunity to meet with the Board of Trustees on June 4, one day before the board’s vote on the proposal.

A related group of concerned faculty, students and alumni called “Save The Catholic University of America” (or Save Catholic) recently started a website to express their lack of confidence in CUA leadership and to call for change.

“We believe change is urgently needed; indeed, we embrace change. But we also believe that the changes we make must be the right ones,” the group said in their statement. “The actions taken under President Garvey have significantly weakened the financial situation of the university and damaged our ability to recruit students. We have no confidence that the Provost Abela’s Academic Renewal Proposal will make the university’s situation better. Indeed, we are quite certain that it will deepen and compound our challenges.”

Grabowski said that the reports of CUA’s imminent demise suggested by some articles and the language of Save Catholic have been “greatly exaggerated.”

“I don’t think this is the end of the world, I think this is an adjustment in terms of the University’s resources,” he said. “In a big picture sense it makes sense, every business goes through this.”

In light of the electronic poll and the complaints of the Faculty Assembly and Save Catholic, the Board of Trustees also issued a statement of confidence in CUA leadership on June 5, noting improvements in outside contributions, recruitment, renovations and other improvements.

Michael P. Warsaw, EWTN Chairman and CEO, is a member of the university’s Board of Trustees. Catholic News Agency is a service of EWTN.

According to CUA numbers, undergraduate enrollment increased in fall 2017 and is on track to grow again for fall 2018, and student retention is at its highest level in more than 20 years.

Joseph L. Carlini, Chairman of the Board of Trustees said in the statement that the Board has full confidence in President John Garvey, and “looks forward to our continued collaboration with President Garvey. Academic Renewal is about growth and investing in our future.”

Pecknold told CNA that despite efforts to politicize CUA and the Academic Renewal plan, the University is first and foremost committed to following Christ.

“We are neither right nor left, but we’re a university born out of the heart of the Church, and centered in Christ.”