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Provost Botman Vows Student, Faculty Involvement

Dr. Selma Botman, Yeshiva University’s new provost and vice president, has vowed to bring students and faculty members together to strengthen the university amid historic budget cuts. “This university is too important to close.” Dr. Botman said in an interview with
The Commentator. “It needs to become sustainable and it needs to make decisions that are flawless because the reputation and the students and faculty are at stake.”

In a letter sent to students and faculty on January 30, President Joel announced his selection of Dr. Botman after a relatively quick national search. Her appointment was unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees, acting on the recommendation of a 10-member search committee of faculty, students, administrators, and trustees. “I know that you will join me in warmly welcoming Dr. Botman to campus and supporting her as she joins our efforts to build a sustainable Yeshiva University,” President Joel said.

Botman joins YU from University of Southern Maine, where she served as president, and nearby City University of New York, where she once served as executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, university provost, and professor of Middle Eastern history at the Graduate Center. She holds a degree in psychology from Brandeis University and philosophy from Oxford University, as well as a Master’s in Middle Eastern studies and a PhD in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University. Botman has taught courses in modern Middle Eastern history and she plans to teach a course at Stern College.

In her new role, Dr. Botman will oversee academic programs, research, personnel, and resources across the Yeshiva University system. She will also be charged with making tough financial decisions amid YU’s financial crisis.

A native of Chelsea, Massachusetts, Botman was the first in her family to attend college. She reflected on her college experience, “My work in higher education is in part, biographical: I want students to have the same experience that elevated me. When I went to Brandies, there weren’t student services—though there were a lot of student activities and a world class faculty,” she said. “The university enterprise has grown enormously, and the resources haven’t grown sufficiently.”

The “old business plan,” created after the GI bill that gave rise to the modern amenity-heavy university, is “extremely costly,” Botman argued. Information technology, financial aid, student support services—along with non academic costs associated with healthcare and pensions—represent new financial challenges for universities across the country.

“We need to look at what we do in the non-academic and academic areas and ask: what is core to the mission of this university?” She said. “We can’t say that the programs we have offered are the programs we will offer from now until eternity.”

Students and Faculty Participation

In a break with her predecessor Dr. Morton Lowengrub, Dr. Botman urged student and faculty involvement in this decision making process. “Students are a critical source of information that can lead the university forward. You are on the ground. You are the consumers here. You will also be able to see the excruciating decisions that will have to be made.”

At the University of Maine, where Dr. Botman served as president, students were voting members of the board of trustees and faculty members were non-voting observers. Students sat on all committees, and took part in tenure and finance meetings. Both bodies were encouraged to play a part in all major decisions. “My hope is that meetings that we have or decision making groups that come together to make serious recommendations will include students and faculty,” Botman said.

Dr. Botman’s insistence on faculty and student participation in decision making diverges from the leadership style she employed during her turbulent stint as president of the University of Southern Maine (USM), a multi-campus public university serving approximately 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students around Portland. She was removed from her post after just four years of faculty clashes ended with a call for a vote of no confidence in April of 2012.

Votes of “no confidence” signify that faculty members feel a leader is no longer fit to serve in his or her position. The vote, a rare but increasingly common tactic in universities, is considered symbolic, as the chancellor or board of trustees ultimately decide what action to take. Her service to USM was buried deep within the Yeshiva University press release.

Frayed Trust

The no confidence vote, cast in the first week of May 2012, was 194-88 in favor. In only three days, over half of all faculty at the university cast votes saying they didn’t have confidence in Botman, but because three-quarters of the faculty voted, the total votes fell short of the two-thirds threshold required to be considered the “will of the faculty.” Dr. Botman told The Commentator that the vote “demonstrated the anxiety of many things happening at the university.”

Senior faculty members, who were protected by tenure, circulated a petition in April calling for the vote. A poll conducted by the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine System attached to the petition noted that more than three-quarters of full-time faculty either “somewhat” or “strongly” disagreed that top-level administrators were “providing competent leadership at USM.” Nearly eighty percent said they were “somewhat” or “strongly” dissatisfied with the way the university was managed.

In the publicly available list of grievances, faculty members griped about Botman’s demoralizing leadership that created an aura of negativity and a “climate of distrust” on campus. The petition questioned her ability to “continue to lead, manage, and promote this university.”

“The number of people who respond to those surveys are only part of the faculty,” Dr. Botman said. “There is no question that change is gut wrenching and that the status quo is attractive. But the status quo doesn’t pay the bills.”

Mark Lapping, professor and executive director at the Muskie School of Public Service, signed the petition calling for Botman’s resignation. “People are scared on this campus,” he told The Free Press, USM’s student newspaper, in 2012. “They have been intimidated.”

Professor Ronald Schmidt, who serves as a spokesperson for the faculty senate of USM, told The Commentator, “People did feel intimidated by proposals to shut down departments. But my sense is that made faculty more angry than frightened.”

A Shrinking Budget

Rapidly shrinking resources at USM prompted President Botman to make difficult decisions about the future of the university. “In October 2008, the world collapsed,” Dr. Botman said. “We had a decrease in state appropriation. We had a decrease in enrollment. Students began electing to take courses at community college because of cheaper tuitions. We had a lot of economic forces working against us.”

“She was the perfect president. She had goals. She was eloquent. She got along well with students,” Professor Eileen Eagan, a vocal supporter of Botman, told The Commentator. “Yes, she could have been more tactful, but I think what happened, between the economy and the changes, and because of these faculty agitators, the faculty got more nervous.”

Professor Schmidt agreed. “Early in her tenure there was a fair amount of excitement,” he said. “The early sense of enthusiasm was one of the reasons that nerves and tempers got more frayed when they did.”

“The key thing to know about in this story is that the economic situation in the university was terrible,” said Professor Eagan.“ When she came in 2008 things didn’t look bad, but things turned out worse. I don’t think they told her how bad things were. After she got there she got stuck with a large deficit and had to make painful cuts and restructuring.”

In 2010, the Faculty Senate approved Botman’s highly publicized budget-cutting reorganization with the understanding that the faculty and deans within the colleges would share responsibility to organize themselves in departments and schools.

However, a second round of austerity measures in the form of rearranged academic structure were met with widespread resentment. “There was a lot of disagreement with the direction in which President Botman wanted to go,” Schmidt said. “She invited a lot of faculty participation, but despite the work that was being done, professors felt that they weren’t being listened to, that their work was being ignored.”

A year later, Botman announced far greater consolidation efforts, calling for departments with fewer than 12 full-time faculty members to consolidate with similar departments. According to the administration, the move would save over $750,000. Members of the faculty senate, however, quickly raised red flags.  “There are many faculty who feel that this is being imposed on the faculty without them being heard. And this is affecting their morale,” Jerry LaSala, chair of the physics department, told The Free Press.

“Most of the faculty didn’t want change,” Professor Eagan said. “Every time something was tried there was resistance.”

A Divided Campus

According to Portland’s Bangor Daily News, President Botman’s approach left instructors overworked and did not free up money for additional classroom spending as she had promised in her inaugural address. Her promises to incorporate the faculty went unfulfilled.

As morale dropped, tensions on campus brewed. Members of the faculty interviewed by The Commentator all noted how students and faculty members split. “For various reasons, some understandable, some unreasonable, people protested,” Professor Eagan said. “It was like a civil war.”

The Free Press reported that outgoing Student Body President Chris Camire told the Faculty Senate he was “ashamed” by the petition effort and told those behind it they were “tearing this university apart.” He called the move to vote no confidence a “coup d’état.”

“It struck me as highly unfair that she got the blame for doing what needed to be done,” Professor Eagan said.

In 2012, rumors and accusations spread. A USM faculty member also told The Commentator that questionable hiring—including the hiring of a trustee for a vice president in charge of fundraising—prompted faculty to create new ethics policies. According to Bangor Daily News, in March of 2012, four of Botman’s administrative staff received raises of 18 percent to 22 percent—at a cost of $242,000—while faculty salaries had been frozen amid three-year, $5 million budget cuts. The raises were later rescinded. Bloggers have also accused Botman’s supporters of scrubbing her Wikipedia page of the no-confidence controversy.

After the vote of no confidence was announced, Botman defended her term as president, noting that the university had been plagued by budget constraints during the recession, which forced her administration to make difficult decisions. In a news conference after her resignation as president, Botman said she was leaving a university having accomplished a number of her goals. “It’s fiscally sound, it’s student focused, it has deepened its ties to the community, and it’s poised to take its next step.”

Under Dr. Botman’s tenure, USM balanced every budget, created new academic programs while consolidating other programs, sold buildings, and paid off debt. Despite major financial strain, the university did not close any departments. USM also continued to hire tenure track positions, offer merit increases, sabbaticals and “resources for research,” she said.

However, this April, USM President Theodora Kalikow said she was forced to approve of $4.4 million of cuts to help make the school “financially sustainable.” During President Botman’s tenure from 2008 to 2012, USM suffered a 6.2 percent decline in the student body, from 10,009 to 9,385 students.

Lessons Learned

“My overall sense is that President Botman’s short tenure was a combination of circumstances that would be bad under any leadership, but were then exacerbated by her vision of the future and her problematic leadership style,” Professor Schmidt said. “There were competing visions.”

Professor Lapping told The Commentator that Botman “kept pushing and pushing,” but that she was ultimately “not a good fit for USM.”

“Communication, communication, communication,” Dr. Botman said of the lessons she learned from her stint at USM. “I tried and I should have tried harder to communicate the seriousness of the problem,” she told The Commentator, “But the decisions we took were critical.”

Dr. Botman said that one of the takeaways from her initial meetings with YU’s faculty “is that faculty recognize the depth of the problem at Yeshiva College. At USM they did not believe the crisis existed.”

According to a press release by Yeshiva University, Dr. Botman will be “working together with faculty and the administration to strengthen teaching and student learning, foster scholarly research and creative projects, and build a collaborative culture across the University.” She will also be tasked with working “closely with the University Faculty Council.”

“I am still in the embryonic stage,” she insisted, but she was confident that “this faculty council is made up of thoughtful people who can make the decisions that will help this university advance,” she said.