President eyes future after Senate vote

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western President Amit Chakma, along with Board of Governors Chair Chirag Shah, survived a pair of non-confidence votes from the university Senate last week. And now, drawing inspiration from that vote, the president says he is determined to bring a divided university back together – one meeting at a time.

On April 17, university Senate members voted down separate motions of non-confidence in Chakma and Shah at a specially called meeting. Senators voted 30-49, with five abstentions, against a motion of non-confidence in the president, and 20-46, with 21 abstentions, against a motion of non-confidence in Shah.

The results of the two motions are non-binding. They will be sent as advice to the Board for consideration at its regular meeting today.

The 105-minute debate on the president featured one of the largest cross-sections of Senators publicly discussing a single subject in recent memory. Nearly two dozen speakers stood before a packed BMO Financial Group Auditorium in the Richard Ivey Building – including five of 22 Senators who called for the meeting – as well as elected student representatives, bargaining unit heads, deans, Alumni Association presidents and a cross-section of faculty and students.

On the Shah question, less than a dozen speakers addressed the half-emptied auditorium after the Chakma vote, although both Board appointees to the Senate joined the debate in defense of the chair.

Neither Chakma nor Shah spoke following the votes. Shah was not present for the debate.

However, after more than a week on his ‘Listening Tour’ of campus, the president said he feels more optimistic than ever about the possibility of moving forward.

“I enter this process with a positive feeling,” Chakma said Tuesday. “The reason for that feeling came out of the Senate meetings, especially the second one (April 17). I was listening carefully to those who were critical of me. In some of those statements, I saw a significant glimmer of hope. I heard they had the best interest of the university at heart, and there was a desire after the vote to move forward. That was important for me to hear.”

On April 10, the president outlined to Senate a ‘Listening Tour,’ promising widespread engagement, including faculty-by-faculty town halls, direct consultation with faculty, more regular engagement with staff and employee leadership groups, as well as more connections with students and alumni.

Following the April 17 meeting, Chakma reached out to some of his most vocal Senate critics. Two – Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson and French Studies professor Jacques Lamarche, who brought the non-confidence motion to the floor – reached out directly to the president over the weekend. Chakma met with both professors, one-on-one, this week.

“Those meetings were constructive. We talked about concrete action items,” the president said. “So, there we were – Friday, we had the Senate vote, and then by Monday morning, we were talking about what we can do together to move forward.”

Nelson embraced the opportunity to expand more directly his dialogue with the president.

“The controversy over Dr. Chakma’s salary has sparked a broader discussion of concerns about governance, transparency and decision-making practices at Western – concerns which are broadly held across campus,” Nelson said Wednesday. “Bringing these issues into the open, and figuring out how they can be addressed, will be critical for us to move forward. I applaud Dr. Chakma’s efforts to reach out, and I am happy to engage with him in this process.

“There is an enormous amount of positive energy in the air right now – it is very important that we harness that. We all want to make this a better place to live and work; achieving that will take a concerted effort from everyone.”

With the president, Lamarche welcomed the “open and frank discussion, the type of discussion I would have had with a close colleague.” His criticisms, centred on the “PR and politics,” he feels, have come to dominate the debate over the real issues.

“Frankly, I have been surprised. The connection with him has been more than I expected,” Lamarche said Wednesday. “But the hill is steep. What he is doing is a good start to engage with us. I am aware all the issues are not his making directly. So, the engagement needs to be with more than him; it needs to be with the whole central administration. This isn’t about me and him – this is about the whole perspective.”

The president called himself “grateful” for the constructive critics who have reached out to him.

By next week, Chakma will have met one-on-one with half a dozen Senate critics, as well as a handful of faculty councils and labour organizations, including representatives from Science, Social Science, Arts & Humanities, Health Sciences and the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA).

Admittedly, some of those meetings have been more successful than others.

On April 13, the president spoke to the Science Faculty Council, where he heard concerns over a range of issues, including rising tuition and fees, matching fundraising to university priorities, reduced staff support as it relates to research, contract faculty teaching loads and the challenges facing graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in launching their careers.

However, on Tuesday, Arts & Humanities Faculty Council members wrangled over allowing external media into their meeting with Chakma. The faculty finally had its candid – and closed – conversation with the president.

Some common themes emerged early on, including critiques of the president and his administration’s management style, perceived by some as top-down. The vast majority of concerns, however, centre on two main themes – financial resources and more open reporting and communications between administration and the faculties.

“Based just on the total of our discussions, and the substantive nature of those conversations,” Chakma said, “I believe we will continue to make progress.”

While remaining positive, the president is acutely aware of the challenges ahead. More than 40 per cent of Senators chose not to support him as he attempted to stave off a non-confidence vote. Chakma said his darkest moment came, not during that vote, but the week prior.

“That first Senate meeting was the toughest day. Until that moment, I didn’t know how to react,” the president said. “But then, during and after that meeting, things started to clear for me. I listened and I started to sense some positive vibes. We all had the best interest of the university at heart. Through the week, I began to feel more optimistic. After this week, I feel much more optimistic.

“‘Courage is grace under pressure,’” Chakma continued, quoting Ernest Hemingway. “I have been reading some wise people to keep me going, to help me maintain my composure, my approach.”

There have been a few personal attacks, Chakma admitted, but the vast majority of critiques and complaints have been substantive – especially on campus. And the president wouldn’t expect it any other way.

“People who don’t know me well might not be able to appreciate this much, as my past 18-19 years have been spent in administration. But I am a faculty member. I am proud to be a professor. I consider that to be my vocation,” Chakma said. “I understand how faculty members think, how they respond to things. When I am facing my faculty colleagues, I am facing them as peers.

“In our world, your peers can be highly critical of your work. You cannot take that personally. That’s part of the culture; you accept it.”

Chakma will continue his consultations throughout the summer and into fall. He hopes to have concrete plans in place at some point in the fall semester.

“I will not judge our success simply on concrete actions taken – although those are important,” he said. “I will consider this process a success if I am able to engage with the community leaders and turn my critics into partners to get the job done. If they become genuine partners in moving this university forward, that is a victory. The job we need to do will take time to get done. That is why I am focusing on getting the support required to do the right thing.”

During his opening remarks April 17, Chakma did clarify his future intentions regarding administrative leave.

As announced April 1, the president voluntarily refunded the in-lieu payment he received for the administrative leave he did not take at the end of his first contract. He also said will not exercise his contractual payment in lieu of leave at the end of his second contract. However, he plans to take administrative leave following his tenure as president, using the time to “prepare for my return to academic life” as a professor of chemical engineering.

In November 2012, the Board re-appointed Chakma to a second five-year term, ending on June 30, 2019.

Of course, all of this remains in the hands of Justice Stephen Goudge and his external review of the university’s presidential compensation practices, as Chakma previously pledged to “abide by his recommendations.”

Editor’s note: A previous report misidentified a meeting with the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA).