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As an example of a vote of no confidence, recently, the academic world has been shocked by the Salaita case at the University of Illinois. I happen to be a UIUC alumnus, so I guess I'm more concerned about the current state of affairs in my Alma Mater. So I just read an article on the web about the case: More Votes of No Confidence, a Weird Ad, and a Declaration of a Non-Emergency. The article states that

Tonight, the major news out of the University of Illinois is that two more departments have taken votes of no confidence in the leadership of the UIUC: the department of history (nearly unanimous, I’m told) and the department of Latino and Latina Studies. The latter’s announcement reads:

The faculty of the Department of Latina/Latino Studies (LLS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign met on Wednesday, September 3, 2014 to discuss the University’s revocation of an offer of employment to Dr. Steven Salaita. We concluded that this revocation and the subsequent public statements by Chancellor Phyllis Wise, President Robert Easter, and the Board of Trustees about Dr. Salaita’s appointment demonstrate a clear disregard for the principles of academic freedom, free speech, and shared governance, as well as for established protocols for hiring, tenure, and promotion. The faculty of LLS therefore declares that we have no confidence in the leadership of the current Chancellor, President, and Board of Trustees.

That means that six departments have now voted no confidence, two of them fairly large departments, representing a significant number of faculty in the humanities. Word is that we should be expecting at least four more votes of no confidence by the end of the week, for a total of ten.

I know the best thing that can happen in the current state of affairs is that UIUC's own faculty boycott the Board of Trustees and Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

So my general question is, what are the implications of such a vote? What does a "vote of no confidence" really mean?

EDIT

As suggested by @MadJack, here's the New York Times article on the case of Salaita.

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    For those of us who have not heard about "the Salaita case", could you add a link giving some background? – Nate Eldredge Sep 4 '14 at 12:57
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    Sure @NateEldredge, the internet is plagued with news on this matter. Here you have an article in the New York Times. – aaragon Sep 4 '14 at 13:05
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    @aaragon Keep in mind that this news is apparently quite US-centric and "plagued with news" is just in your part of the internet, I guess. So don't be surprised if non-US users (like myself) have never heard of this case before (like myself). – dirkk Sep 4 '14 at 15:46
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    @dirkk I live in Switzerland, and I got a position in the Netherlands starting in December, and the Internet is still quite plagued with news on this matter. Just go to google and type Salaita. – aaragon Sep 4 '14 at 15:51
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    @NateEldredge, I'd rather not provide any media sources, specially because I trust just a few of them in the USA in sensitive topics such as the conflict alluded in the Salaita case. – aaragon Sep 4 '14 at 19:16
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A "vote of no confidence" is much like a "resolution" passed by a parliamentary body—it's a statement of approved opinion, with very little legal impact. The only exception to this would occur if the voting body is in some way responsible for the appointment of the official in question, in which case such a vote could lead to removal.

However, at the departmental level, such a vote has very little impact on the university as a whole.

  • thanks for answering. So then what would be your answer to the "what are the implications of this" part of the question? What's the point of casting a "vote of no confidence" if nothing will happen out of it? – aaragon Sep 4 '14 at 11:03
  • When I was an undergrad at Case Western Reserve University, the faculty took a vote of no confidence in the President, Edward Hundert, and he subsequently resigned: insidehighered.com/news/2006/03/17/case Although this was the faculty of the whole of the Arts and Sciences school, not just a single department, even non-binding opinions can influence what people decide. I guess that's the point. – darthbith Sep 4 '14 at 11:28
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    @aaragon "The point" is to make a statement. In an organization that even resembles democracy, if large influential groups go on a record to state that they would rather see you go, you are in deep trouble. Even if they can't personally fire you. – xLeitix Sep 4 '14 at 11:36
  • I understand now. I guess then that the best stance that faculty can have is to make a "vote of no confidence". Maybe there's a better stance, but I don't think the issue is so outrageous to many of them to make efforts in boycotting the school. – aaragon Sep 4 '14 at 11:40
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    @aaragon: the more of these votes there are, though, the more confident people will be that (the equivalent of) industrial action will be effective. Boycotting your boss on your own is a completely different thing from boycotting your boss when 10 departments strongly agree with you. It's likely the school will consider that the more of these votes there are, the more likely it is that practical action will eventually be taken if the issue isn't addressed. Of course there are non-cooperative or obstructive actions that could be taken short of a full boycott of the school... – Steve Jessop Sep 4 '14 at 12:32
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A vote of no confidence is an entirely political move. It has no force on its own, but it may influence the opinion or behavior of others.

When used effectively, votes of no confidence can influence the person in question to apologize or change their ways, or influence more powerful people (e.g. the board of governors/regents) to address the issue.

When used ineffectively, votes of no confidence have no effect at all. (Well, they can still allow the people who voted to express their opinion.)

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The repercussions of a department's vote of no confidence hold no legal authority. They simply publicly voice the majority opinion of the faculty of the department.

To further analyze in the context of the example you gave: These votes of no confidence are likely to embarrass the departments who publicly supported hiring this man whose public discourse can most nicely only be described as unprofessorial and unacademic.

The Chicago Tribune's take on the administration's position said:

In June and July, Salaita posted prolifically about the situation in Gaza, particularly about the children killed in the conflict. On June 20, soon after three Israelis were kidnapped and killed, he wrote: "You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the (expletive) West Bank settlers would go missing." On July 22 he wrote: "#Israel kills civilians faster than the speed of 4G."

Salaita's hateful words are not confined to Twitter. He has found it prudent to scrub some of his online works, but they are still available via the Wayback machine.

We grant that academic freedom means that one can take nearly any position so long as one is respectful of others who disagree. His manner of speech and disrespect would have been quite a distraction for the entire university. Would he be respectful to the students under his instruction? Given his public record, would you take responsibility for placing him in this position?

These comments are certainly against our principles for allowed commentary on Academia StackExchange.

Some may disagree with the way the decision was made. Perhaps the decision could have reached out to more stakeholders for consensus. The administration apparently didn't do that. Many university administrations have come under fire by stakeholder groups in the past for similar actions. It would have been better if the administration had more support. But they had made the decision and moved forward with it, and I don't see how they could have taken another path in a timely fashion.

These votes of no confidence reflect the indignation by these departments in not being included in the decision making process. However, most bystanders will also (correctly) interpret them as a disagreement with the conclusion of the decision. If the departments agreed with the conclusion, this issue would not be raised.

I personally think these votes are likely to lower the public's view of the departments just as much or more so than they lower the public's views on the administration. I also think the views of individuals will largely be colored by personal preferences in backing the interests of the parties that Salaita has been coarsely commenting on.

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    I see I got a downvote. Please help me improve this answer so that I can be a benefit to this site. Thank you! – Aaron Hall Sep 4 '14 at 16:55
  • If only the administration had let his appointment actually go to the board, they could have voted it down, instead of rubber stamping it and none of this bruhaha would have taken off... – CGCampbell Sep 4 '14 at 18:53
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    "these votes of no confidence are likely to lower the public's view of the departments just as much or more so than they lower the public's views on the administration" - may well be true, but possibly requires some justification since it makes quite a definitive statement what the public is likely to approve and disapprove. Ofc "the public" is a completely different animal according to whether it's MSNBC or Fox talking about them, so it's entirely possible that one of those two publics will lower their views of the departments, and the other public the opposite :-) – Steve Jessop Sep 4 '14 at 19:11
  • @SteveJessop Thanks, I addressed that in a bit more detail, and made it clear that that is my personal perspective. I have a BS in Political Science and an MBA, so I should be able to correctly analyze this without bias. – Aaron Hall Sep 4 '14 at 19:36
  • @Aaron: indeed, you don't have to hold a view in order to ascribe it to the public in general. It seems to be TV journalists especially though, who usually ascribe to the public in general whatever view they happen to hold ;-) – Steve Jessop Sep 4 '14 at 19:53
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The other answers noted that a vote of no confidence is generally not binding, but may have other outcomes.

I would like to point out that even if an outcome that is desired by the faculty is achieved, it is generally impossible to show causality (i.e., that the outcome was a direct result of the vote).

As an example, the end of the 2012-2013 academic year saw a series of no confidence votes by faculty against New York University President John Sexton. The outcomes were as follows:

  • The College of Arts and Sciences; Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; Gallatin School of Individualized Study; Tisch Asia; and Tisch School of the Arts passed votes of no confidence against the president.
  • At the Silver School of Social Work, a vote was held but not passed
  • The School of Law passed a vote of confidence in favor of the president

A few months later, in August 2013, the university's Board of Trustees announced that Sexton would not continue beyond the end of his current contract.

However, it's impossible to tell whether this is the result of the no-confidence votes, two lawsuits, negative media articles about the university and its president, or (almost certainly) a combination of these and other factors.

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