In December 2000, a group of dismissed faculty members reached a financial settlement with Bennington College. They designated a portion of the settlement to establish the Neil Rappaport Memorial Fund. Professor Rappaport, one of three plaintiffs who died during the extended legal battle, had been at the forefront of the dispute with the college. The memorial fund is administered by the AAUP and is used to support lectures on academic freedom and shared governance at Association conferences.
About Neil Rappaport
The following account is excerpted from "The Critical State of Shared Governance" by Joan Wallach Scott. (Academe, July-August 2002)
Rappaport, an established professional photographer, was a faculty member at Bennington College for more than twenty years when, in 1994, he was fired along with twenty-six other members of a faculty of sixty-five. Although the board of trustees and the president had declared financial exigency as the reason for their action, the AAUP investigating committee questioned this explanation. There were, to be sure, budgetary problems at Bennington, but plans for new programs, new administrative and faculty hires, and new equipment purchases had also been announced and there appeared to be capital campaign money available to fund some of the changes. In addition, the board had worked in the past with the faculty to address severe budgetary problems; at one point, the faculty agreed to salary cuts in order to help the college through.
The AAUP committee concluded that in 1994 financial exigency was the pretext for a radical transformation of the structure of the college. The AAUP investigators found that the declaration of financial exigency rather than providing the necessity for abrupt and massive faculty terminations, provided the opportunity for them. The declaration provided the umbrella for a massive purge of the faculty and for the institution of a series of educational policy changes favored by the board. The exclusion of the faculty from any role in this determination, as well as of the new directions of the college, appears to have been advertent, intended to demonstrate that the faculty’s role in educational policy and indeed in faculty composition had been abrogated.
These actions were an example—extreme to be sure—of the devaluation of (if not the outright contempt for) faculty accompanying a major transformation of the structure of a college. And the transformation was radical. It involved not only the firing of twenty-seven faculty, many of whom had long track records at Bennington, some of whom could have been given early retirement options (people in their sixties who had served on the faculty for decades were simply fired, and all those fired were given notice of only about a month to vacate their offices), but the elimination of many existing governing bodies and procedures that involved the faculty; a reorganization of teaching programs and divisions; the imposition of new standards for hiring and retention (public visibility—i.e., fame—for anyone involved in the arts); and the hiring directly by the president of some new faculty.
The point was to make Bennington more competitive in "today’s market" by recruiting "stars" (literally a movie star in one instance) to its faculty—stars who often had no teaching experience and little commitment to academic life. To eliminate all criticism, faculty bodies that might condemn the actions were dismantled, and those faculty known for their outspoken, critical attitudes were fired. (In the end, that seems to have been the motive for the firing—not public visibility or the usefulness to the reorganization of certain faculty, but their reputation for criticism and their track record of defending faculty rights against administrative incursion.)
When the board first announced its intention to single-handedly review faculty appointments, Rappaport, already a faculty leader, who had in earlier months tried to engage board members in a discussion of the college’s options, wrote to a board member angrily questioning the board’s "ethical right and professional capacity to judge academic merit." He asserted the long-standing belief that faculty are the best judges of their peers—the foundation on which shared governance is based. It was the ground of resistance the Bennington faculty chose.
Rappaport’s dismissal letter read, "Based upon my review of the materials you have on file in the Office of the Dean of Faculty, I have determined that you are not a professionally active visual artist with work which is ongoing and professionally exhibited or commissioned. Accordingly, your position is being eliminated." Yet the file in the dean’s office consisted only of a c.v.—none of the faculty were asked for materials to make a case for themselves.
When he received this letter, Rappaport protested on two grounds. First, he had what Bennington called "presumptive tenure" (a system of contracts of increasing length that assumed renewal unless there was some dramatic change in the performance by the professor). Second, he argued that he did meet the test of public visibility because his work had been shown in public galleries and museums. The review committee set up by the president to adjudicate the claims of fired faculty members agreed that Rappaport was a visible artist, and he was reinstated—the only one of the fired faculty to have won his case.
Once reinstated, Rappaport did not choose the easy path of accommodation with the powers that be—a path chosen by many of the faculty who were retained. Instead, he courageously continued to speak out on behalf of the values and practices he associated with decent academic life. He supported his fired colleagues in their lawsuit against the college and joined them in organizing the Bennington Academic Freedom Committee, and he spoke out frequently and critically on various issues: curricular changes, personnel policy, academic freedom, the new governance structures, and so on. He wrote letters to the editor and addressed meetings of alumni (although the college threatened at one point to sue professors who used college stationery for such communication). He wrote memoranda, and he made speeches at meetings. Rappaport was clearly a thorn in the side of the Bennington administration. Even as millions of dollars of foundation funding (Mellon, Pew, Spencer) poured in to support the Bennington plan (alternatives to tenure being the chief interest of these funders), Elizabeth Coleman, the college’s president, sought to get rid of him.
The opportunity came in fall 1996, the year before his five-year contract was to expire. He claimed to still have "presumptive tenure"—to be entitled to renewal if no serious deterioration of his work or teaching had occurred. Coleman claimed that the new system had done away with such presumption and that he must be subjected to the new regime. Under the new system, reviews took into account teaching, professional activity, collegiality (a new requirement), and service to the community. Under the new system, too, the burden of proof for retention rested not with the college, but with the faculty member.
The review committee members found that Rappaport met the qualifications for teaching and professional activity although—without explanation and contradicting the findings of the committee that had earlier reinstated him—they reported that his work "remains largely invisible." But their main objection, predictably enough, was that he failed to meet standards of "collegiality." He was, in other words, a troublemaker. They offered no evidence that he prevented others from speaking or otherwise expressing their views; they commented only that he was "adamant" and "intransigent" and that, on curricular matters, he refused to integrate photography with other fields. They also questioned his "service"—a standard he could hardly have fulfilled when the college had systematically kept him off all committees and away from contact with students outside his classes, and admitted that it had done so. Nonetheless, the review committee’s recommendation whether his contract should be renewed was mixed. But the dean and the president took the ammunition the committee had given them and terminated his services to the college. The grievance committee found he had no grievance, and there the matter ended. Rappaport was out of his job.
But he kept on fighting, working with the AAUP, with his fired colleagues in the Bennington Academic Freedom Committee, and with other supporters to publicize Bennington’s actions and to win a redress of the professors’ grievances. His death from cancer deprived his colleagues, students, and the larger academic community of a valiant supporter of faculty rights and of academic freedom.
I’d like to end by quoting part of a piece Rappaport wrote, explaining the events to the Bennington community. You’ll hear his passion, his indignation, and the principles that motivated this man—above all, you’ll hear his belief that faculty are the heart of a university or college community and that they are dispensed with, downgraded, and humiliated at enormous cost:
We believe that the college acted illegally—in violation of basic contractual principles, in violation of its own long-standing procedures, in violation of the accepted standards of the academic profession. . . . We believe that the president, granted extraordinary powers by the board, made determinations about individuals which were based upon their political activities in the faculty rather than upon the stated criteria of the plan [Bennington’s reorganization plan]. We know that the board and the president rebuffed every attempt by the faculty to participate in the decision-making process, including a . . . resolution overwhelmingly passed by the faculty to establish a crisis steering committee of all college constituencies to develop and ratify a consensus plan. We know that the former faculty government was decimated by the terminations and officially suspended, along with all faculty rights. . . . We know that [the] college abrogated its long-term obligations to tenured faculty, obligations won by years of their sacrifice and commitment. We know that the college has replaced many of the eliminated positions—with people, by the way, for the most part teaching the same courses my fired colleagues taught—in a process not surprisingly without any semblance of consultation or widespread recruitment, conducted by the president herself—in some cases, we believe before the firings. We know the college has not made any such drastic administrative cuts: in fact, it has created a number of major new administrative positions this year. The college has repeatedly acted illegally toward a third of its former faculty members.
You have been told by the college’s public relations machine that the changes were "necessary" for the survival of the college, both to address a self-defined financial exigency and to open the educational arteries which had been . . . "clogged" by tenure. All of us were fully aware of the serious annual deficit confronted by the college as a consequence of the enrollment crisis, a shortfall of more than $2.5 million last year. But few of us believed—as the chairman of the board stated directly at the final meeting with concerned faculty on June 9, 1994—that the problem was a universally perceived lack of faculty standards. Many of us have tried to raise the question of the management of an admissions program whose failure since President Coleman’s appointment has been obvious. Since the implementation of the plan, the college has invested major funds for administrative computing despite a declining database and a crying need for a real commitment to student computing. It has boasted a record-breaking capital campaign total and new fund raising[,] . . . aiding and abetting the college’s illegal labor practices. Educationally, the college is in disarray. The plan’s draconian personnel actions were not accompanied by any equally coherent curricular or structural plan. So the curriculum looks very much the same, except without many of its finest teachers. And the academic divisions have begun to resurface, but with new names and questionable efficacy. Necessity has a strange face.
Rappaport’s was a voice for academic integrity and faculty responsibility; he was someone who took seriously the meaning and purpose of shared governance. His death was a great loss to his colleagues and to those of us who share his ideals. His life remains a model for us to follow.
Neil Rappaport Lectures
October 13, 2001
"The Undermining of Faculty Governance and the Restructuring of the University"
Joan Wallach Scott, Institute for Advanced Study
(Published as "The Critical State of Shared Governance" in Academe, July-August 2002)
October 19, 2002
"Governing Badly: Theory and Practice of Bad Ideas in College Decision Making"
Michael A. Olivas, William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law, Director, Institute of Higher Education Law and
Governance, University of Houston
October 10, 2003
"Trust, Governance, and the Engaged Intellectual" (.pdf)
William Tierney, Director, Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University of Southern California
November 13, 2010
"From Napoleon to Garcetti: Charting a Future for Shared Governance."
Judith Areen, Paul Regis Dean Professor of Law, Georgetown University
November 12, 2011
"Roundtable Presentation: Preliminary Recommendations of AAUP Subcommittee on Contingent Faculty and Governance." Mayra Besosa (Cal State University), Puri Martinez (East Carolina University), Joe Berry (University of Illinois), Lenore Beaky (LaGuardia Communnity College)