Harris-Stowe State University is looking for a new president, and its professors are working under a new contract that was imposed on them by the school's governing board. The labor issues are just one indication that Harris-Stowe faces many long-simmering problems that raise questions about the institution's future.
To outsiders, the atmosphere on the venerable midtown campus was calm. But long-simmering disputes between the faculty and top officials were about to go public.
Professors were unhappy about what they considered to be the administration’s failure to take into account their views about how the university should be run. And they weren’t too crazy about their pay, either.
Change was coming at the top. The university was entering the final stages of its effort to recruit a new president, replacing a man who some critics said had stayed too long and was too autocratic. But until the new chief executive arrived, faculty members remained wary.
The scenario may sound like the drama that has played out in recent months at Saint Louis University. This story, though, is about its neighbor to the east, Harris-Stowe State University. There, the board of regents recently voted to impose a contract that professors say undermines the concepts of shared governance and academic freedom that should be hallmarks of higher education.
The move by the regents came after faculty members had voted to form the first organized labor unit among public colleges and universities in Missouri. Harris-Stowe officials noted a long list of items the two sides had agreed upon, but last month, after negotiations stalled, the regents voted to approve unilaterally a new contract that includes the first pay raise in seven years and new rules controlling how professors spend their time.
In a memo to the campus community, interim President Constance Gully called the contract “a fair and equitable one, but also one that addresses the needs of our students and faculty while being responsible with our resources.”
But disgruntled professors say such an attitude is typical of an administration that dictates policy from the top and has created an atmosphere of stress and fear on campus. Such an approach, says Brian Elsesser, an assistant professor of history, ultimately hurts the very students the university is designed to serve.
“If you want to create a true intellectual community,” he said in an interview, “you have to empower the faculty. The two most important components of a university are the students and the faculty. Everybody understands that. Yet here, the resources are not going to either of those groups.”
The university’s niche
Precursors to Harris-Stowe have been around since 1857. A series of mergers and name changes resulted in the school becoming a university in 2005, part of Missouri’s system of public higher education. (Click here to read a brief history of Harris-Stowe.)
In addition to its original offerings that trained teachers to work in the St. Louis public schools, it now offers degrees in areas such as accounting, biology, business administration, criminal justice and health-care management.
Until recently, its news releases included the claim that Harris-Stowe is “ranked by U.S. News as one of America’s Best Colleges in the Midwest.”
But a check of the magazine’s recent ratings showed that not to be the case; instead, the university received a designation of RNP, or Rank Not Published, which the magazine said means it had scored below the cutoff point, or the top three-fourths of each ranking category, and its score would not be published.
When the discrepancy was pointed out to the university by St. Louis Public Radio, it said that the claim would be replaced in future releases with a statement that “in 2013, HSSU ranked no. 1 in the state in degree production of African-Americans in mathematics.”
Where Harris-Stowe ranks nationally is one question; where it fits into the state’s overall higher education system is another. Officials with the school and the state say any questions about how well the school is serving students need to be studied in that context.
Rusty Monhollon, Missouri’s assistant commissioner for academic affairs in the Department of Higher Education, notes that each public institution in the state has a specific niche to fill. In the case of Harris-Stowe, he said, the mission is not only historic, given its legacy in serving the African-American community, but also one of its focus on the St. Louis community.
Noting that 97 percent of its students are in-state residents, Monhollon pointed out that Harris-Stowe also has by far the highest African-American enrollment by percentage in the state, at 84 percent. Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri’s other school designated a historically black college or university, has about the same number of black students, but they made up only 41 percent of its enrollment as of the fall of 2011.
As an open enrollment institution, Harris-Stowe accepts many students who might not be able to get a diploma elsewhere because of glaring gaps in their academic background. As a result, the university’s graduation rate is low – 9.5 percent within six years– and the number of students who have to take remedial classes when they arrive on campus before starting to earn college credit is high at 85 percent.
Monhollon acknowledged that the graduation rate is a concern, but he understands the circumstances that surround it.
“Harris-Stowe is taking students who have some real challenges,” he said, “and part of that is helping them get through an academic program. By comparison, I don’t think we know for sure that at a university in the state that has higher selectivity, are they doing a better job if they have a graduation rate of 50 to 60 percent? The preparation of their students is better in the first place.
“Would I want to see the graduation rate to be higher? Absolutely. But Harris-Stowe is reaching out to students who I am not sure would be able to get that help if it wasn’t there. It is making a difference in people’s lives. Education is an incredibly powerful tool for improving people’s lives. I would like to see all our institutions help more, but I haven’t seen enough evidence at the moment to say that Harris-Stowe is not helping enough students for the work they are doing and the money we are providing.”
As far as remedial classes go, Monhollon said that “if those students were prepared, that money could be used for instruction in credit-bearing courses. But it’s also part of the overall education system. Are students getting the preparation they need before they graduate from high school? If they aren’t, what do we do? Just turn our back on them and say you can’t go any further, this is your lot in life? Or do we provide them opportunities so they can achieve success?
“I see this as something Harris-Stowe does that is very important to St. Louis and the entire state. What’s the cost of not doing anything, not letting students in to improve their skills and their knowledge? That is going to create more costs for us down the road.”
Help when you need it
In separate interviews, Gully, the interim president, and Thelma Cook, who heads the Harris-Stowe board of regents, expressed similar views. Gully stressed what the university can give students that they can’t get anywhere else.
“I think one of the things we provide is a four-year institution that is the most competitively priced bachelor’s degree program in the entire state,” she said. “I think we give the best value for that cost. Customers can come in and have a customer experience very similar to a very expensive liberal arts experience.
“We all have unique missions and are partners in delivering higher education in the state and in the region. I think for Harris-Stowe, we serve a high amount of underresourced, low-income, first-generation students. We provide them a very high-quality liberal arts classroom experience.”
She notes that Harris-Stowe has revised its tuition structure so that students can take 16 credit hours at the same price as 12 hours, essentially an extra course for no extra cost.
“What we’ve done is try to remove a financial barrier so students can graduate as soon as possible,” she said.
And those courses are in a small setting, where students can get to know their professors and vice versa.
“Even in the seven or eight months that I’ve been interim president,” Gully said, “I have taken the time to sit in on 95 percent of the freshman courses. I don’t think that in the four years I matriculated as an undergraduate, I ever saw a president inside a classroom. That’s what we provide at Harris-Stowe that students may not have in other places.”
Freshman Ruslan Salehmohamad appreciates that kind of personal attention. A graduate of Carnahan High School in the city, he started at Harris-Stowe in July of last year after trying out classes at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, St. Louis Community College at Forest Park and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“I have a lot of friends that go here,” he said of Harris-Stowe, where he is studying health-care management. “Some of the teachers I was close with when I was in high school, they told me a lot about their experience here. Some of the graduates from here caught my attention, and this is why I wanted to come.”
What he likes most, Salehmohamad said, is the personal attention he can get when he may not understand the coursework the first time around.
“At this university,” he said, “they have steps to help you. There’s a lot of places that you can go and get help at. There’s a whole library where you can go and full attention for your work and a quiet places. Dorms have a computer center, and there’s a computer lab in the main building.
“Everywhere you go, there’s help. You’ve just got to make sure that you go to the right places and you’re staying on top of your work.”
Salehmohamad, 21, expects to be able to graduate in four years, a feat that few Harris-Stowe students accomplish. Gully acknowledges that the school’s graduation rate is low, but she also says that figure has to be seen in the proper context.
“That number only includes first-time, full-time freshmen,” she said. “Our student population is transient, so some of the students who do graduate and come from Harris-Stowe are not counted. Many of the kids that we serve transfer and graduate from other institutions.”
Cook said that the school’s open enrollment status also means that it is serving a student population with different challenges than those at more selective institutions.
“We have a large number of our students needing enrichment courses when they come, to catch up,” Cook said. “If you are spending money on these courses, you are preparing students to be successful. Our final goal is to make them self-sufficient and productive citizens.”
And, she added, the school’s status as a historically black institution is important as well.
“I think the university is proud to have that designation,” she said. “It means that the university is recognized by the educational community. Many of the students who come to a historically black institution may need nurturing, to feel secure there, to learn a lot about lifestyle and effective communication.
“It is a designation that has been meaningful in the history of the United States and continues to be meaningful and valued.”
Gully did not have much to say about whether she is seeking to remove the interim status from her job and become president of the university. “I am having a good time,” she said. “As far as having a permanent opportunity, that’s up to the search committee.”
Asked to comment on the recent contract impasse with the faculty, Gully said only that Harris-Stowe had negotiated in good faith, with its primary objective to provide the best possible service for its students.
In a letter addressed to “valued faculty” that was issued on Feb. 25, the day that regents voted to approve a two-year contract that includes a 2 percent raise the first year and a 1 percent raise the second year, she reiterated that view.
Her letter said that “we are pleased with the results of the collective bargaining process with the HSSU-NEA, and are confident that the resulting agreement is in the best interest of students and faculty, while being responsible with all our resources.”
‘A kingdom of fear’
But Elsesser, the history professor active in the formation of the faculty union, says that far from being in professors’ best interest, the contract and the negotiations that led up to it reveal an attitude toward professors that shows the administration’s true feelings.
“They never really assumed we’re equals,” he said in an interview. “When you’re negotiating, you should be respectful of the other party. They were never like that.”
Much of the faculty’s unhappiness centers on provisions that cap sick leave and institute a new policy mandating a certain amount of hours of contact between professors and students – what the union has deemed “tag and track.”
After seven years without a raise, professors are glad they are getting an increase, but they say that the administration’s response to the move to join the NEA has created an unhealthy atmosphere.
“Since we’ve unionized,” Elsesser said, “there have been a lot of threats of dismissal. There has been a heavy-handed supervisor culture, which leaves us all operating in a kingdom of fear.
“If you understand what fear is, it is the most anti-intellectual force in the universe. It stifles creativity. It stifles thinking outside the box. And if you want to create a vibrant academic culture, you have to get rid of the threats. You have to create an environment where professors feel safe and secure to do deep thoughts.”
Beverly Brennan, who directs the university’s speech and theater program, traces problems back to the long tenure of Henry Givens Jr. as president and the circumstances he inherited when he arrived at the school.
“Dr. Givens came to Harris-Stowe at a point where Harris-Stowe was in trouble,” she said. “His story is that they brought him in to close it down. It was on the verge of closing. When Dr. Givens came, this school was probably in need of an autocratic leader. They didn’t have the luxury of conferring with everybody and trying to have a strong senate or any of those things. And so Dr. Givens does deserve credit for turning things around and saving this place.
“The only problem is that as time went on, power was never really shared. People were appointed, committees were formed. We would send forward suggestions, and the administration would do whatever they chose to do. Dr. Givens was here a long, long time. He dedicated himself. But when he left, what he left behind was not really the structure of a university.”
One improvement the school could definitely use, Elsesser said, is more programs and more professors, teachers he said Harris-Stowe could attract at a price that would benefit the school and its students.
“The market is great,” he said. “We could et some very credentialed professors right now. But they have chosen not to spend in the academic areas. We are top-heavy with administrators.”
As far as the school’s history as a historically black institution, Elsesser says that designation doesn’t really resonate with students.
“We’re a white college and a black college that merged,” he said. “What Henry Givens did is kind of recreate us as a black university, and that is what we’re sticking with.
“Today’s students don’t care about racial identity. It’s not a chief determinant of where they go, but that is how we are being marketed. We need to be marketed as an affordable university that can get new degrees.”
Brennan characterized the relationship between administrators and faculty this way:
“Their intentions are good. The problem at the end of the day is that they’re control freaks. Control freaks might work very, very hard, but they don’t work smart, because they don’t have the open-mindedness or the comfort level to include others, or to delegate….
“I think we’re with people who care about the students and have some good ideas, but it’s just not a culture where that goes on.”
Elsesser said that Gully’s background in business doesn’t include the attention to pedagogy that a university president should have.
“She’s a numbers person,” he said, “and the numbers at Harris-Stowe really aren’t working out too well.”
And, he added, with new contract restrictions on how much the school’s professors can moonlight at other institutions, the academic atmosphere on campus suffers.
“When you’re paid low,” he said, “and threatened with dismissal for any kind of thinking outside the box, for speaking out, you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket. And that’s what a lot of the faculty deal with. We cannot put all of our eggs in the Harris-Stowe basket. We’re not paid enough, and we’re left feeling insecure. Even tenured professors fear for their jobs at Harris-Stowe.”
Thirty years ago, a proposal was made to merge Harris-Stowe and UMSL as an independent institution. It was quickly dropped, but recent conversation about Harris-Stowe has included renewed speculation about possible combinations with other institutions.
Brennan doesn’t favor such a move, but she thinks it could happen in the years ahead.
“At the end of the day, do I want this institution to be absorbed or disappear?” she asked. “Definitely not. I think that we are unique, and if we would be who we were, and the best of who we are, we fill a need. We have open enrollment. We have students coming out of public school systems, and those systems have let these students down. These students are smart. Some of them are motivated. They deserve to have a bachelor’s degree, and beyond.
“In 2020, I don’t think we’ll be limping along as we have been, and as we are right now. We’ll either be closed, part of UMSL, bought by SLU or, hopefully, we will have some new leadership, visionary leadership, people who believe in shared governance, people who communicate with their faculty and their students, and take us seriously. At that point, I think that things could be much, much better – enrollment, the graduation rate, everything.”
Elsesser put it this way:
“This university could be great. Its location is awesome. Its proximity to the Grand arts district is something that we really could develop and cultivate. We are very affordable. We still have a strong faculty. There are a lot of potentials here. But it’s not happening for some reason. We’re really repressed.”