Wednesday, May 22, 2013

No-Confidence Votes: What's the Point?

I have blogged before about the popularity of no-confidence votes as symbols of opposition to university administrations or, more frequently, particular university presidents. A recent Chronicle story catalogs the latest in a rash of these this past year:
College’s Board Stands by President After 3 Groups Vote No Confidence in Him
The college in question, Cayuga Community College, is clearly in significant financial difficulty - a condition not unusual these days. Unlike in the private business world, community colleges are genuine non-profits - they don't have money squirreled away offshore or in shell companies and they can't play Enron-style hide-the-cash games. If they're broke, they're broke. Something, clearly, must be done, and whatever it is will likely be painful to somebody.

I understand that there are likely to be disagreements about what to do, and that the various constituencies represented by the three unions here may not like the president's proposals. They may even be right - for all I know, the proposals he's made may be horrible ideas. Nobody but people close to the case are in a position to judge.

But in this kind of a context, what is the point of a no-confidence vote? It is useless for signaling disagreement - the negotiations themselves have already done that. Sending a signal that says "I don't like you" is pointless - you just personalize and emotionalize the negotiation context, gaining nothing and making the other side more likely to resist even your most reasonable proposals. It's clear that the Board supports the president anyway, which is sufficient to keep him in his job in perpetuity - so you can't hope to oust him from power. I can't think of a single tactical goal or advantage served by a no-confidence vote in this case.

So why do groups do this? I think it's most likely a combination of emotional satisfaction (We stuck it to the man!) and grandstanding for the domestic constituents. The real audience here isn't the president or the Board - it's the union members, who can feel good that their leaders are "doing all they can" in their "fight" with the administration.

The analogy, of course, is misplaced. This isn't a fight - it's a disagreement over a budget. The more you think of a conflict like this as a "fight", the more existential it becomes and the less likely compromise is. And in the end, the only hope these groups have is compromise. Apparently, they would rather feel good among themselves than get the best outcome they can - which is a shame.

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