Alumni and the BoT: Months of Turmoil
As per one of the defining rules of the business world, if any corporate management appears clouded by curtailed efforts of accountability and transparency to its stakeholders– simply follow the source stream of its money and one will eventually single out the crude motivation and interests behind its decisions.
In the case of AUBG, two of the major financial contributors to the university – undergraduate students, by means of paying tuition fees, and alumni, by means of giving donations to their Alma Mater, have had, as of late, a somewhat little understanding of the decision-making rationale of the Board of Trustees(BoT). In recent times, both constituencies’ respective payments and subsidies have progressively come at the expense of any fruitful communication with the top executive body at AUBG. The emotional zenith of these last two months has been the creation of two alumni petitions and a letter, giving a vote of no confidence and further calling for the prompt resignation of the BoT Chair Ivan Manev, the Vice Chair Ambassador Elena Poptodorova, the Chair of Trustees Committee Thomas Celli, and the Vice President of Finance and Administration at AUBG Alexander Alexandrov.
AUBG’s top-tier of directors have been the least forthright in the rare occasions of open communication. Until recently, the most invaluable token of good faith between the Board and alumni regarding AUBG’ future has been neither the latter’s demands for immediate action, nor any of the reinstated institutional challenges, recurring administrative issues, the occasional mentions of a trust crisis, restructuring reforms or presidential changes. It has rather been Chair Manev’ efforts to justify the Board’s vision for AUBG with a reassuring, yet consistently diplomatic lingo in his email responses to the alumni’s requests. Given that the only other step towards improved talks with graduates came at an alumni meeting on March 30, going under the spotlight of polemics and hostility, the Board’s attempts at a thorough conversation have continued to be far from applaudable, according to alumni.*
“One area in particular as a Board, that we recognize that we must improve, is our communications with all our constituents,” acknowledged Manev. “This is necessary to develop more constructive partnerships based on mutual respect and trust, to encourage sharing information and insights, in order to ensure open, participatory governance, which is a core value for AUBG.”
What BoT Chair Manev referred to was one of the cornerstone principles of AUBG that has withstood 25 years of student classes, various BoT assemblies, now more than 4000 AUBG alumni, and a sizeable timeline of incoming and outgoing faculty and staff.
“We embrace the values of open, democratic, and participatory governance both within the University and in the broader community,” reads the statement.
“Boards usually oversee the president who is directly empowered to manage the day-to-day affairs of the college,” said Dr. Zornitsa Keremidchieva, Director of Writing at Macalester College and an AUBG alumna. “The board speaking directly to the community would appear to be undermining the authority and responsibilities of the president. … So, as a matter of decorum and respect for his [Acting President Sullivan] managerial authority, but also as a matter of not overstepping their jurisdictional powers, it would be inappropriate for them to breach the channels.”
Then again there has also never been a communal clamor of such magnitude. A considerable flaw to the by-laws policies has been the Board’s inability to refer to any rulebook clause on how to react to alumni petitions, letters, student demonstrations or votes of no confidence. On paper, the catalyst for the backlash from some of the alumni has been the Executive Committee’s decision of March 11 to release from duty former President Kulinski. In reality, it has been “a toxic environment on campus; constantly changing Presidents; dropping enrolment; increasing rates of dissatisfaction among students, faculty, and staff; absence of transparent communication and lack of necessary reform,” according to the latest alumni letter, signed by almost 700 people.
According to a recent AUBG Daily survey on how well-informed alumni are of AUBG matters, more than half of the 84 alumni participants indicated ‘Decisions made by the Board’ and ‘Decisions made by the Leadership team’ as the top two themes for addressing. The questionnaire brought together opinions from an array of graduating classes, indicating that clogged communication channels and decision uninclusinveness have stayed a dormant topic for a considerable period of time, spanning back to the 1990s.
Most of the comments in the survey have indicated the alumni’s goodwill to contribute to student recruitment, fundraising, and Admission Office’s outreach, added to the offered help for seeking alternatives to these university shortcomings. Others have pinpointed the president’s obstructive manners and alumni’s exclusion from the loop of major challenges and changes in AUBG as two of the highest hurdles in the alumni affairs with the BoT.
While the Board’s decision has been to remain relatively quiet in the continuation of the turmoil, the role of Vice President Alexandrov has been quite far from inactive. His unmediated tone in some of his social media responses has presented a conundrum to the AUBG alumni, putting his position of authority under serious questioning.
Fought on his responsibility for the course of AUBG’s financial risks and planning, Alexandrov has gone so far as to call a current student “stupid”, a former AUBG Business professor “a liar”, and Stratsimir Kulinski a “greedy former president who is not telling the truth”. According to third-year student Borkica Ivanova, the girl offended by Alexandrov, the matter was unfairly overlooked by both the Board and Acting President Sullivan.
“To be honest I am more concerned about AUBG’s image and future rather than offended,” commented Ivanova. “However, I am very disappointed and unpleasantly surprised to see a person of a high authority behaving in the way Alexandrov did. This isn’t only unethical from a business perspective, but also a danger to AUBG’s reputation and image. I am also deeply disappointed that the BoT and the president never bothered to respond to my complaint…Only after two weeks and multiple emails send to the president, I received a reply in which he was advising me not to spend so much time on social media.”
Alexandrov has recently proceeded to delete both his personal and his official Facebook profile.
“Students always had the same problem[alleged break in trust between Kulinski and Alexandrov] with Alexandrov as well,” said Shamil Mustafaev, class of 2014 and a former Student Government treasurer. “I remember once the student representative to Board of Trustees complained in a BoT meeting about Mr. Alexandrov’s attitude towards students, and the BoT has given Mr. Alexandrov a warning. After this warning, Mr. Alexandrov approached us many times and was willing to discuss anything we want. But it did not seem sincere, unfortunately. Student body had lost the trust in him for a very long time.”
Despite Chair Manev’s assurance that the $25 million endowment fund, AUBG’s positive operating surplus for the last 12 years, and the yearly and by-yearly scholarship donations from the America for Bulgaria Foundation donations have all laid solid groundwork for AUBG’s purported stable financial position, tuition fees have still experienced more than a handful of increases in that 12-year margin. Vice President Alexandrov has been part of the proposal process and the financial data analysis in most of these tuition increases.
Stilian Jelev, another AUBG alumnus, Class of 2013, recognized the president-vice president dissensus relationship as the link break that has opened the floodgate for alumni’s discord.
“The way corporate America works is that the top c-suite level [CEO, CFO, CIO, COO, CTO] should work as a coherent team,” explained Jelev. “And because a CEO only has a life expectancy of less than five years, so do the other positions. It is vital to understand that each position has different leadership and management styles, and there are different types of CFO’s that do different things depending on the overall aim of the company and the CEO. Because of that, I would have to say that Alexandrov is grossly in-adept in what he is doing, and the result is that the presidents are leaving, knowing that problems can’t be resolved.”
Jelev additionally reasoned AUBG’s setbacks with the tone of the administrative process.
“It is obvious to see that the reason for the non-existent changes, are based on pushback from the bloated administration, and the CFO as well,” said Jelev. “The difference in opinions between Alexandrov, with his experience of being a ‘grey cardinal’, and the work experience of President Kulinski, an MBA graduate with 20 years of experience in corporate America, was obvious to every constituency. Because of that, Alexandrov should have left with the start of President Kulinski’s term.”
“There is power at play here and no one would want to imagine themselves targeted the way an alum like Alexandrov was,” commented Keremidchieva.
Alexander Acosta Osorio, the only Colombian AUBG alumnus, shared his faith that AUBG and the Board will find the path to excel again.
“I hope the BoT can get it together and find a viable blueprint of action plan to implement,” said Osorio. “Sullivan will keep the ball rolling(he loves baseball), but maybe he needs also some notes to play the music.”
While the university executives have consistently preached loyalty and inclusiveness to the AUBG constituencies, the emotional toll on the alumni has been greater than that of their donations to date.
Lately, the claims for an AUBG all-wide protest seem like a far-off idea, given that the last massive protest occurred back in 2012 over the increase in the student meal plan fees. But considering some alumni, students, and faculty’s penned and vocal discord of the Board’s rather unjustified and unconsulted decision-making, demonstrations similar to the one of 2012 and that of 2007 might come closer to the ears, eyes and minds of the core AUBG constituencies.
*N.B. Issues of privacy and legal protections are likely to have been imposed to protect the institution as well as Stratsimir Kulinski, thus constraining both the BoT and the former president from making a more thorough statement to the two petitions and letter sent from AUBG alumni to BoT Chair Ivan Manev.