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The Confidence Business

April 18, 2006

Surprise and disappointment have loomed over President Khosrow Fatemi’s office at Eastern Oregon University since Wednesday, when faculty members and other university officials greeted him with an overwhelming vote of no confidence. 

In a move that Fatemi says was “unbelievable,” members of the university’s General Assembly voted 139-38 to ask state officials to perform an “extraordinary review” of him regarding his spending and budget planning. In a letter circulated among faculty members last week, critics charged that the president chose to hire 19 new administrators, “which we cannot afford.”  Assembly members said that they estimated the costs to exceed $1.5 million.

They also argued that the president spent $250,000 on an administrative reorganization, which they said amounted to “enough money to hire several new faculty or to fund a 5 percent across the board salary increase for the entire teaching faculty of the university.”

“A president who spends a great deal of money on a new administration shows he’s not concerned about our university,” said Greg Monahan, a history professor and president of the union representing Eastern faculty and librarians. “He’s spent down our reserves.”

According to administrators, the university this year will spend $1.6 million more than it will receive in revenue, and next year the deficit is anticipated to be $600,000 to $700,000. Its reserves are in turn expected to drop from 13 percent of revenue, as of a year ago, to just over 4 percent by the end of the next school year.

George Pernsteiner, chancellor of the state system, has told local press outlets that he takes the concerns of the General Assembly seriously.

On Monday, facing growing concerns about his effectiveness at leading the university, Fatemi spent over an hour in an interview responding to the charges.  

“I believe the General Assembly made their decision based on inaccurate information,” said the president. Of the 19 positions cited in the letter, Fatemi says 2 of them are secretarial and several are fund-raising positions to help strengthen the university’s financial outlook. He says that the actual cost of the salaries and benefits for these positions is about $840,000, significantly less than the number circulated in the letter.

Fatemi acknowledged that the revenues will drop to close to 4 percent by the end of the next school year, but he anticipates that they will be back up near 10 percent by 2009 under his budget, recruiting and enrollment planning efforts.

The president, who came to the United States from Iran decades ago, has built a strong reputation for being a savvy business scholar, which, some say, has made the backlash against his financial wisdom all the more surprising. He came to the university in May 2004 after serving as the dean of San Diego State University at Imperial Valley. From 1990-8, he was dean of the College of Business Administration and the Graduate School of International Trade and Business Administration at Texas A&M International University.

“There was no witch-hunt,” said Monahan. “We’re simply concerned about the university’s future.” He added that many faculty members have been surprised that Fatemi has been so liberal with his administrative spending.  “We thought as a business expert, he might be too conservative,” he said. 

Fatemi wanted to make clear that he is not an opulent leader. “The only artwork in my office is one vase with dried flowers in it that was a gift,” he said. “I get on my hands and knees to use a screwdriver to get the heater to turn on and off in my office.”

 

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