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Invisible Review at Oberlin

June 14, 2006

When Oberlin College brought in a respected consultant this spring to conduct an intense review of the performance of President Nancy Dye, many on the campus were pleased. They believed that someone was listening to their views -- positive and negative -- about the president, and that the confidentiality they had been promised let them speak freely.

The professors and students who provided information for the review also assumed that the findings would eventually reach the Board of Trustees -- the body charged with hiring and evaluating presidents. So did many of the trustees. But it turns out that no report was written, and that the consultant presented his findings -- verbally -- to only five trustees who were on an ad hoc committee to evaluate the president. (The board has about 30 members and while a majority are believed to be loyal to Dye, there are also some critics on the larger body.)

Peter Kirsch, a Denver lawyer and Oberlin trustee who is not on the small committee, said the board felt "considerable pressure" to conduct a thorough review of Dye, and that trustees had been told "explicitly" that they would all learn the results of the review. Kirsch said that there is "some controversy" on the board over how much information should be shared with all of the trustees. He declined to elaborate.

Sources familiar with the board's discussions said that at a meeting last weekend, multiple trustees objected that they had not seen the results of the review, which many assume had criticisms of Dye. These sources described a "splintered board," in the words of one -- with lots of speculation about what the consultant found.

Eleven faculty leaders -- department chairs and program directors among them -- got wind that the evaluation had not been discussed by the full board and recently wrote to the trustees to urge them all to review the findings. The letter said that they had been impressed with the questions asked by the consultant -- Robert H. Atwell, former president of the American Council on Education -- and that the failure of the full board to hear from Atwell was creating a "serious crisis of confidence."

Dye has been president since 1994, and during much of her tenure, she has grappled with the kinds of financial challenges facing many liberal arts colleges. An undercurrent of the debate over evaluating Dye is that many faculty members and some trustees aren't happy with her. There does not appear to be one flashpoint, but rather an accumulation of frustration, much of it over feelings that Dye does not respect professors' views. Many professors -- even tenured senior professors -- report that they are afraid of Dye and did not want to talk on the record.

One professor who signed the letter to the board -- and who asked not to be identified -- said "I would say that Nancy has over the past few years alienated quite a few important faculty and that in particular she has a disregard for process whenever it doesn't produce the results she wants."

"You can spend hundreds of hours working on something and then it gets overturned in a minute," said the professor. He also said that the board had made "a series of extraordinarily bad decisions in the last five years."

Over the last year, Oberlin has been working to carry out a new strategic plan, which involves some shrinkage both of enrollment and faculty lines. Oberlin is well known for its liberal arts programs (which send an unusually large percentage of alumni to careers in academe) and its world famous conservatory of music. But as a college where the alumni are better known for their creativity than for their deep pockets, finances have been difficult -- and deficits have been a constant concern in recent years.

Faculty members say that they understand the need to make difficult choices, but that Dye ignores their views. And many say that's a serious problem at a place like Oberlin, where there is considerable pride in shared governance. As a result, Atwell's inquiries were particularly welcome -- and the lack of board discussion was particularly frustrating, professors say. (Atwell declined to comment for this article, stating that his contract with Oberlin required confidentiality.)

Alan Moran, vice president for college relations, said it was untrue to say that the Atwell findings had been squelched. Trustee deliberations are private so he was not present at the meetings, but based on what trustee leaders told him, he said that it was correct that Atwell briefed only the five members of the ad hoc committee. But Moran said that those trustees did their own review of Dye and then presented their fellow trustees with a blended report based on information from Atwell and their own findings.

The only written material, Moran said, was a list from Atwell of all of the people he spoke to.

At the end of the review process, Moran said, the board affirmed its "full support" of Dye.

That there are critics of Dye shouldn't come as a surprise, Moran said. "We have a wonderful faculty -- a wonderful, talented faculty and a wonderful, talented staff. But we could have had Gandhi or Mother Teresa as president, and we still would have had a group of people who would have expressed dissatisfaction," he said. "On any campus, there will be people who are not satisfied."

 

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