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Furor Over Dismissals

February 27, 2007

The sudden termination of a veteran counseling center director at the University of North Carolina’s Asheville campus has inspired an outpouring of student and faculty support for her and crystallized concerns that long-time employees have been consistently pushed down or out by a new administration -- concerns, the chancellor says, that the statistics don’t support.

“That’s definitely the feeling on campus, that a lot of long-time folks have been fired or forced to retire or moved. My situation was more visible to students.... I’ve been the accidental catalyst for people to start looking at that and say they want to be more involved with decisions,” says Maggie Weshner, a 29-year employee who wraps up on-campus counseling duties Friday after receiving notice January 24 that her position was being eliminated due to “restructuring” -- a merger of the health services and counseling centers. 

“The people being terminated, we measure their service in terms of decades; some of the people doing the terminating, we measure their service in terms of how many months they’ve been here,” says Gary Nallan, an associate professor of psychology and chair of the Faculty Senate. The representative body this month passed two resolutions, one calling for Weshner to be reinstated through the end of the semester, in part to minimize disruption to the students under her care, and another expressing alarm and concern about "the recent involuntary departure of long-time employees.” The Faculty Senate is also set to discuss the revival of a lapsed planning council that would offer greater faculty input into such structural decisions, and the Senate’s executive committee will meet with the chancellor to talk about the topic this morning.

“It seems to me,” says Nallan -- who estimated that about 28 long-serving professional staff, most with 20 years or more at UNC Asheville, have been terminated or pressured to retire since the chancellor’s arrival in October 2005 -- “that the faculty is more upset than I’ve ever seen it.”

Chancellor Anne Ponder says that while she’s heard the complaints, the statistics show that staff retention since her arrival is historically consistent with rates during transitional periods after the arrival of new chancellors at Asheville. According to data compiled by the director of institutional research, Archer Gravely, 85.8 percent of full-time staff have been retained in the three semesters since Ponder arrived, which is just below the mean 87.3 percent staff retention rate recorded by the four most recent chancellors in their first three semesters.

The 91.8 percent retention of staff with 10 years or more of service during Ponder's tenure is lower than that of two previous chancellors, who had rates of 100 and 95.7 percent, respectively, but higher than that of the immediate past chancellor, James H. Mullen Jr., who oversaw an 89.4 percent retention of full-time staff with 10 years or more of service during his first three semesters at Asheville.

“The amount of transition at this particular time is right in the middle, right on average,” says Ponder, who adds that the changes have mainly been concentrated at the senior level, where half of the positions were vacant or filled on an interim basis upon her arrival, and student affairs, which was split from the academic affairs division to become its own unit just last summer. “Very few people in that whole area [student affairs] have a job that is identical to the job they had two or three years ago. It is a division-wide change focused on the benefit and well-being of this generation of college and university students," she says.

That’s little consolation to the students who led 150 people on a walkout to protest Weshner’s termination last week. “One issue was, of course, the students who were seeing Maggie having to terminate with her so abruptly; the second was that we weren’t able to get any answers, any straight answers, anyway, from our administration," says Nikki Espie, a senior who has been active in the effort to seek Weshner’s reinstatement. "Then it became an issue of, ‘Why aren’t there any checks and balances?’ That seemed to be overarching, not just checks and balances with respect to what happened with Maggie but in regards to other changes happening on campus.”

“Change is inevitable,” says William A. Sabo, a professor of political science and a Faculty Senate member. Yet, he says, “decisions -- reorganization decisions and personnel decisions -- have to be articulated in the context of an overarching vision or plan. Much of my personal frustration is that’s not really what’s happening. The real challenge that the faculty and administration face here is to learn how to talk to each other."

He continues: “It’s too easy to see this as a battle or a confrontation between faculty and administration. And that’s not what people want it to be. It’s an attempt to get new administrators to understand our culture and our traditions and our values” – including, Sabo says, a focus on open communication, shared responsibility for the well-being of all employees and equity.

Ponder says that while the university is in the midst of a strategic planning process that she has often spoken of publicly, the administration could have done a better job of communicating its rationale about the merger of the health and counseling centers.

“It is very clear to us that this generation of students has and brings to college issues that transcend the merely emotional or physical, that ... their whole well-being is going to be better treated, better addressed, if there is a seamless conjoining of our counseling and health services," she says.

John Noor, the student body president and as such, a voting trustee, concurs that the changes are based on a well-defined plan that he’s been privy to, and agrees with -- but that, by and large, it has not been shared nearly so broadly as it should have been. “The common theme that’s come back is that restructuring needs to happen, changes need to occur; right now you have to walk into the center and students will have to wait two to three weeks for an appointment," he says.

“It’s very hard when you have someone who has put in the time, like Ms. Weshner has, serving the university for 29 years, to say, ‘We’re heading in a different direction and we’re doing that without you.’ But I don’t think the number of years served entitles you to a career for the rest of your life," says Noor.

Weshner, meanwhile, plans to continue seeing 10 of her clients on a pro bono basis in space donated by local therapists for the remainder of the semester to avoid severing relationships with students who could not be easily transferred to another therapist. She'll stay on the payroll for the next 90 days through a severance package and then has nine months of accumulated leave that will take her up through December, when she’ll be eligible for retirement -- unplanned though it was.

 

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