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Leaders Under Siege at Ohio U.

May 31, 2007

By now, after months of hearing extended criticism of his presidency at Ohio University, Roderick J. McDavis can't be surprised to see yet another campus poll showing dissatisfaction with his job performance.

The vote, organized by the university's American Association of University Professors chapter and released on Wednesday, revealed that a vast majority of those surveyed say the McDavis administration -- which began in 2004 -- is taking the university in the wrong direction. A year ago, the group organized a similar campaign, which resulted in a similar vote of no confidence.

In between those votes, many more have voiced concerns that Ohio's top administrators are making fiscally irresponsible decisions, not involving faculty and students in key discussions and responding inadequately to situations that they say place the university in a bad light.

A group of senior faculty members have presented the Board of Trustees with a draft letter that laments a "serious and accelerating decline" in the university's reputation and ability to recruit students, and calls for sweeping changes.

Earlier this month, nearly 80 percent of the 4,600 students who voted in a Student Senate election (roughly 23 percent of the entire student body) said they, too, lacked confidence in McDavis. And last week, the outgoing Faculty Senate executive committee presented to the board's executive committee results of its own survey of faculty that showed concern about the university's direction.

The sum of the votes is still unclear. Some take them as sufficient evidence that the campus wants to see a change in operation, if not leadership. Still others say the referendums are part of a smear campaign that runs counter to how a university should evaluate its top officials.

Throughout the controversy, McDavis has remained mostly silent. When he has commented, it has typically been to criticize the AAUP and student votes as representing only a small sample of the eligible populations. (Both AAUP votes, the university notes, are unofficial and received responses from less than half of the faculty. Critics of the administration say that the 567 responses this year are more than double what the Faculty Senate received.)

Sally Linder, a university spokeswoman, said that once trustees use the Faculty Senate data to help complete their full evaluation of the administration this summer, McDavis would be likely to make public comments. She said unlike the other survey data, the board's results will be a product of a "well-designed and well-vetted process."

In the meantime, McDavis has announced plans to turn over the day-to-day leadership of the university to Kathy Krendl, the provost, who has assumed the title of executive vice president and provost. The president has said that the reorganization had been in the works for some time and that the shift will allow him to spend more time fund raising. But critics, like Kevin Mattson, a professor of history who heads Ohio's AAUP chapter, called the moves "ornamental changes" in reaction to public criticism.

Mattson said his group wanted to organize a vote that allowed faculty to put all of their concerns on the table. (Since the efforts are unofficial, and the Faculty Senate had no part in the process, no university resources could be used.)

"Our sense was that faculty evaluate deans and faculty are evaluated in classes, but that's where it stops -- they are never asked to evaluate the president and provost," he said.

Trustees have remained supportive of McDavis and Krendl, which also has angered some faculty and students.

“There's so much distrust about trustees -- especially a sense that they don't care about student votes by backing the leadership before the vote was in," Mattson said. "It seems they have dug in their heels."

In this year's AAUP-sponsored vote, 77 percent of those who responded said they lacked confidence in McDavis and 67 percent said they lack confidence in Krendl. Both of those numbers rose slightly from last year. The reports both indicated that faculty are fed up with the leadership style of the administration, which Mattson described as "corporate." The criticism of management style has come up in several places, including the letter delivered to trustees by senior faculty.

Richard Vedder, a professor of economics who helped author the letter, said that it had yet to be finalized and signed by faculty before it was leaked to the news media. The letter argues that the McDavis administration has presided over a drop in reputation, including:

  • Declining graduation rates and slowing application rates.
  • A drop in the quality of students, as measured by test scores and other indicators.
  • Poor budget management and decisions.
  • Not concentrating on strengthening academics in the greater plan for the university.
  • An improper handling of public relations crises, including a plagiarism scandal, theft of computer data and the arrests of more than a dozen football players and the head coach.

Supporters of McDavis have pointed out that the university faced a financial crisis and deep budget cuts due to state funding decreases before the president's arrival. The letter recognizes that some problems began prior to McDavis's tenure as president, but that "the record since 2004 has been more of regression, not improvement." It also says that "we like [McDavis] personally, which makes this letter ... harder to write."

Phyllis Bernt, outgoing chair of the Faculty Senate and a professor of information and telecommunications, said that while many faculty who took part in the executive board's survey applauded the president and provost for their efforts to reduce student drinking and increase diversity, the comments "tended to be negative."

The 259 faculty who responded to the Web survey (about 22 percent of all faculty) said they are concerned about adequate funding for academics and the university's image beyond the campus. Bernt said that Krendl fared somewhat better than McDavis in the survey but was faulted for lack of coherent planning.

Maggie O’Toole, president of the group Students for Effective and Accountable Leadership, which put the student vote on the general ballot in this spring's student elections, said the votes are a sign that faculty and student leaders have "tapped into anger that a lot of people were feeling" -- particularly as it relates to what that vote measured, shared governance.

"Both students and faculty have gripes about how decisions here get made without much public discussion," she said. "How can the board retain confidence in the leadership with all these votes coming in?"

Easy, says Jessie Roberson, an associate professor of business law. The trustees alone have the job of evaluating the president.

"The whole process is absurd," Roberson said. "You have 20,000 people who don't know what this man is charged with doing assessing his performance. They don't know what they are supposed to consider, so it turns out to be nothing more than just an opinion poll."

In particular, Roberson is critical of the senior faculty, who he says have further damaged the university's reputation by creating an alternate evaluation to the official faculty voice, the Senate survey. He said nothing is remarkable about the situation at Ohio: a small decline in applicants, a cut in the budget during tough financial times, a president ceding day-to-day control, and faculty and students saying they want more influence in decisions.

Roberson added that criticism about dropping graduation rates is unfair, because McDavis's three-year tenure isn't enough to measure a full sample. "[McDavis] never had the opportunity to put his own stamp on this place," he said.

Roberson, who is president of the Caucus of Educators and Staff of African Descent, sent a letter to trustees criticizing the senior faculty's efforts. While the note focused mostly on the group's assertion that student quality hasn't declined and that financial problems preceded the president, a footnote made the most waves.

"Apparently, having an African-American as President of Ohio University and a woman as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs is more than some members of our academic community can tolerate," the letter says.

Roberson said that while the racial component might be the subtext, "to not consider the possibilities that who and what [McDavis] is has played a role is naïve."

Both Mattson and O'Toole said that competence, not race, is the motivating factor in the groups' efforts.

 

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