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Suit of Armor

May 29, 2009

Faculty who speak critically of their presidents can expect some tension, but they seldom take out liability insurance before doing so. At Gustavus Adolphus College, however, that’s exactly what some professors have done.

It’s only been about 10 months since Jack Ohle was named president of the small liberal arts college in Saint Peter, Minn., and a growing group of Gustavus faculty are already jittery about the president’s style and his plans. While it is hard to pinpoint a specific policy disagreement, the departure of several high ranking officials has unsettled many, and professors say their views are seldom seriously considered. Amid growing discontent, faculty have formed a committee that seeks to review the president’s performance, but the committee has been put on notice that its work may put all those who participate in legal jeopardy.

Responding to the formation of the faculty’s presidential review committee in an April 29 letter, the chairman of Gustavus’ board of trustees was quick to raise the specter of lawsuits, while also making clear that such reviews were the responsibility of the board – not the faculty.

“No authority for these matters has been delegated to the Faculty Senate,” wrote James Gale, the board’s chairman and a lawyer. “Therefore, to the extent that the Panel’s work might touch on these matters, those connected with that work should understand that they will be personally liable for any legal claims that might arise out of the Panel’s work, including those for invasion of privacy and defamation. The college will not be liable. Nor will it be obligated to provide legal assistance to any who might be. On the advice of the college’s outside counsel, we therefore urge great caution by the panel as it conducts its work. We advise those who may be interviewed to exercise similar caution.”

While not a place that’s been particularly prone to infighting, Gustavus Adolphus has seen a wind of controversy since Provost Mary E. Morton resigned in March, citing a change in the scope of her duties under Ohle. That resignation was followed by the resignations of two academic deans, who sent a joint letter to the Faculty Senate complaining of a “lack of presidential support.”

Faculty have responded to the resignations with two resolutions, which passed by near unanimous margins, pressing the board to review Ohle’s performance and urging members to investigate the circumstances of the provost’s departure. The board has maintained that any presidential review would happen on its own timetable, and called a review of the provost’s decision “neither productive nor in the best interests of the college.”

In the absence of a board review, faculty have begun their own independent review, the results of which they say will be passed along to the board. The formation of that committee has led to some tense exchanges, and the board’s chairman has written two separate letters to faculty that mention potential legal action against those who participate in the review.

Faculty say Gale’s letters have them on edge, and several have since taken out insurance policies with the American Association of Educators, hoping they’ll be able to pay for legal counsel should litigation arise from reviewing their president.

One faculty member, who asked not to be identified, said Gale has hampered the committee’s work already.

“The letter not only threatened defamation suits against the three faculty on our committee, it also threatened suits against people who cooperated with them,” the professor said. “So you can imagine there have been people who would be unwilling to cooperate with them.”

Ohle, who hasn’t personally threatened any legal action in public, has actually sat down twice with the faculty review committee. It’s unclear, however, whether he approves of Gale’s approach. In a brief interview with Inside Higher Ed Thursday, Ohle simply refused to weigh in on whether talk of lawsuits was inappropriate. “I’m not going there” he said. Asked again, Ohle said “I’m not making any judgments.”

“Communicating that way [as the chair did] always creates a chilling effect on campus,” Ohle said. “I can only speak to what I’ve tried to do. I’ve tried to open up that communication with faculty.”

Gustavus officials provided a statement from Gale Thursday, but did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with the board’s chairman.

“While we are aware that faculty members have raised questions and concerns about President Ohle’s tenure so far, we have advised the faculty senate of our position that it is solely the responsibility of the board to initiate and conduct the evaluation of the conduct of the presidency,” the statement reads.

Board Seeking Positive Reviews

While the faculty’s formal review of the president is ongoing, some are already making their concerns about his leadership clear in letters to the board. Barbara Fister, a professor and academic librarian at Gustavus, sent one such letter, lamenting the president’s approach to a long-term strategic planning process known as Commission 150, which coincides with the college's sesquicentennial.

“I am concerned, particularly in these challenging economic times, that we are losing a system of inclusive decision-making that has worked well for us,” Fister wrote. “Though the president's use of Commission 150 is intended to bring many constituents to the drafting table, by his actions he has made it clear that the role of the faculty is to provide input, but not to be routinely involved in decisions beyond narrowly-defined academic matters.”

Faculty, who voted 133-to-6 in favor of reviewing the president's performance, say there’s been no shortage of letters sent to the board expressing concerns about Ohle’s leadership. There are indications, however, that Gale and another board member are also actively soliciting positive letters about Ohle.

Inside Higher Ed obtained an e-mail in which a Gustavus employee approached “important leaders on campus” about writing letters of recommendation for Ohle. The names of the author and the recipients were redacted, but a faculty member vouched for the authenticity of the e-mail. In the e-mail, the author explains that he was asked by Gale and Ron Jones, another board member, to gather positive letters about Ohle.

“Personally, I am pleased by the leadership President Ohle has demonstrated,” the author wrote. “I am very optimistic that he has the potential to lead Gustavus in a very positive direction. But the public criticism he has received for poor communication with his academic deans causes the need for a broader assessment.”

Since the March 18 vote calling for a presidential review, at least one faculty member who supported the resolution says he’s had a change of heart. Rich Hilbert, an anthropology professor, says he was coaxed into sponsoring the resolution and now regrets participating. Hilbert says he was told troubling stories about Ohle that now appear unfounded, and he's concluded there's a witch hunt afoot.

“This guy is the one they’re going after, and as far as I can tell he’s done nothing wrong,” Hilbert said.

From Ohle’s point of view, some of the faculty discontent on campus can be traced back to his hiring. Gustavus conducted a failed search for a president, and when no candidates emerged that were acceptable, the board moved ahead with a far less transparent process that led to Ohle’s hiring. Given that, Ohle says he came in as president under something of a cloud.

“I think once the decision was made by the board I was introduced as the president without a lot of vetting,” he said. “That’s not the norm."

Ohle also hit some rough patches with faculty at his previous institution, Wartburg College, where professors had similarly pressed for evaluations of his performance, according to the college's chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Amid all of the criticism, pinning down exactly where Ohle went awry at Gustavus in his first year isn't easy, although several faculty members expressed disappointment that he had significantly curtailed the powers of the provost -- a position that was only recently established on campus with considerable faculty input. Gustavus Faculty who were interviewed for this story, many of whom asked not to be identified with threats of litigation in the air, were often either reluctant or unable to point to specific criticisms of Ohle – even though they had some general unease about him. Although it’s not uncommon for some shake-ups to happen early in a president’s tenure, faculty have said they think the departures of the provost and deans reflects Ohle’s inability to work well with others.

Max Hailperin, a professor of math and computer science, said he was reluctant to publicly “badmouth the president” but assured the issues ran deeper than the circumstances of Ohle’s hire.

“I think it’s fair to say that this is a year where faculty concern is at a very atypical level,” he said, “and that we went to great lengths to make sure that our concerns [were known].”

 

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