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A President's Last Stand

March 25, 2010

Of his 16 years as president at Berea College, Larry Shinn has found the last year to be the most contentious, challenging, and potentially transformative. While grappling with budget deficits, Shinn has fended off student critics who say he makes too much money and taken shots from faculty members for a controversial plan that would dismantle existing departments.

To top it all off, Shinn’s former provost is calling on his old boss to resign.

“We went through a very messy process,” Shinn says.

Photo: Berea College

Larry Shinn, president of Berea College, talks about budget challenges in a video posted on the college's Web site.

So why does Shinn still seem so excited? Far from the wounded warrior going through the last battle of a long presidency, Shinn sounds like a newly inaugurated chief trying to sell a bold new plan. A big piece of that plan involves consolidating Berea’s 27 sometimes tiny academic units into six or eight larger units, which Shinn says will promote interdisciplinary curriculums and break the cycle of maintaining tenured faculty lines in a given discipline just for the sake of tradition.

In larger units, faculty will be compelled to look beyond their own narrow fields of study, and forced to consider whether tenure-track hires from outside their own disciplines might be more useful, Shinn says.

“I think we’re just on the vanguard of what institutions across the country will have to do,” he says.

Berea wouldn’t be the first college to adopt a “divisional” structure instead of recognizing individual departments, and there’s no shortage of institutions now grappling with reorganization in hopes of cutting budgets and breaking down the silos in which many faculty members seem to work.

But Shinn would argue that Berea is ahead of the curve when confronting the need for a new model, in large part because the college has no other choice. Berea is tuition-free for all students, and maintaining its mission to serve a low-income Appalachian population with free classes presents challenges. Without the option of raising tuition, addressing a budget shortfall of $2.7 million, or 7 percent, as Berea must now do, is no easy task.

Given the constraints of that business model, Shinn says, he needed solutions formed “not just out of the box, but without a box.” Enter the Scenario Planning Task Force, a group of faculty members and administrators who labored for nine months to develop budget-cutting options and new strategies for the college.

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Come after me if you want to. If this is going to be an article about this guy Larry Shinn and this heavy-handed president, do what you want to do.” -- Larry Shinn, Berea president.

"

The product was a 133-page document, artfully titled “Of Journeys, Landscapes and Destinations.” The report suggested some garden-variety actions like cutting faculty positions through attrition and increasing enrollment to bolster income from from Pell Grants and state aid, but its most controversial proposal was doing away with departments.

Throughout the debate, Shinn boasted about the transparency of the process. But that desire for transparency extended only to the edge of campus. When the Lexington Herald-Leader started reporting on what was becoming an intense internal debate, Shinn fired off a none-too-subtle e-mail to students, faculty and staff expressing his displeasure.

“I am disappointed that some felt it necessary to expand our campus discussions to include the public media,” he wrote. “Nonetheless, it is a fact of life in a highly technological world that not only is it easy to disseminate incomplete or misleading information quickly and without context, but also to discover our campus discussions being played out in the public press.”

Shinn granted Inside Higher Ed an extensive interview lasting more than two hours for this article, and he provided numerous supporting documents. But he made no apologies for wanting to keep a lid on the debate before trustees voted on the proposals.

“I’ve been displeased that an investigative reporter was called in to try to turn over the rocks,” Shinn says.

And yet, when reporters come calling, Shinn says bring it on.

“Come after me if you want to,” he says. “If this is going to be an article about this guy Larry Shinn and this heavy-handed president, do what you want to do.”

Department Chairs Skeptical

Berea’s trustees approved a series of proposals, including departmental eliminations, nearly a month ago. That passage of time, however, hasn’t quieted skeptics.

“I think it’s very problematic, and I don’t think it’s a step in the right direction,” says Amer Lahamer, professor and chair of physics.

Lahamer is not alone. A November survey of department chairs found that 75 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed eliminating departments. The reasons for these concerns are varied, but Lahamer echoes other faculty who say the new structure will rob each unique discipline of a designated advocate to push for resources and protect programmatic rigor. After all, Lahamer asks, what will a division chair from agriculture, for instance, be able to tell the dean about the courses chemistry majors should take? While the college has yet to hammer out which departments might be linked together, Lahamer says he envisions a number of scenarios in which division heads would have no true connection to the disciplines within their units.

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I don’t see them as pushovers.” -- Verlaine McDonald, chair of the department of English, theater, and speech communication, on the Scenario Planning Task Force.

"

Moreover, Lahamer fears that eliminating departments allows for the slow and quiet death of some programs. Once absorbed into larger units, small departments are likely to vanish altogether, he says.

Lahamer says he supports the other proposals that grew out of the task force’s recommendations, and that view is reflected by a recent faculty-wide vote. Faculty approved the measures by a margin of 116 to 34. Support for the elimination of departments, however, was considerably softer. When asked about that proposal in isolation, faculty approved it by a vote of 77 to 69, with two abstentions.

Berea faculty aren’t alone in their concerns about departments losing their influence in the administrative mix. A recent proposal that many Idaho State faculty believe would strip departments of their powers has been met with intense opposition, and a relatively new provost advocating the plan may soon face a “no confidence” vote.

As has been the case at Idaho State, some Berea faculty question whether doing away with departments -- and by extension some course release for chairs -- will really create the savings its proponents suggest. Indeed, the task force’s initial estimated savings of $340,000 has already been trimmed to something closer to $100,000.

The savings may be debatable, but Stephanie Browner, dean of faculty at Berea, says she thinks concerns about maintaining academic rigor are unfounded. While critics say faculty with the most expertise could lose their voice in discussions about appropriate courses for a major in their discipline, Browner says faculty will continue to have this kind of input in larger divisions. On the other hand, Browner readily concedes that the proposed structure is an acknowledgment that Berea won’t keep hiring faculty in every niche discipline or creating ever-more-narrow majors.

“Small colleges [like Berea], we can’t just add media studies and gender studies and Arabic and still do everything we’re doing,” she says.

Far more practical, Browner argues, is the idea of broadened curriculums that will expose students to a variety of disciplines without necessarily having a tenured faculty member specifically devoted to that discipline. A psychology professor might explore gender in his class, for instance, and an English professor could touch on media in hers, she says.

Shinn Defends Salary

While pushing for a politically sensitive rethinking of the college, Shinn has been hit with a series of personal attacks on his compensation and his leadership style. Elizabeth Vega, a student majoring in sociology and social justice, has been among the most vocal proponents of limiting administrative compensation to no more than six times that of the lowest-paid employee at Berea. The formula is similar to one previously adopted by Ben & Jerry's, although the ice cream company later abandoned it.

Shinn recently forfeited 12 percent of his salary to boost the lowest wage earned on campus, but the 6-to-1 standard would still require the president to reduce his nearly $339,000 salary and benefits package by about 63 percent.

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It grieves me when people say things like [presidential pay is] just the system, because I’m standing on the ground of a school that said, ‘We don’t care if that’s what the system says; we see a different way,’ " -- Elizabeth Vega, Berea student.

"

Shinn has called the 6-to-1 debate a “sideshow,” and he argues that his pay is where it should be.

“I fit right smack in the middle of our group of frame of reference schools, and I’m 16 years into my presidency,” he says. “Where’s Larry Shinn? I’m one of the oldest guys in the group, but I’m at the average.”

But Berea is a unique college, and Vega’s persistent appeal -- made in open forums and personal e-mails to Shinn -- plays up the notion that Shinn should be held to a different standard than the “marketplace” he says should govern presidential pay.

“It grieves me when people say things like [presidential pay is] just the system, because I’m standing on the ground of a school that said, ‘We don’t care if that’s what the system says; we see a different way,’ " Vega says.

Shinn and others have painted Vega, a nontraditional student with a journalism background and two grown children, as a lone wolf on a crusade. But Vega says she’s garnered the signatures of some 400 of Berea’s 1,500 students in support of a 6-to-1 pay scale.

“It’s a distraction to the president because he doesn’t want have to think about it,” she says. “He wants to operate Berea College in a very corporate way, and that way is counter to our mission.”

On the contrary, Shinn says he wants to ensure that Berea can hire an adequate presidential successor without being hamstrung by an “arbitrary” salary formula that puts the college out of step with market rates. Moreover, if Berea were to adopt a ratio of no employee making a salary more than six times Berea’s average salary -- another proposal Shinn says he has heard floated -- Shinn would be in accordance with that already.

A number of faculty say they are less concerned about what Shinn makes than what those on the bottom of the pay scale are being paid.

“For upper administration salaries, you have to pay people a comparable wage or you won’t get good people or it will be harder to get people,” says Jan Pearce, director of the computer and information science program. “I think talking about the groundskeepers and the janitors and their salaries is of more interest to me. The president is taking a voluntary pay cut and he’s using that money to increase the salaries on the lower end, and I think that’s a gesture on the part of Larry" to help the lowest wage earners.

Former Provost Takes Aim

While Shinn has won some goodwill with his salary reduction, his critics persist. Among them is David Porter, Shinn’s former provost. In a November letter to the Pinnacle, Berea’s student newspaper, Porter suggested Shinn “consider stepping aside.”

“You reach conclusions quickly then argue for them tenaciously,” wrote Porter, now a professor of psychology and general studies at Berea. “You use your position and verbal stamina to quash dissent and grind opponents into compliance.”

Porter says he and Shinn were “constantly battling” during his four years as provost, and Shinn chose to end the rocky partnership a year before Porter’s contract was set to expire. One of the sources of their disagreements, Porter says, was Shinn’s tendency to provide outward appearances of collaboration while quietly manipulating processes behind the scenes.

“He uses money and rewards friends who agree with him,” Porter says. “He [appoints] committees that reach conclusions that he has already formed.”

While Shinn won’t comment on why he dismissed Porter, he rejects the notion that he manipulates committee work. Moreover, members of the task force say they operated free of his influence.

“There was a criticism that we were closely connected with the president or the president funneled information to us or assigned us readings all summer. That was never the case,” says Chad Berry, a task force member and director of Berea’s Appalachian studies program.

Verlaine McDonald, a department chair who was not on the task force, says she finds it hard to believe the committee could have been pressed to carry out a predetermined agenda.

“Having worked with them, I don’t see them as pushovers,” says McDonald, chair of the department of English, theater, and speech communication.

That’s not to say, however, that McDonald is all that enthusiastic about the controversial proposal to kill departments.

“I think it’s really going to be destabilizing, probably for 5 to 10 years, and I’m not sure I see where the big payoff will be,” she says.

Despite that skepticism, Berea officials say they are moving forward. While Shinn says other institutions may succumb to infighting or delay real changes, Berea will not wait.

“I can promise you, there will be people looking for scapegoats,” he says. “There will be people looking to tinker. What we’re going to do is restructure.”

How Shinn Measures Up to 6-to-1 Ratio

Lowest Paid Employee Lowest Paid X 6 President's Compensation Dollars Above
Formula
$20,800 $124,800 $339,300 $214,500

How Faculty Measure Up to 6-to-1 Ratio

Lowest Paid Employee Lowest Paid X 6

Highest Faculty

Salary/Benefits

Dollars Below Formula
$20,800 $124,800 $113,715 $11,085

How Faculty Measure Up to 6-to-1 Ratio if Any Received 12 Months' Pay

Lowest Paid Employee Lowest Paid X 6 Highest Paid Faculty (If on 12 Month Scale)* Dollars Above Formula
$20,800 $124,800 $151,620 $26,820

*No faculty receive such a salary, but Shinn says the 12-month figure shows a flawed formula could eventually punish professors, too.

How Shinn Fares if Formula Were No Salary Over 6x Average Berea Salary*

Average Berea Salary Average X 6 President's Salary Only Dollars Below Formula
$49,000 $294,000 $284,800 $10,000

*Shinn says this formula was among those proposed by Elizabeth Vega, a Berea student. Vega disputes that she proposed it.

How Shinn Fares if Formula Were No Salary Over 6X Median Berea Resident Household Income*

Median Household
Income in Berea
6X Median Income Shinn's Salary Only Dollars Above Formula
$30,480 $182,880 $284,800 $101,920

*The formula is among several Vega has suggested.

Shinn's Raises

Year Salary/Benefits Dollar Increase % Increase
2005-06 $268,815    
2006-07 $315,309 $46,494 17.30%
2007-08 $320,617 $5,308 1.70%
2008-09 $338,948 $18,331 5.70%
2009-10 $339,300* $352 0%

*Estimated benefits of $54,500

SOURCE: All Salary Data Provided by Berea College.

Note: Figures provided by Berea differ from 990 Tax Forms. Berea officials attribute variation to accounting errors, which they say will be corrected in amended 990's.

 

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