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Defending an Ousted Chair

October 17, 2011

Four academic departments at Georgia Southern University have voted “no confidence” in their college’s dean after what they call a mysterious removal of a well-liked political science department chair last month. And now they are joined by students in calling on the dean of the college to step down.

Michael Smith, dean of the college of liberal arts and social sciences, removed Richard Pacelle, the political science chair of eight years, from his post three weeks after the start of the semester. Pacelle remains a tenured professor of political science.

Professors and students say no reason has been given for Pacelle’s removal, and it’s this lack of transparency that has them alarmed. Only speculation as to why remains.

Debra Sabia and Lois Duke-Whitaker, both political science professors, sent a letter on behalf of the majority of the department to the administration officially giving its vote of no confidence in the dean, and formally asking for the dean to be replaced. Senior professors in three other departments in the college — art, communication arts and history — have also joined in solidarity with the political science department, Sabia said.

“The faculty in the Department of Political Science is dumb-founded by the decision of the administration to terminate its chair, Dr. Richard Pacelle,” the letter reads. “[The dean’s] decision leaves us to believe that he is either very inexperienced or unconcerned about the risks of his decisions for the well being of the department, its faculty, its students, and our academic mission.”

The letter goes on to say that Pacelle’s reputation “has been soiled by the way in which he was removed from his office … and has seriously damaged Dr. Pacelle’s professional ability to move to another university opportunity.”

The university, though, is steadfast that this was purely a personnel matter and specific reasons for why Pacelle was removed are confidential.

Dean Smith did not return a request for comment.

Christian Flathman, university spokesman, said he could confirm that Pacelle is no longer the department chair but he is still a fulltime professor in the program. Ted Moore, provost and vice president for academic affairs, issued a statement saying he and the president support the dean and his decision completely.

“Department chairs serve ‘at the pleasure of’ deans, the same as provosts serve at the pleasure of presidents,” Moore wrote. “[Dean Smith] is leading the college in a direction that is entirely consistent with our strategic vision, and he has the courage to confront and make difficult decisions, even when they may be unpopular to some. That’s leadership.”

But faculty members and students said this out-of-the-blue decision has created an environment of hostility and fear. The letter also cites concerns about shared governance, stating concerns that this removal has created a chilling effect among the faculty, making some members afraid to voice their opinions to administrators. “This is a very tragic thing for the department and our fear is that we are not going to lose our best and brightest,” Sabia said. “It has become a very hostile environment.”

Pacelle declined to comment.

Melinda Laughlin, a public administration master’s degree student, said that in his eight years as chair, Pacelle brought strong leadership and produced positive results for the department. Political science grew from 22 to 27 professors and the number of majors in the department increased by 25 percent, she said.

“It especially hurts as someone in public administration,” Laughlin said. “They are teaching us to be the public administrators we don’t want to be.”

Robert Robinson, also a public administration master’s student, said he was shocked by the dismissal because of Pacelle’s stellar reputation.

“The entire situation lacks transparency at any level,” Robinson, who studied under Pacelle as an undergraduate, said. “It’s all been very cloak and dagger. Students weren’t asked about their feelings and this is supposed to be a student-driven university.”

 

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