Gustavus Adolphus faculty push back against president with aid of confidential leak site
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In the past, when faculty members and students felt like their voices weren’t being heard in governance or that information was being kept from them by administrators, they had few places to turn.
The Internet changed that, and the faculty and students at Gustavus Adolphus College are quickly learning how much of a difference it can make.
Aided by a website – GustieLeaks – that lets individuals anonymously publish documents related to the college, faculty members and students have begun to publicize years of grievances against the college’s president, Jack Ohle, who they say has marginalized them in important decisions, poorly managed the institution and regularly violated faculty-governance procedures.
Those complaints have attracted considerable local media attention and led to a formal call by the Faculty Senate in December for Ohle’s resignation at the end of the year, and petitions from students and alumni calling for his immediate removal.
“We as a community find ourselves demoralized and debilitated by a leadership approach that has taken the college into grave crisis," wrote the Faculty Senate in the December letter. "We are deeply concerned about the financial health of the institution and the wellbeing of all its members. We have reached a point where lack of trust and confidence in your leadership over the span of four years precludes the college from moving forward in its educational mission under your leadership.”
Conflicts between administrators and faculty members are endemic to higher education, and many in the sector say such debates have become even more common in recent years as administrators face increased pressure to quickly enact change to deal with economic pressures, and budget decisions increasingly intrude on curricular matters.
Some of the "Leaked" Documents:
Minutes of a December 2012 Faculty Senate meeting
Draft of an accreditation self-study
Faculty Senate Statement of Concern
A Faculty Senate investigation of the president's role in a faculty search.
Executive summer of a faculty survey
The debate playing out at Gustavus Adolphus highlights how technology is changing each side’s access to information, letting material that might never have been made widely available – particularly at private, nonprofit institutions – become part of the discussion.
GustieLeaks, styled after the controversial WikiLeaks site, has helped disseminate minutes of private meetings, letters to and from administrators and survey results, as well as aggregate news stories and perspectives on the issues. Most of the documents on the site were not widely distributed before being posted there (though few were intended to be confidential).
Communication tools have also helped ensure that students originally involved in protesting the president have remained interested and involved after graduating and leaving campus and helped them coordinate action with current students.
“It used to be really easy to wait out student complaints,” said Eric Halvorson, a senior at Gustavus who has been active in seeking Ohle’s resignation. “If you waited at most four years, they would automatically go away. Not anymore.”
A spokesman for the college said neither Ohle nor board members were granting interviews on the faculty's concerns, but the board did release a statement. “The Board of Trustees in the governance model that it developed over the past few years has been expanding the input from faculty and students to make sure the appropriate conversations and discussions are held so that the institution can continue to move forward in a positive fashion,” board chairman Mark Bernhardson wrote in the statement.
Four Years of Problems
"Our problem is not that he is too much of a business leader, but that he is a bad business leader."
--Eric Holvorson, Gustavus Adolphus senior
Ohle came to Gustavus Adolphus in 2008 from Wartburg College, where he served as president for 10 years. While he was praised for his fund-raising ability at Wartburg, his tenure there was also marked with charges that he interfered with faculty searches and violated shared-governance procedures, two charges that have re-emerged since he arrived at Gustavus.
“Your actions reveal both disrespect for faculty as participants in shared governance and disregard for college policy, as set forth in the faculty handbook,” wrote the Wartburg chapter of the AAUP in a 2001 letter that accused Ohle of interfering in a faculty search.
But despite the problems he faced at Wartburg, faculty members and students at Gustavus Adolphus said they were generally excited about Ohle when he was named president. The college needed someone who could fund-raise and help provide financial stability, they said.
Within 10 months of Ohle’s arrival, however, cracks emerged. The provost, Mary E. Morton, who had been in the job only about a year and a half, announced she would step down, citing a reduction of responsibility under Ohle. Two academic deans and the long-serving dean of students also left their positions by the end of that year.
That turnover made faculty members uneasy, and they passed two resolutions calling for the board to review Ohle’s performance.
Faculty members say the issues that arose in 2009 have never fully been addressed and the relationship between the president and faculty has deteriorated further. They say Ohle regularly makes decisions – particularly about budgeting – without consulting faculty members, even ignoring meetings of the faculty group that has input on the college budget. Faculty members also accuse the president of improperly interfering with faculty searches, such canceling a search for an endowed chair despite the committee's recommendation of two candidates that it deemed "excellent."
"Our problem is not that he is too much of a business leader, but that he is a bad business leader," Halvorson said. "Personally, I would be happy with a hard-nosed business leader as a president as long as they were just that -- a business leader. But his leadership is not too business-minded; it is out of touch with reality."
Faculty members say the issue that finally brought everything to a head was a budgetary change last summer that affected departmental budgets, taking back some funds that had been rolled over for many years at the department level. The shift caught many faculty members by surprise because the administration regularly trumpeted the financial strides it was making. Applications, enrollment and philanthropy are all up under Ohle, officials said.
The administration says the change in departmental budgets was made to conform to an accounting standards enacted in the 1990s, though several outside accounting officials said the change should not have affected the allocation of funds and has not changed practices at other institutions. Faculty members said they believed the change was made to shore up institutional finances.
Ohle also announced a cut in retirement benefits and that staff members and non-tenured faculty would not get raises.
“You can’t have a roll-over system and one day confront a budget shortfall and zero out balances without notifying the budget officers,” said Jill Locke, a political science professor and director of the college’s gender, women, and sexuality studies program. “President Ohle should have seen this financial crisis coming and worked with the community to resolve the problem.”
Board members and administrators initially dismissed faculty concerns by saying they came from small group of vocal critics. But two leaked survey results show that the majority of faculty members are not happy with the president's leadership. In a 2011 survey, only 21 percent of respondents said they agreed that the president did a good job, while 39 percent disagreed. In 2012, those rates were 29 percent and 38 percent.
In both years, Ohle also got negative marks for effective communication and responsiveness to faculty concerns, and faculty reported low morale. Department chairs, on the other hand, got very strong marks on all questions.
The board commissioned a follow-up survey in May 2012 to explore some of the strengths and weaknesses. Of the 77 respondents to that survey, which included more open-ended questions, 73 respondents rated Ohle’s job performance in largely negative terms; only one was positive.
“By refusing to articulate a coherent vision for the college, President Ohle has abdicated one of the basic expectations of a leader,” one respondent wrote. “By refusing to speak openly and honestly, he has abdicated any claim to the servant leadership Gustavus supposedly teaches. By cutting faculty out of decisions, President Ohle has deprived the college of the insight of people who know and understand the academic landscape, who are innovative thinkers, who do understand the fiscal realities facing higher education, and who are ready to think boldly about the future of our college.”
In late January, the board met with faculty members and announced it would be conducting a semesterlong evaluation of Ohle. The president’s contract runs out in June 2014. Several faculty members and students said they saw the move as dilatory, and the board continues to express support for Ohle.
Bringing Issues to Light
Faculty members and students both say they don't know who is behind the GustieLeaks site, though several faculty members said they believed students to be responsible based on the information that was included on the site.
Faculty members and students said they weren’t sure whether the GustieLeaks site had changed the way they approach the administration, but noted that it is popular with faculty members who see it as a valuable tool in discussions with the administration and board.
“There was a motion raised in a Faculty Senate meeting to condemn the site, and it was resoundingly defeated,” said Alisa Rosenthal, a political science professor. “I don’t always like what’s on there, but there are some instances when it is helpful. I supported The New York Times's right to publish the Pentagon Papers.”
That doesn’t mean the site hasn’t been controversial. Several administrators have argued that the public airing of issues that should be handled internally could have negative repercussions for the institution, such as decreasing applications or turning away potential job applicants.
“A lot of people are worried that this tarnishes the college’s reputation. I don’t think that’s true,” Halvorson said. “This was here one way or another. What’s coming to light are not made-up concerns; it is the very real pain that has been suffered in silence for a long time.”
“I don’t think this is entirely negative publicity,” he added. “I’m speaking out because of and for Gustavus, because I’m the kind of person who will do hard things for the people and places I love.”