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Tenure disputes are at the center of another vote of no confidence rejected by board

Split Decision
June 4, 2013

Professors at Transylvania University were on board with a plan to update tenure standards by 2015. But questions of just when new criteria would be applied and by whom are at the heart of another vote of no confidence in a college president that's left the faculty and the board of trustees divided.

Tensions between President R. Owen Williams and the faculty at Transylvania, a small liberal arts college in Lexington, Ky., had been building for some time. Faculty members have complained of a top-down management style and low morale since Williams, a Wall Street executive-turned-historian, took office in 2010. But when he deferred tenure for two professors who had been approved by all other requisite bodies earlier this year due to their lack of publication in peer-reviewed journals, faculty took it as a last straw. The teaching-oriented college has had no such explicit requirement for publication in its bylaws. While Transylvania was planning to require publication of a peer-reviewed scholarly or creative work for tenure consideration starting in the 2015-16 academic year, according to information from the dean's office, faculty wrote to Williams in a March appeal that it was "unfair and unethical" to make his decision based on a future standard.

Following student protests related to the tenure cases and an ultimately unsuccessful appeal to the Board of Trustees, faculty voted, 68-7, on their lack of confidence in Williams late last month; it was the first such action in the university’s history. Several days later, the governing Board of Trustees released a statement saying it had held its own vote, unanimously reaffirming its support for Williams. (Trustees also said they’d reaffirmed support for the president's strategic plan, to elevate Transylvania to among the nation’s top 50 liberal arts colleges by 2020 and increase its student body to 1,500, from about 1,100.)

“The Board of Trustees has one overriding mission, and that is to make Transylvania the best educational institution it can be,” said W.T. Young Jr., chairman, in that statement. “Doing so places demands on all of us – students, professors, administrators and trustees. I am disappointed, frankly, that the faculty has taken a no-confidence vote. In my view, this is an extreme and unwarranted position.”

In their own statement, faculty said they were “deeply committed to the well-being and success of our students and of our institution,” but that “extreme” failures of leadership spanning Williams’s tenure had forced them to act.

In a joint e-mail interview, the past, present and future presiding officers of the faculty, Judy Jones, professor of accounting; Melissa Fortner, associate professor of psychology; and Ben Hawkins, professor of music, continued to question Williams’s ability to lead the college. “[His] initiatives at Transylvania have often struck many of us as reckless, and as heedless of standards of shared governance,” they said. “His interpersonal behavior has been experienced as demeaning and disrespectful by many members of community and has created a hostile climate.” (The officers said they gave more detailed accounts to the board at its April meeting, which they wished to keep private while working toward a resolution.)

The faculty leaders declined to name their colleagues involved in the tenure disputes, citing the professors’ desire for privacy. But, the officers said, “they are among our best teachers, possess first-rate credentials, and have ambitious and appropriate scholarly trajectories. Dr. Williams’s decision making in the matter of these tenure cases violates [American Association of University Professors] guidelines and upends longstanding traditions at Transylvania University.”

Although publication in peer-reviewed journals isn't a always a requirement for tenure at liberal arts colleges that emphasize teaching over research, the faculty presiding officers said they supported the new publication criterion as primary evidence of professional engagement -- an idea reflected in current bylaws and strengthened by the revisions due to take effect in 2015. Williams' fault lies, rather, in his "subversion of the evaluation process," and inconsistent and arbitrary evaluation standards, they said. In an e-mail, Williams said the question of publication and tenure is one that all liberal arts colleges must face, but that "writing and professionally performing and exhibiting work is a vital element of the liberal arts experience at Transylvania." It sharpens minds and "improves our ability to distill complex concepts, and provides opportunity for collaboration."

Robert Kreiser, AAUP’s associate secretary for academic freedom, tenure and governance, said that changing criteria for an appointment midstream goes against association guidelines and could be interpreted as “inappropriate and unfair.” Additionally, he said, AAUP maintains that tenure decisions are the primary responsibility of the faculty, as are all those decisions related to teaching. As such, they should be honored by administrations, except in rare cases where “compelling and detailed” reasons are given. “We’d take the same view if someone was granted tenure over the objections of the faculty as a whole,” he added.

A Transylvania University spokeswoman said via e-mail that one of the professors whose tenure was deferred had since been granted tenure, after meeting the future publication requirement, and that the board had upheld Williams's proposal to defer the other's tenure decision through June 2014. She also pointed to a list of Williams's accomplishments during his presidency, including diversifying the administration and applicant pool and growing the student body.

"While publication is not specifically identified in Transylvania's current bylaws as an absolute requirement, it is a standard that has been previously, though not consistently applied," Williams said. "The faculty is working on a new tenure policy, which will take effect in 2014." He added: "I am committed to working diligently with the faculty to alleviate and address our differences. I am dedicated to working through these growing pains."

At its May meeting, the board voted to create a standing committee on academic affairs to work with faculty in pursuing high academic standards, as well as an ad hoc committee on employee concerns. Jones, Fortner and Hawkins said they hoped “the board will work with us toward our continued goal of furthering excellence at Transylvania University. The college will continue to function well, and we will provide an outstanding experience for our current and incoming students.”

Harold Wechsler, a historian of higher education at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University, whose own board rejected recent faculty votes of no confidence in its president, said such votes seem to have increased in frequency spanning the past 20 years. They may be more common at community colleges than four-year institutions, although the latter “gain the publicity,” he said. But NYU, at least, has continued to function through the controversy. “[My] sense is that faculty on all sides put their students first; I know of no disruption to teaching and learning, at least at the Steinhardt School,” he said.

 

 

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