Faculty Question Vision at DePauw

At DePauw, vote of no confidence in president follows cuts in health benefits in period of minimal raises.

November 21, 2018
 
DePauw University president Mark McCoy

Faculty at Indiana’s DePauw University have sent a mixed message about their leader, with four in 10 indicating that they have no confidence in President Mark McCoy amid faculty downsizing and changes to health-care benefits, among other issues. But the remainder were nearly evenly split on whether they support McCoy or would rather take no position at all.

The results come as DePauw, like most small, private liberal arts institutions, struggles to maintain enrollment while controlling costs -- and weeks after DePauw began essentially guaranteeing that future alumni will find a job or graduate placement in their field of study.

In all, 40.3 percent of faculty who participated during a six-day vote that ended Monday voted no confidence in McCoy; another 28.6 percent expressed confidence in the leader. Slightly more -- 31.1 percent -- abstained from either a yes or no vote.

In a Nov. 14 letter, a group of 20 faculty members said they recognized that DePauw faces "serious financial challenges that require a viable long-term financial plan" and that under McCoy's leadership, the university "has seemingly moved from crisis-to-crisis," among other problems. But the group said they would abstain from the vote because it would delay the "far more urgent" work of collaborative planning and would weaken the university "at a time when it already is in a precarious state and at a time when it needs the full and immediate attention of the faculty, the staff, the administration, and the Board of Trustees."

In all, 206 faculty voted -- about 77 percent of the total faculty.

Earlier this month, faculty laid out the rationale for the vote, saying DePauw "has been in a sustained cycle of crises for the past several years, and under President McCoy’s leadership the crises have become more severe while promoting ‘solutions’ that grow his cabinet and expensive peripheral programs at cost to investment in the core functions of the liberal arts."

They said he had "responded ineffectively" to a series of hate crimes on campus and had dismissed his handpicked dean of the School of Music at a crucial admissions juncture, among other acts. (The university said the search for the School of Music dean was led by a committee of faculty and staff who presented the finalists to McCoy.)

Faculty also said his "divisive management style has brought morale among university employees to historic lows through actions that are ill-considered, done in haste, and poorly communicated."

His presidency, they said, "threatens the reputation of the university and severely compromises the institution’s viability."

After the results were finalized, faculty chair Howard Brooks, a physics and astronomy professor, said in a statement that all of the faculty members he has spoken with this fall “have consistently stated that they want to see DePauw as a better place. They disagree on the path forward.”

Brooks said he planned to work with top university officials “to create more direct pathways of communication between the faculty and their committees with the Board of Trustees.”

He said he’ll also ask the Board of Trustees’ executive committee to clarify a previously announced plan for a campus forum to discuss leadership issues. “I expect President McCoy to stay true to his words to ‘spare no effort in improving our relationship’ and that he will remain ‘committed to getting to a better place,’” Brooks wrote.

Among the biggest issues confronting faculty: tiny annual raises amounting to about 1 percent in recent years, as well as a demand that staff and faculty pick up a larger percentage of their health-care costs. The university is also trying to shrink faculty ranks by urging older instructors to retire.

“Clearly there’s going to be a downsizing of the faculty,” said Jeff McCall, a professor of communication in his 33rd year there.

But he said McCoy has pursued the downsizing in a measured, collegial manner. “I don’t get the sense that they are rampaging out there, targeting the faculty or trying to do it in an inhumane way.”

In a statement, Rebecca Schindler, a professor of classical studies, said the results were “a good outcome.”

“The number of 'yes' votes, as well as abstentions that were cast because of concerns with leadership, send a strong message to the Board of Trustees that the faculty would like to see changes,” she said.

“On the other hand, the majority of votes cast -- the abstentions plus ['no' votes] -- indicate that most voters think removing the president is not the way to affect [sic] that change. The underlying financial and campus climate issues will still be there. In the end, I think everyone who voted believes in DePauw and its academic program, and we all want to strengthen, not weaken, the institution, but we disagree on the best way to make that happen."

University spokesman Ken Owen said DePauw, like many universities, “is facing the challenges of an increasingly competitive marketplace. The Board of Trustees has called upon Dr. McCoy to make needed changes to stay ahead of what we see happening in higher education and to ensure our long-term success,” he said. “That includes investing more into the student experience, curtailing costs, and identifying innovative revenue opportunities. We realize such change is difficult and creates tension. Fortunately, DePauw has a strong endowment and is nearing completion of a record breaking campaign, so has a strong foundation for moving forward. The board supports the efforts the president has taken and will work with the faculty and all campus constituents in the days ahead.”

The 180-year-old Methodist institution in Greencastle, Ind., enrolls about 2,200 students.

An Oct. 10 letter from student groups to The DePauw, the university’s student newspaper, said instructors had told students that top administrators essentially invited faculty to quit, telling them, “We’ll help you find the door.”

The faculty’s working conditions “are our learning conditions,” students wrote. “As students, we were promised an excellent education at DePauw, but how is that possible when our faculty and staff are traumatized by administrative actions and discourse?”

The students noted a plan to save $700,000 by trimming faculty and staff health-care plans. The university recently told employees that working spouses who are eligible for health-care coverage at jobs elsewhere can’t remain enrolled in DePauw’s plan. Many of those spouses work for employers with health plans inferior to DePauw's, essentially meaning that many families could have a reduced quality of care and potentially pay more.

The students said the cut in benefits ignores what they consider wasteful growth in McCoy’s cabinet, a group that they said has doubled in recent decades. (The university said the group has actually grown smaller, from 14 members to 11, during McCoy's tenure.) In their letter, the students asked how many senior executives’ “bloated salaries” could cover the $700,000 health-care cut.

In a letter sent to faculty late Tuesday, the Board of Trustees called the vote "disheartening," but said it was "committed to continuing to listen to the DePauw community and specifically improving our dialogue with faculty."

The board said it takes seriously the responsibility to deliver a high-quality education "while making prudent, if at times difficult, financial decisions."

It added, "We are aware of the faculty’s frustration and appreciate their right to voice their concerns about the actions of the president, administration, and trustees. We believe, however, this vote of no confidence in Dr. McCoy is unwarranted. As a board, we commend Dr. McCoy and his administration for taking on the difficult work we have asked them to do. We remain confident in his ability to lead this institution toward a financially sustainable position within this challenging -- and dramatically changing -- higher education landscape. We believe he has the best long-term interests of DePauw at the core of his work, and the Board of Trustees remains in full support of him."

The board on Tuesday also announced plans for a campus forum “to continue the dialogue on creating a better DePauw.”

Unlike many small liberal arts colleges, DePauw enjoys a fairly healthy endowment, which last year grew nearly 9 percent, to $669 million, according to the NACUBO Commonfund Study of Endowments.

“We aren't struggling to stay afloat,” said English professor Greg Schwipps. “All of the faculty at DePauw still believe in the students we work with every day. I think we disagree about the vision our administration has charted for us, and that's what this vote represents.”

Schwipps said the vote opens an opportunity to work with the Board of Trustees, “and that's the work they've told us they are willing to do. Both faculty and Board of Trustees intend to start working together as soon as possible to create a better university, and I think in that way, the vote might lead to something better in the near future.”

Like several other institutions, DePauw recently offered a kind of job “guarantee,” last spring unveiling its so-called Gold Commitment, an agreement intended to communicate to prospective students (and their parents) that the university stands behind its ability to help students succeed in the work force.

It essentially promises that every graduate, beginning with the Class of 2022, will experience a "successful launch."

Specifically, any student who does not secure an "entry-level professional position" or acceptance to graduate school within six months of graduation will be offered either a full-time entry-level position through one of DePauw’s business partners or another semester of education tuition-free. As part of the plan, DePauw this fall began offering every student a "commitment adviser" who helps ensure that students graduate in four years, remain in good behavioral standing and participate in one of the university's co-curricular centers, among other responsibilities.

McCall said the vote underscored what is perhaps DePauw’s biggest challenge: “to try and find out what kind of institution we really want to be” -- a traditional liberal arts college or one that chases "trendy" majors to attract new students.

As DePauw competes for a shrinking pool of prospective students, he said, the university is “in a place where it has to make some very tough decisions financially.” He added, “I really think some of our issues are much broader than whether the president is performing effectively or not.”

Federal data show that DePauw last year admitted two-thirds of applicants.

Thinking about the split vote, McCall said he kept thinking about a colleague’s famous quip, often written on promising but incomplete student essays: “This is too good to not be better.” He added, “We’re too good as an institution to not be functioning better than we are right now.”

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