An Ousted Dean Returns

Western Kentucky reinstated the dean its now ex-provost forced out last week. What does the saga say about academic leadership, especially at institutions facing change?

April 12, 2019
Larry Snyder

Institutions often double down on unpopular decisions, fearing they’ll otherwise be perceived as weak.

Not Western Kentucky University. In a speedy show of what many on campus are calling strong leadership, the institution reinstalled a dean whose ouster last week brought down the provost.

The university’s new acting provost, Cheryl L. Stevens, announced the decision to reinstall Larry Snyder as dean of the Potter School of Arts and Letters in a campus email.

“Given the magnitude of work to do in degree transformation, we must have stability in leadership as we work our way forward,” Stevens wrote. “I look forward to working with Dr. Snyder and the Potter College community as we continue our efforts to provide the educational experience our students want and deserve.”

Western Kentucky is undergoing an extensive program review. A governing Board of Regents committee is set to review a universitywide task force's recommendations for program transformations and suspensions today. Those recommendations, made public only this week, include cutting 101 programs. Nearly half of those majors, minors or other kinds of programs don’t have current students, according to information from the university. The rest do. Majors targeted for elimination are French and popular culture studies, both in Potter.

Stevens said that Snyder will return as dean on Monday and finish out his term, through 2021. Merrall Price, a professor of English and special assistant to the provost who was named Potter’s acting dean, will remain in the provost’s office through July 1. After that, she’ll serve in Potter as an associate dean.

“I would like to thank Dr. Price for agreeing to step up on such short notice,” Stevens added. “I know she will happy to return to her duties in the provost’s office, where she is greatly needed.”

Snyder was abruptly terminated last week by Western Kentucky’s provost of less than one year, Terry Ballman, neither for cause nor misconduct. A day later, the Faculty Senate called a special meeting and voted no confidence in Ballman. Her many faculty critics said at that meeting that getting rid of Snyder midsemester, just as the university faces a major round of program cuts, made her unfit to lead them through tough times ahead. Faculty members and students saw Snyder as an advocate for strong academic programs in the face of calls for budget cuts.

Ballman resigned the next day. And by the middle of this week, Snyder was effectively back as dean.

Snyder said in an interview that he had a case of “whiplash” but was otherwise fine. Despite the challenges the university is facing, he said, he never considered declining the invitation to return. Previously, he was set to return to his faculty job in the department of religion and philosophy.

“Part of my disappointment with the previous episode is that I thought we’d put a number of things in place to address the coming changes,” he said, referring to the program review. “I wanted the opportunity to put those in motion … I didn’t feel I could abandon the college and faculty and students until we got farther along with this process, to a better point.”

Snyder confirmed secondhand reports that he was forced by Ballman to resign. Asked why, he said it remains a mystery, apart from a vague reference to his not being a “good university citizen.”

Considering the rapid vote of no confidence and that even students protested Snyder’s firing, it appears that’s not a common opinion. Numerous professors also said Thursday that they were happy -- and hopeful -- to have Snyder back on board.

'People Tend to Like Honesty'

“We’re in the middle of this process, and this dean is an insider who knows the college extremely well and has a tremendous amount of social capital,” said Jeffrey Samuels, chair of the department of religion and philosophy. “So having someone like that at the helm of course makes implementing these changes and navigating these transitions easier.”

Stevens said that the acting dean, Price, is highly respected as well. But putting Snyder back in the dean’s office, where he’s already worked on the program review, simply assures “more faculty buy-in.”

Price said that she was “happy to step up” and “even happier to step back.”

“It’s been a turbulent time on campus and in the community, and I’m confident [Snyder] and Provost Stevens will help guide us into calmer waters,” she said.

Rob Hale, chair of English, said the reaction to Snyder’s resignation “demonstrates what a valued member of the university community he is and has always been. I really can’t think of anyone who is more respected than Dean Snyder. I’m thrilled that he’ll return to lead my college through the challenges we face. My load just got a whole lot lighter.”

Professors beyond Potter opposed Snyder’s forced resignation. Asked why he’s so beloved, Kirk Atkinson, associate professor of information systems and University Senate chair, said Snyder engages with students in ways deans typically don't, such as by showing up to their art shows and theater performances. With faculty members, Atkinson said, Snyder is a straight shooter. He’s indeed warned the faculty that program cuts will be deep. But he’s also assured them he’ll be their advocate throughout the process.

"He's honest, and people tend to like honesty," Atkinson said. 

Even in light of the new information about the cuts, he added, “the mood on campus -- especially with reappointment of [Snyder] -- has been fairly positive. People remain hopeful, and that’s a good thing.”

Snyder, who has been dean for four years but on campus for three decades, described his leadership philosophy like this: “I didn’t necessarily aspire to academic leadership. But I’ve always understood that my role is to be a servant to the college. My primary task is to pave the way for the faculty to teach and do research and for students to learn. And if I’ve done that well, folks probably don’t know a whole lot about what I’m doing behind the scenes because they don’t need to.”

Snyder also said he felt more confident about the future than he did a few weeks ago, in that “this particular episode brought the campus together in a unique and unprecedented way.”

Western Kentucky's budget problems stem primarily from steep state funding cuts. There are issues specific to Kentucky at play, such as an unsustainable public pension problem. But many institutions elsewhere are reviewing their academic programs in an attempt to stave off financial disaster. Snyder advised other colleges and universities facing change to "bring faculty into the conversation -- make them a part of it. Be as open and transparent about all of it as possible. We’re only going to pull into safe waters if we’re all pulling on the right sails."


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