A Campaign of Many Grievances

Engineering faculty at Washington University in St. Louis submit petition to oust their dean, but it lists no specific issues. Beyond the signatures are a multitude of reasons....
November 14, 2007

The petition lists no grievances. It hasn't been posted publicly. Almost half the school's tenured faculty signed it, and it has one demand: the removal of the dean.

But if a sizable contingent backed the campaign, they seemingly did so for their own reasons. Beyond the united front of a single document lay festering resentments, damaged egos and genuine fear -- enough fear that not even tenured professors were willing to speak for attribution. At Washington University in St. Louis, the effort to unseat Dean Mary Sansalone may have stalled, but it revealed discontent within the School of Engineering that some attributed to a lack of faculty input during strategic planning processes, others called sexism and supporters characterized as knee-jerk resistance to necessary change.

"Many of the changes implemented by Dean Mary Sansalone were discussed in the departments for decades, particularly the merger of [Electrical Engineering] with [Systems Science and Mathematics]," wrote a commenter on the student newspaper's Web site. "Having worked for the EE department for 10 years, I witnessed costly expenditures for annual faculty retreats while the department chalked up 6-figure annual deficits. Now that a woman has been inducted into the Engineering School fiscal clean-up [there is the] frightful potential to cast gender blame on what are legacy problems."

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton received the petition in August. According to a faculty member who was involved with the effort, 29 tenured engineering professors out of 68 signed the document; 14 others didn't want their names attached but offered "virtual signatures" in a show of support. Ten senior faculty members, who are not regular faculty but contribute research and receive honoraria, also signed the petition (and another three supported it without signing), for a total of 39 actual signatures.

According to the university, Wrighton set up a confidential external review conducted by faculty from outside the engineering school. With the team's recommendation, the chancellor has publicly affirmed his support of the dean and her "vision for the future," a strategic plan she initiated after being brought in from Cornell University in 2006.

The school itself was in financial trouble when Sansalone arrived. Some of her immediate or proposed changes -- like eliminating a dual-degree program, cutting several administrative positions and consolidating departments -- sparked immediate criticism from alumni, students and faculty in the school.

"When I came to the school there were a number of key challenges that needed to be addressed fairly quickly -- some real financial challenges, some issues around accreditation," Sansalone told the student newspaper last week. (The university responded to requests for comment by releasing a statement on Tuesday.) "This isn't to excuse lack of communication, but sometimes it wasn't all that easy to communicate all the details." Sansalone and Wrighton said they would work to improve communication within the school.

Recent controversy arose over an e-mail written by Sansalone reportedly implying that South Korean students from private schools wouldn't be admitted to the school. Even some supporters of the petition who spoke to Inside Higher Ed, however, conceded that the issue was overemphasized and taken out of context.

"Even before the review committee was convened, the chancellor met with Dean Sansalone to discuss the issues raised in the communication received from faculty members [or the petition], including a reference to comments made by the dean in an email to a colleague about Korean students," according to the university statement released on Tuesday. "The dean noted that her comments were made in the much broader context of a discussion over the School of Engineering's desire to have its financial aid resources committed entirely to students who need financial assistance.

"Further, she energetically affirmed her commitment to developing a diverse community in the School of Engineering. Dean Sansalone apologized for the unfortunate impression created by the emails. She has since met with Korean students to assure them of her support of diversity."

Sansalone was chosen as an external hire largely because of a perceived need to bring direction to the engineering school and address its faltering financial situation. At Cornell, she headed the creation of an online affiliate called eCornell whose for-profit, distance-learning model was heavily criticized by faculty at the time.


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