How Not to Fire a Beloved Dean

Amid turmoil at Western Kentucky, a provost and dean leave their positions.

April 8, 2019
 
Terry Ballman

Western Kentucky University provost Terry Ballman stepped down Friday, effective immediately, just a day after the faculty voted no confidence in her. She was on the job for less than a year.

Just last week, Larry Snyder, the popular dean of Potter College of Arts and Letters, was suddenly forced to resign from his post.

What’s going on? Faculty members say the two administrative departures are related, and that a major review of academic programs also is involved. Snyder was widely seen as an advocate for professors who may be the targets of cuts. He was so popular on campus that even students held a series of protests -- an unusual form of student activism for a dean.

"Ballman definitely had the best interests of the university and students at heart, but what the faculty could just not get beyond was the way she dealt with personnel decisions -- and that culminated in the removal of a very well-liked dean,” said Kirk Atkinson, University Senate chair and associate professor of information systems.

At the request of more than a dozen faculty members, Atkinson called a special meeting of the Senate Thursday to vote on a resolution of no confidence in Ballman.

The resolution itself was simple: “Be it resolved that the University Senate has no confidence in the leadership of Provost Ballman.” But a lengthy discussion preceding the vote revealed a deep faculty distrust of Ballman’s ability to lead the university through tough times ahead -- namely program cuts resulting from the recent academic program review. Those cuts have not yet been announced. But just prior to his forced resignation, faculty members in his college say, Snyder informed them that the cuts would indeed be deep.

Guy Jordan, associate professor of art history, began the discussion of the resolution, saying that he’d worked with Snyder for 10 years and never knew him to do anything rash, let alone resign midsemester -- via a brief email from Ballman, sent March 27.

“Dr. Snyder has elected to step down as dean,” Ballman wrote. “Dr. Snyder will be on leave preparing to resume his duties as a member of our faculty. I wish to thank Dr. Snyder for his service as dean."

Explaining that he initially feared for Snyder’s health, Jordan said that he rushed to the dean’s office and saw his staffing crying about his having been “fired.” Others were gathering outside the dean’s office, too, Jordan said. And at that exact moment, two high school students were touring the university with their parents.

The students were “looking at us, wondering, ‘What on Earth is going on?’ That was the most chaotic and embarrassing thing I’ve ever witnessed in an academic workplace,” Jordan said.

Separate statements from senior administrators since have confirmed that Snyder was forced out neither for cause nor misconduct, Jordan continued. So while Ballman has the right to “choose her team,” he said, she could have waited for a more opportune time to let him go.

Instead, Jordan said, “we have grief and chaos, and for a month, in the busiest of the time of the spring semester, no one running the dean’s office except [Snyder’s] staff and a few dedicated but overwhelmed faculty fellows.”

Jordan expressed concern that Snyder’s dismissal was not a one-off, and that Ballman indeed exhibited a “pattern” of “reckless” decisions. Another member of the provost’s team involved in the academic review was dismissed from the process in similar manner earlier this academic year, he asserted. And Ballman told non-tenure-track professors to expect letters saying that they would lose their appointments but possibly be rehired for next year, he said. The letters were never sent, but Jordan criticized Ballman’s handling of the possibility.

Like many institutions, Western Kentucky is facing challenges, including steep state funding cuts. So while the university reviews academic programs with some regularity, the stakes are high this round. And it's still unclear what will be cut. The Board of Regents is set to review the Comprehensive Academic Program Evaluation committee's recommendations this week.

Jordan said he knew that cuts across the university were imminent. But “when you know that your dean is willing to advocate for you, fight your fight -- that a dean will do all he or she can to ensure transparency, fairness and to protect his or her students, staff and faculty -- even when the ultimate decision doesn’t go your way, it makes those cuts easier to handle and those transitions easier to make.”

The final vote was 50 to 10, no confidence, with three abstentions. Students of course couldn’t participate, but some attended the meeting in a show of solidarity with professors opposed to Snyder’s release. Many students protested on campus immediately following the news that he would no longer be dean.

Following the special meeting, the university released a statement saying that a vote of no confidence “is exceedingly rare in higher education and at our institution. [The university] takes shared governance seriously and will need some time to react appropriately to this action taken” by the senate.

The next day, Friday, Ballman announced her immediate resignation. The decision followed discussions with President Timothy C. Caboni about “what would be in [the university’s] best interest,” she said. Ballman will serve as assistant to the president for special initiatives until 2020 and resume a professorship in the department of modern languages full-time after that.

Ballman began as provost in August. Prior to that, she was dean of the College of Arts and Letters at California State University, San Bernardino. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Snyder was unavailable for an interview.

“Serving as your provost has been both an honor and a privilege, and I am proud of the things we have accomplished this year,” Ballman said. “I remain confident in the future of [Western Kentucky]. This is a remarkable, student-centered institution, and our students will continue to enjoy the transformative educational opportunities that are a hallmark” of the university experience.

Caboni, the president, wrote in a campus memo that “a vote of no confidence is a powerful statement and one that I take very seriously.” Saying that he’d heard from various members of the campus over the past two weeks -- presumably since Snyder’s resignation -- and that he’d spoken with Ballman, Caboni also said she'd "agreed that it is in [Western Kentucky’s] best interest that she step down from her role, effective immediately.”

Cheryl Stevens, longtime dean of Western Kentucky's Ogden College of Science and Engineering, will serve as acting provost. Merrall Price, special assistant to the provost and professor of English, who had previously been announced as Snyder’s interim successor as dean, will immediately move to the dean’s office.

Caboni added that academic affairs “also will immediately implement a plan of action to address the concerns of the campus community and to regain the trust of those who have lost confidence. Clearly, we must do more.”

To that end, he said, any program decisions related to the review will not go beyond the committee’s recommendations. Noting that the campus has been operating without three associate vice presidents for academic affairs this semester, Caboni also said that the new provost will appoint a senior vice provost to work with her and deans, “to advance [the university’s] strategic plan and also to strengthen relationships between academic affairs and each of our five colleges.”

Caboni also announced the creation of a new, monthly provost’s council of senior professors and other individual college leaders to “ensure that policies and decisions are being vetted more broadly and with input from and conversation with a larger group from across campus.”

Such moments in the life of an institution “are painful,” Caboni wrote. “As we move forward together, where damaged, we must repair our organizational bonds. Most importantly, we will refocus our time and energy on the things each of us was brought here to accomplish. At our core are student learning, knowledge creation and public engagement that elevate our region.”

Atkinson, the senate chair, said he and others are still trying to process the recent changes. But the overall feeling on campus seems to be a desire to “get back to business.”

“We are very student focused and we want to move forward,” he said.

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