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Lafayette College

Twenty-three Lafayette College department heads and program chairs say there are serious issues with governance at the college, according to “points of concern” four of them shared with the president and provost.

It’s unclear who supported the letter beyond those four, but 23 would represent over two-thirds of the college’s department heads and program chairs.

“Trust and institutional culture are broken,” the first of the five points said. “The hollowing out of administrative and professional staff, and the dismissal and erasure of colleagues, institutional experience and real community, have created a culture of fear and distrust and are harming the college.”

The second point said that “Dean positions are created and filled before dean positions are defined[;] input is requested only after key decisions are made.”

Lafayette, a private Pennsylvania liberal arts college with roughly 2,700 students, currently has no deans supervising its four academic divisions: humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. It’s adding them July 1.

The third point decried “top-down approaches,” the fourth said shared governance with faculty was “imperiled” and the last called for a pause on “some initiatives (such as the new academic dean structure).”

“Frantic action in a context of deep dysfunction would only do the college more harm,” that last point said. “The faculty are marginalized and exhausted, large departments are overwhelmed, smaller programs are running on fumes and important academic commitments and initiatives need support. Administrative discourse often appears devoid of substance, lacks respect for previous efforts, (e.g., ‘Becoming Lafayette’) and is frequently at odds with what is actually unfolding at the college.”

These points were shared broadly in a March 2 email, signed by four people who said they were representing the consensus of the 23.

Three of those four—the history and mechanical engineering department heads and the program chair for women’s, gender and sexuality studies—didn’t respond to requests for comment. The fourth, Eric Ziolkowski, the religious studies department head, said he had no comment.

In a follow-up email to their fellow department heads and program chairs, the four wrote that “As the conversation around these issues grows, we want to clarify our role. Having completed our work as facilitators and note takers for the meeting, we want to be clear that, moving forward, we are not taking on a leadership role, nor will we speak for the larger group of 23.”

“We are fully committed to the larger group’s request that the next step should be an open and honest discussion of the points of concern during the next official meeting of the department heads and program chairs,” set for Tuesday, they wrote.

“I don’t think anybody is going to feel comfortable talking about this right now,” said Wendy Wilson-Fall. She’s chair of Africana studies, but not one of the four signatories on the points of concern letter.

“I certainly can attest that there’s a lot going on, but it’s hard to tell whether this is just sort of growing pains under a new administration,” she said. “I’m not prepared to say more than that at this time. Things are in flux, and the president has initiated some new structural changes and, understandably, people are trying to find their sea legs.”

Angela Bell, an assistant professor of psychology, said, “Deans were appointed without any sort of clarity on what their roles were or how the deans would be affecting or impacting like tenure and promotion cases.”

“I am one of many pretenure faculty who are leaving the college,” Bell said.

“Lafayette has a major retention problem among faculty and among staff and among administration,” she said.

“The workload at this campus is unsustainable, and the work that is being done is not being valued,” she said, “and there are people who are doing so many jobs on top of their jobs, and this happened even before President [Nicole] Hurd’s role here.”

Bell also said, “Nicole Hurd’s work seems to be completely independent of all the work that’s happened before Nicole Hurd.”

Hurd, who became Lafayette’s president last academic year, didn’t provide an interview last week.

The President’s Response

Hurd responded to the points of concern March 7 with a letter to faculty members that doesn’t seem to address the points about “hollowed out” staff, “overwhelmed” departments or a “culture of fear and distrust.” But the letter does discuss the dean situation.

“I understand the questions this email noted about the process of appointing the deans,” Hurd wrote. “I believe we have made good faith efforts to engage others in this process, but also appreciate that communication related to the reasoning and roles of these deans to the broader faculty could and should have been more robust. While the organization of the provost’s office is the purview of the administration, the full scope of these new roles can only be realized through collaboration and coordination with the faculty.

“To that end, I have asked that draft job descriptions of the four new deans, as well as the vision for a position associated with interdisciplinary coordination, be shared with the entire faculty when we return from spring break. The faculty will have the opportunity to read and respond to those descriptions, including through faculty-elected committees, before any deans are in place. I also welcome a conversation about the job descriptions with the department heads and program chairs at their April meeting.”

Hurd’s letter also seems to respond to a concern that wasn’t stated in the points of concern email: promotion and tenure.

“There is a great deal of work in the academic division that the new deans can undertake that does not touch on promotion and tenure review (PTR) and the curriculum,” she wrote.

“They can be a resource for pre-tenure colleagues, improve communication with and support of department heads and program chairs and work to improve support and alignment of resources for the faculty at large,” she wrote. “These responsibilities and other ways that we can reap the benefits of our colleagues’ service to the college starting on July 1 can be further identified and discussed as part of the review of the draft job descriptions. Decisions about the role of the deans, if any, in promotion and tenure review processes, as well as in the curriculum, fall in the purview of the faculty.”

Pete Mackey, the college’s interim vice president for communications and marketing, said the deans were chosen from among current tenured professors.

When asked whether faculty members had input on who was hired, Mackey said, “Because the positions report to the provost, the provost made those decisions, following close consideration of multiple candidates.”

“The president and provost discussed the prospect of establishing the four deans’ positions in multiple meetings with faculty governance committees across the 2021–22 academic year and at meetings of the faculty as a whole,” he said. “Those discussions included considering the necessary edits to the Faculty Handbook, which have continued to be under discussion this year with the appropriate faculty governance committees.”

He said Lafayette’s department heads and program chairs don’t vet faculty members for tenure or promotion.

“There is no one between the provost and 225-plus faculty for the tenure and promotion process, and you can imagine the implications of that structure,” he said. “And so the discussion about the deans is in part … related to [the] question of managing the promotion, tenure and review process for that many faculty.”

While the administration is changing its structure, faculty members are simultaneously changing their governance structure.

Mackey said Hurd hasn’t disregarded faculty plans that preceded her presidency, and, regarding workload, he said, “The student-faculty ratio at Lafayette is 10 to one. This has been the case for a long time, and there are no plans to change it.”

Bell said dean roles and responsibilities were provided to the faculty members last week.

“But, of course, this is reactionary on the part of the administration,” she said.

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