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The University of Arizona’s campus police chief said she would “step down” at the start of this week, while the provost has “elected to step away” from that role at this semester’s end, the president says.
The departures come in the wake of the October murder of a professor, Thomas Meixner, whom an expelled student allegedly shot to death in his own workplace. Two investigations, by a faculty committee and by a security consulting firm, released in February and March, concluded the University of Arizona Police Department and other parts of the university failed to effectively respond to indications well before the shooting that the ex-student was dangerous.
Among other things, the security consultant report said the UAPD didn’t run a background check on the accused graduate student and didn’t arrest him a week before the shooting, when he entered the UAPD station to run his new vehicle’s license plate number. The lack of arrest was despite his already having harassed multiple employees and his already being expelled, the report said.
Both reports criticized the police chief, Paula Balafas, for saying at a news conference the day of Meixner’s death that the shooting was something “you can’t even predict,” and for telling university community members that if they “see something, say something” and “do something.”
President Robert C. Robbins announced these leadership changes Monday in an email to “students and colleagues.”
The university didn’t provide interviews Tuesday. Asked via email whether the two officials were asked to step down, a university spokeswoman replied that the university didn’t have any comment beyond Robbins’s letter and that Robbins would be available for questions Friday.
Leila Hudson, the university’s chair of the faculty, said she formed the faculty committee that investigated Meixner’s death. The university initially dismissed that committee’s report, but Robbins later apologized.
Asked Tuesday about the personnel changes, Hudson said, “What the aftermath report by our faculty committee and the external consultant revealed is that we needed a change in our organizational culture here. And so this set of moves shows the president listening and taking those recommendations seriously, as we’d hoped that he would.”
“It’s always painful to go through this kind of change,” Hudson said. “But I see it, and I think many, many of the faculty and the campus community see it, as the first step towards an institutional culture that emphasizes communication, dialogue, critical introspection and engagement between the university offices and officers and the larger campus community and its needs.”
Inside Higher Ed was unable to reach Balafas Tuesday, and Liesl Folks, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, didn’t return requests for comment.
Robbins’s email said Folks “elected to step away from her current administrative responsibilities to focus on establishing a new Center for Semiconducting Manufacturing here at the University of Arizona. An accomplished engineer with extensive industry experience and deep knowledge in the fields of nanoscale devices and metrology, she will remain a faculty member of electrical and computer engineering.”
He praised her contributions and wrote, “We are fortunate that Provost Folks will remain a member of our Arizona community.”
Robbins also thanked “Chief Balafas for her dedicated service, focused on rebuilding partnerships and reimagining campus safety, and we wish her the very best.”
He said Chris Olson, commander of the Oro Valley Police Department’s Field Services Division and a former UAPD officer, will be the interim chief, reporting to the new Office of Public Safety and its chief safety officer.
“This strategic change will further elevate safety operations across campus and enhance effective coordination of ongoing security measures, including those related to implementation of the previously detailed PAX Group recommendations,” Robbins wrote.
The PAX Group included a passage regarding the university’s Threat Assessment Management Team, suggesting that unnamed university leaders didn’t pay attention to issues with TAMT that were discovered years ago.
“As early as May 23, 2018, TAMT lead members met with select university senior leadership to present the team’s recommendations and highlight the importance of having ‘leadership input to support a sustainable and effective TAMT response,’” that report said, without naming these leaders.
Robbins became president in June 2017. Folks, according to her LinkedIn page, has been provost and senior vice president for academic affairs since July 2019.
“In July 2021, TAMT was again preparing to discuss the role of TAMT with senior leadership more than three years after the TAMT 2018 proposal was first presented to leadership,” the report continues. “At that time, one TAMT member provided insight from what ‘[was] still relevant from the summary [TAMT] offered a few years back [to select senior leadership members].’ Another TAMT member noted that senior leadership would need to determine if TAMT was something the university would want to continue and that, ‘We may have a great deal of educating to do before getting to the critical point of their true understanding of the role … It has taken years to get to this moment and none of us seem to know why.’”
On March 27, the Faculty Senate voted no confidence in Robbins, Balafas, Folks and a few other top administrators over Meixner’s death and the university’s response to the faculty safety committee report. Lyndel Manson, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, wrote in a letter the next day that “The board fully supports President Robbins, whose guidance has led the university to achieve extraordinary success and has shepherded it through unprecedented challenges.”
On Tuesday, an Arizona Board of Regents spokeswoman reiterated in an email to Inside Higher Ed that “President Robbins has the full support of the board and the personnel changes recently announced reaffirm his leadership.”
“We didn’t ask for anyone to step down,” Hudson said Tuesday. “What is most important to us is effective organizational mechanisms for change. And, given that the president enjoys the full support of the Arizona Board of Regents and has a lot of projects ongoing in terms of affiliations and partnerships, I think that’s part of the reason that it’s important for there to be presidential continuity for the medium term. So, again, what we’re hoping to do is right the ship, not overturn the ship.”
The faculty committee report had also criticized the dean of students’ office, which is under the provost, and the Office of General Counsel.
“I think we also need to look at a reorganization of the dean of students’ office,” Hudson said, “not only for its role on the TAMT in the past but also for other issues that have come to light on campus since then, so I think the dean of students is an office that is going to require perhaps even more far-reaching changes than the ones that were announced yesterday.”
But in general, Hudson said, she continues to be cautiously optimistic that the president regards faculty and staff “now as partners and not as mere employees to be managed.”