Faculty: Transylvania president has created 'climate of distrust and demoralization'

lblackford@herald-leader.comApril 8, 2013 

Simmering tensions between Transylvania University President Owen Williams and the Lexington school's faculty and students have boiled into public view.

A few dozen students gathered throughout Friday at Haupt Circle on Transylvania's campus to demand more open communication with the administration. The demonstration followed a 74-4 faculty vote last month to send Williams a letter complaining about "a climate of distrust and demoralization which affects daily operations of the college and the future aspirations of the faculty, administration and board."

The actions were spurred by recent tenure decisions by Williams.

According to the faculty letter, Williams denied tenure for two junior faculty members after they had been approved by the entire faculty and the personnel committee in charge of tenure decisions. The two candidates, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Herald-Leader, had positive evaluations at their probationary reviews.

Williams, however, said the faculty members must publish in a peer-reviewed journal by next December to be considered for tenure, a requirement that the letter said had not been necessary previously for tenure at Transy.

"These candidates prepared for tenure and were evaluated by faculty and administration under the tenure and promotion guidelines that are to remain in effect until they are phased out in 2014," the faculty wrote. "Therefore the decision to hold them accountable to a standard not yet in place seems unfair and unethical."

The letter asked Williams to meet with faculty March 20, which he declined to do. That prompted a faculty letter to the board of trustees, submitted by Judy Jones, presiding officer of the faculty.

In the letter to trustees, Jones cited Williams' response to faculty, which included this statement: "As this is my response to your letter and as there can be nothing else to say on these most recent tenure and promotion decisions, there is no need for us to meet for further discussion (though the dean and I remain open to further questions submitted in writing.)"

Williams' response was dismissive and disrespectful, the letter to the trustees said.

"The clear dismissiveness of the letter, disregard and disrespect for our collaborative community, and decision not to speak with the faculty proves indicative of the top-down, unilateral style of leadership President Williams has exhibited in his 21/2 years at Transylvania," the March 20 letter said. "This style of leadership has negatively affected the daily operations of the university and imperils its chances for continued success."

Several faculty members contacted by the Herald-Leader, including Jones, declined to comment, citing fear of retaliation.

Williams said Monday that tenure for two professors had been deferred, not denied, and that one of them had since been granted tenure.

"We have a process that is in need of some review," he said. "We have a lack of continuity in how it (tenure) has been applied."

As for general morale, Williams said, it ebbed and flowed.

"When tough decisions are made, it can affect morale," he said. "With so many exciting things going on here, I hope the tide will change."

W.T. Young Jr., chairman of the Transylvania Board of Trustees, said Monday that he has agreed to meet with faculty, although a meeting has not been scheduled.

"The faculty have expressed some concerns that started with a personnel matter," Young said. "What I've offered to do is meet with them, just to see what their concerns really are."

Leslie Bartley, a Transy senior who helped organize Friday's student demonstration, said students felt they weren't being heard about a variety of concerns, including the tenure process and recent land acquisitions by the university.

"A lot of the concern is that there's no transparency," Bartley said.

Students sent more than 100 letters about the tenure issue to Williams' office, but Bartley said Williams would not discuss them with students or even say he had read them.

Williams attended the demonstration but did not say whether he would meet with students this Friday, as they have requested.

Jake Hawkins, a senior and editor-in-chief of the Transy Rambler student newspaper, said the mood on campus has been getting worse.

"The campus has a black cloud over it," he said. "The tenure allegations were the final thing."

As a reporter for the Rambler, Hawkins said, he was banned from Williams' office during his junior year over stories he had written.

"The students feel he doesn't take them seriously and doesn't treat them like adults," Hawkins said.

Williams came to Transylvania in 2011 after careers as a Wall Street banker and a Civil War scholar at Yale. He has launched ambitious plans for the 1,070-student school, including expanding and improving its student body, curriculum and physical plant.

Transy has bought numerous properties around campus in recent months, including land for new athletic fields on West Fourth Street.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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