Herald-Leader Editorial

Transy crisis hurt by defensiveness; board must exert impartial leadership

May 30, 2013 

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Transylvania University President R. Owen Williams shook hands and awarded students their diploma during the Transylvania University graduation at Transylvania University's Old Morrison Lawn on Saturday, May 25, 2013. Photo by Briana Scroggins

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Transylvania University, one of Lexington and Kentucky's most valued longstanding institutions, is in crisis.

There are a lot of facts in dispute regarding the words and actions of R. Owen Williams in the three years since he took the helm.

But one fact that is not disputed is that last Friday, the faculty voted 68 to 7 — a ratio of 10 to 1 — that it has no confidence in Williams' leadership.

No matter how you cut it, that's a crisis. It's a crisis that the board of trustees must address thoughtfully, without being defensive.

The board responded quickly with a vote of confidence in Williams, and on Tuesday, board chairman W.T. Young Jr. described the faculty vote as "an extreme and unwarranted position."

On Wednesday, Young was a bit more conciliatory, calling on everyone to work together and the faculty to give Williams another chance. He said two committees, one on academic affairs and one on employee concerns, will bring together trustees and faculty to work on the issues that have arisen.

They will need to work hard and transparently, presenting serious solutions to serious concerns.

Both the quick vote and the tough words suggest that the board feels it must join Williams behind the barricades. If the committees are, or are even seen as, ways to gloss over problems or buy time, the board will be doing a disservice to Transylvania.

In any business, when 90 percent of those who have contact with customers to deliver the product make public their lack of faith in management, there's a very serious problem.

This is particularly true at a small school, where the personal connection between teacher and student is fundamental. As Transy notes on its website, "Transylvania professors know their students by name and take a keen interest in their academic progress."

And those professors aren't wild-eyed rebels, according to one of their number, Rick Weber. He told Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford that the faculty has traditionally been "cautious, quiet, even docile." As problems multiplied, faculty attempted to address them first with Williams and then the board, but they saw few changes, he said.

The issue that brought the conflict into public view was a dispute over tenure for two faculty members. But Williams' behavior toward faculty, staff, students and alumni in multiple settings, as described in news stories and individual accounts, raises broader questions.

Faculty presented to the trustees accounts of intimidation, including shouting at people and calling them disloyal. They offered examples of denigrating faculty and students to their faces and to their peers. There are accounts of crude or inappropriate remarks, particularly aimed at female students, faculty and alumni.

These are grave charges that seem to indicate more than just cultural differences or the occasional remark taken out of context.

The Transylvania board must exert its leadership and study them dispassionately and thoroughly to find a productive way forward.

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