Kentucky voices

After turmoil, will Transy stay true to vision?

Lessons from Oswald, Roselle, Holley

September 8, 2013 

Much has been written in recent months about the Transylvania University faculty's no-confidence vote that led to President Owen Williams' decision to step down next summer. But nothing has been written, and little has been said, about the long-term effect such a controversy can have on a university.

Fortunately, the history of higher education in Lexington offers a few examples.

Unfortunately, those examples raise serious questions about what will — or will not — take place at Transylvania in the months and years ahead.

Williams arrived three years ago with impressive scholarly credentials (degrees from Dartmouth, Cambridge and Yale). He had no experience, however, in academic administration — a significant shortcoming — but earlier in life, he'd been a manager at Salomon Brothers, Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns. He left Wall Street in 1999 for a new career as a scholar.

His references could not have been more impressive. As a member of the presidential search committee, I checked two myself. The first, an emeritus professor of history at Yale, said, "I think he is the most remarkable character I've ever met. I'm not exaggerating."

A former Wall Street colleague talked about the scandal that destroyed Salomon Brothers in the early '90s. One of the firm's managers was secretly rigging the auctions of U.S. treasury bills — a grave violation of the law. Suspicious, Williams confronted him and was rebuffed. He then turned to the CEO, who also brushed him off. Then Williams quit the firm. "If they'd listened to Owen," the former colleague said, "Salomon Brothers would still exist."

At the time Williams was under consideration, Transylvania had benefited from almost three decades of enlightened stability under the leadership of President Charles Shearer. The search committee — consisting of professors, administrators, a student, and trustees like me — believed that Williams, despite the obvious hole in his resumé, had an inspired vision for the university and the drive to make it a reality.

A widely shared belief among the trustees was that small liberal-arts colleges like Transylvania were facing a gathering storm. Families were struggling to pay tuitions and recent graduates were staggered by debt. At the same time, technology was threatening to disrupt the business model of higher education by offering inexpensive online courses taught by respected professors.

A further threat was the shrinking population of college-bound students in Kentucky, the prime recruiting ground. Clearly, Transylvania needed to get better at attracting students from other states and foreign countries.

After Williams' arrival, the university adopted an ambitious strategic plan, aimed at moving the school significantly higher in the ranks of America's liberal arts colleges. After that, as far as we trustees could see, things went well until this spring, when suddenly we were presented with the faculty's no-confidence vote and a demand that Williams be fired.

The triggering offense, as we understood it, was his decision to delay — but not necessarily deny — the granting of tenure to two faculty members whose scholarly work had, in his opinion, fallen short. The faculty contended that he was unfairly changing the rules at the end of the long tenure process.

The faculty also voiced a number of complaints about Williams' dealings with professors and students: He was a poor listener. He was sexist. He said inappropriate things. He fostered a hostile work environment. He was indifferent to the best traditions of the academy.

These serious accusations came as a surprise to me. References described him as a good manager, especially with young people. Another trustee, a woman with professional experience in New York, questioned two female investment bankers about his dealings with women. Overall, she recalled, their testimonials were "glowing."

Yet, at Transylvania, a large number of professors were declaring themselves dead-set against working with him further.

Observing the rise and fall of the Williams administration, some Lexingtonians might detect a familiar pattern. The fates of three earlier reform-minded presidents come to mind.

Oswald raised standards

John Oswald, who had been a vice president of California's state university system, arrived at the University of Kentucky in 1963 with no illusions.

"He came here expecting to be here only five or six years," recalled Lewis W. Cochran, a physicist who was dean of the graduate school at the time. "He felt that if he did what needed to be done — he told me so — that he could not survive longer than that."

UK's traditional campus (leaving aside its newly opened medical school) was a sleepy place. Academic departments languished in isolation, presided over by aging deans and chairmen who seemed to have lifetime appointments. Their lack of ambition infected much of the faculty, whose quality was mixed.

Oswald proved to be a juggernaut, imposing term limits to root out the old deans and chairmen. As to the faculty, he embarked on a process Cochran called separating the sheep from the goats. Some got good pay raises; others got nothing at all.

To judge by the numbers, Oswald worked something akin to a miracle at UK.

Grant income — a barometer of scholarly reputation — rose from $3.4 million to more than $11 million. Enrollment in the graduate school doubled. The graduate faculty went from 210 to 388. The faculty of the English department went from 83 to 118. "Dr. Oswald," enthused the chairman, Jacob Adler, "has been able to attract professors from all over the country, from top schools."

But it didn't last. Although many professors and students supported the Oswald reforms, others in the community were horrified. To the public, the disruption seemed all the more unsettling in light of the anti-war demonstrations that were causing havoc on other campuses and seemed headed toward UK.

Soon Bert Combs and Ned Breathitt, the Democratic governors who had backed Oswald politically and financially, were gone, succeeded by Louie Nunn, a Republican, who personally confronted Oswald in unpleasant ways and initiated the process by which a governor stacks the board of trustees and drives a president out.

Five years after he came, Oswald was gone.

To many, it was a relief. But to quite a few professors, students and alumni, Oswald was a courageous visionary who dared to lift the university's sights. The student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, wrote that he had "created a mood of excitement ...which won for UK recognition as a national university with a national faculty and a national reputation."

The Courier-Journal quoted an unnamed trustee: "There was a time when I was sorta ashamed to tell people I graduated from UK. But since Oswald came here, we're no longer a cow college; we're recognized as a major university by educators throughout the United States."

Roselle stood for integrity

Like Oswald, David Roselle had high ambitions for UK, but he also had more tact and restraint.

When he arrived as president in 1987, he sat down for a long breakfast with Art Gallaher, an anthropologist who had been a professor, dean of arts and sciences and chancellor. Roselle, as Gallaher later recalled, asked for advice on the task ahead.

Gallaher responded that he should strive to be the best president he could be for two years, "then get the hell out of here."

Taken aback, Roselle asked why.

Because, Gallaher explained, sooner or later he'd be buried in an athletic scandal.

John Ed Pearce, a respected commentator for the Courier-Journal, wrote that the appointment of Roselle was not warmly received at first. But he quickly earned respect, making a particularly favorable impression on the professors.

"He surprised and delighted faculty members by dropping in on classrooms, talking not just to deans and department heads but also to individual professors and staff members," Pearce wrote, adding: "It is a measure of the man that within months his former critics were hailing him as 'the best thing to happen to the university in half a century.'"

But a mere nine months into his presidency, Gallaher's prediction came true.

A package burst open in the Emery Air Freight office in Los Angeles. Out tumbled $1,000 in cash, en route from the UK athletic office to the home of Chris Mills, a high-school basketball star.

It was then that Roselle did something extraordinary.

The traditional role of UK presidents in sports scandals is to feign cooperation with the NCAA while deploying lawyers to make sure the NCAA's investigators find out as little as possible. Roselle viewed the NCAA as an honor system and felt bound to cooperate. "One of the most strict edicts of honor systems is self-reporting," he explained. "The NCAA says, 'Here's what we're hearing.' And you're obligated to self-investigate and report back."

Bypassing UK's own legal team — long the nemesis of the NCAA — he hired a former judge, James Park, to lead the investigation. Park's instructions, as Roselle later recalled them, were simple: "If it's out there, find it."

The Emery package proved to be a Pandora's box. Beyond the thousand-dollar shipment, Park uncovered many other serious offenses. UK's report to the NCAA may have set a record for sheer volume: nine heavy-duty binders, each containing as many as 837 pages of devastating detail.

Wildcat fans were aghast, and already Roselle was on shaky ground with its most important constituent, Gov. Wallace Wilkinson. The two men had never been compatible, and Roselle had already made things worse by publicly protesting the governor's higher-education budget. Then, as the scandal unfolded, Roselle provoked him further by dismissing both Cliff Hagan as athletic director and Eddie Sutton as basketball coach. Wilkinson commenced to stack the board.

After two and a half years in Kentucky, Roselle called it quits and became president of the University of Delaware, where he served long and ably. Years after his departure, I ran into a Delaware grad, the winner of a McArthur genius grant, and asked about Roselle's performance. He paused, apparently trying to do the question justice. "If Delaware had a Mount Rushmore," he said, "it would have only one face on it."

Holley elevated Transy

Horace Holley, certainly the greatest president in Transylvania's long history, knew it wouldn't be easy. "I may become what you call a martyr," he wrote to his wife, "but it is not my intention to be one."

He was a New Englander, educated at Williams and Yale. He was also a Unitarian minister who believed in free speech and religious tolerance. Politically and religiously, Holley was a liberal.

Before his arrival in 1818, Transylvania was in the grip of the Presbyterians, a dogmatic group quite unlike the generally reasonable Presbyterians of today. They routinely denounced people of other traditions — even fellow Protestants — as "infidels" and pressured the government to enforce their orthodoxy. (A Presbyterian ancestor of mine, the Rev. James Blythe, was Holley's immediate predecessor. To him, separation of religion and politics was a subversive notion, cooked up by French atheists.)

Holley proved to be a talented classroom teacher, clear-headed administrator, magnetic conversationalist and spellbinding orator. In remarkably short time, he lifted Transylvania from backwoods obscurity to national prominence.

By 1826, eight years into his presidency, Transylvania was preeminent in what was then called the West and influential in the South, with more than 400 students from a dozen states. The jewel in the crown was its acclaimed medical school, but the law school was also well regarded. Success, however, was fragile. As John D. Wright Jr., a 20th-century historian at Transylvania, wrote: "Forces focusing upon the name and person of Horace Holley were intent on destroying him, if not the institution."

Holley was attacked for religious infidelity as a professor and preacher. His personal life became the stuff of gossip, and it was undeniable that he enjoyed parties, freewheeling conversation, theater and horse races, which the Presbyterians and certain others frowned upon.

Toward the end, he ran afoul of state politics, too. Transylvania, chartered by the state, was a precursor of the modern state university. Joseph Desha, the governor, was a difficult man who took a dim view of the school and of his political arch-enemy, Henry Clay, a pillar among Transylvania's trustees. Desha attacked the university as elitist, existing "for the benefit of the rich, to the exclusion of the poor."

Clay pleaded with Holley to stay the course, but in the spring of 1827, his position eroding badly, he resigned — marking the end of his career and, as it turned out, his life. That summer, on a ship bound from New Orleans to New York, he died of yellow fever at age 46 and was buried at sea.

More than one historian concluded that Holley, in giving up a promising career in New England to venture into Kentucky, made the mistake of a lifetime. But his legacy here was not insignificant. Even today, his name is spoken with respect.

Boldness often needed

Every presidency has its own peculiarities, and those portrayed in these brief sketches are different in more ways than they are similar. Yet they do share certain characteristics.

One is that they were bold and sometimes brash. Another is that they provoked a variety of constituencies — the public, the alumni, the faculty and the trustees — into highly emotional upheavals. Still another is that, when the upheavals subsided, their universities were left adrift, with a palpable loss of direction.

Universities tend to be slow-footed beasts, stubbornly unwilling to change. Rare is the president who can move one forward to a conspicuous degree. Equally rare is the university that can maintain a spirit of constructive reform over a period of years.

The issue now facing Transylvania is what becomes of the vision — not just the vision of Owen Williams, but also the vision of the faculty members, administrators, trustees and others who saw a need and attempted to fulfill it with an ambitious new strategy. Will the strategic plan follow the president out the door?

The tumult of the Holley, Oswald and Roselle presidencies left their universities emotionally spent. In the ensuing years, much of what they accomplished crumbled into dust. The price of peace was mediocrity.

It is nonetheless possible — but unfortunately, as history suggests, not probable — that Transylvania will summon up the collective will to be the exception.

It still has a real chance to become a markedly better university. Seizing that opportunity would add a worthy chapter to its long and sometimes distinguished history.

John S. Carroll of Lexington is on the Transylvania University Board of Trustees. He is a former editor of the Herald-Leader, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times.

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