Tom Eblen: New president gives Transy a chance for a fresh start

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 18, 2014 

Seamus Carey, Transy's next president, is dean at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

A couple of things on my mind lately:

Transylvania University has the opportunity to make a fresh start with a new president. How well everyone seizes that opportunity will determine the institution's future for many years.

Seamus Carey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., was chosen Monday to become the 26th president of Kentucky's oldest university, chartered in 1780. He was one of four finalists brought to campus to meet with faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Transylvania has been in turmoil since soon after Owen Williams, a former Wall Street banker with impressive credentials but little academic leadership experience, was hired as president in 2010.

Williams took over after the retirement of Charles Shearer, who earned a lot of affection and respect during his 27-year presidency for rebuilding Transylvania, nearly tripling its endowment and doubling enrollment.

Williams impressed Transylvania trustees with his intellect, his diverse accomplishments and his plans for taking the liberal arts college to the next level.

But his arrogant and autocratic style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, on campus and around town. Williams antagonized Transylvania's faculty to the point that it voted 68-7 in May to express no confidence in his leadership.

Trustees responded by giving Williams a unanimous vote of confidence and blaming the faculty. Still, within weeks, Williams announced he would leave at the end of this academic year. Carey takes over in July.

Transylvania's turmoil offers lessons the university community — or any large organization, for that matter — should take to heart.

The first lesson is that it matters how you treat people. However intelligent or visionary a leader might be, he can't accomplish much if people won't follow him.

The second lesson is that governing boards make better decisions when they are diverse and aware. When mounting dissatisfaction with Williams exploded into faculty rebellion last year, trustees were surprised. Had they been plugged into the broader Transylvania and Lexington communities, they would not have been.

The final lesson will be more of a test. How well can Transylvania's faculty, trustees, staff and students work together with the new president to try to achieve some of the worthy goals Williams sought?

Transylvania reached the top echelon of American universities for a brief period in the 1820s. The rest of its history has been a series of ups and downs. Can Transy become a national player again? Improvement requires change, and change is hard.

The second thing on my mind is the mayor's race.

Mayor Jim Gray attracted two challengers when the filing deadline came Jan. 28. Those challengers have offered few clues about why they are in the race or how they hope to win.

The first challenger is Danny Mayer, an associate professor of English at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He also was the publisher of North of Center, an alternative community newspaper that closed last fall after four years.

North of Center criticized some of Gray's downtown development strategies. But, more often than not, the newspaper seemed more interested in being a cheeky gadfly than a community voice that many people would take seriously.

Mayer, 38, is a smart guy, but he has no obvious qualifications or experience to be mayor. If he entered the race to raise issues he thinks need to be discussed, it will be interesting to see how he handles the opportunity.

Gray's other opponent, Anthany Beatty, has the qualifications and experience to be mayor. He spent his career in the Lexington police department, and he was a successful chief for six years before retiring and becoming the University of Kentucky's vice president for campus services and public safety. Beatty, 62, is smart, well-liked and has excellent people and management skills.

Were Gray not an accomplished, popular visionary and well-financed incumbent with few liabilities, Beatty would be a strong candidate. As it is, Beatty is a long shot, unless Gray screws up big during the next eight months.

Beatty must make a compelling case for why Gray, 60, should be turned out of office. How does he hope to do that? What issues will he focus on? He hasn't said.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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