Transylvania faculty take 'no confidence' vote in president; trustees stand behind him

Transylvania University President Owen Williams.
Transylvania University President Owen Williams. Herald-Leader

The faculty of Transylvania University has taken a vote of no confidence in the leadership of President Owen Williams, the first such vote in the school's history.

But the university's trustees are standing behind the leader they chose in 2010, announcing Tuesday that they took a unanimous vote of confidence in Williams after the faculty vote.

Both sides, faculty and trustees, decided to keep their Friday votes quiet until after Saturday's graduation ceremonies.

The faculty voted 68 to 7 Friday morning, according to documents obtained Tuesday by the Lexington Herald-Leader. The resolution stated: "We have NO CONFIDENCE in the ability of R. Owen Williams to continue to serve as president of our institution." The vote centers around a recent tenure decision, as well as Williams' leadership and management styles for the past three years.

The past, current and future presiding officers of the faculty released a statement Tuesday afternoon about the situation.

"Over the last three years we have made measured judgments and taken careful steps to address the problems created by Dr. Williams' leadership," said the statement from professors Judy Jones, Melissa Fortner and Ben Hawkins. "We find ourselves very distressed to be in this situation; it is only because of the extreme nature of these failures of leadership that we find it necessary to take a vote of no confidence, an action unprecedented at Transylvania."

The faculty also voted to recommend that tenure be retroactively granted to two faculty members whose tenure was deferred by Williams.

That decision by Williams brought into the open the simmering conflict between the president and the faculty and students earlier this spring. The dispute led to a protest April 5 by students, who demanded better communication with the administration.

Faculty representatives have given some trustees a document outlining many of their complaints against Williams, including aggressive behavior toward faculty and students that "creates a community of fear rather than a community of engagement and creativity," the document said. "Numerous faculty and staff alike report feeling fearful for their job."

The document also cites Williams' perceived difficulties with women and a "chilly climate" on campus toward women.

"While the tenure decisions are indeed recent examples of unjustified and irresponsible decision-making, our concerns range widely, from an increasingly hostile campus environment for faculty, staff, and students to questionable and ineffective management," the faculty statement said. "Our vote was the culmination of three years of fruitless attempts to work with Dr. Williams to remedy these problems."

The tenure decision appeared to be the last straw for faculty because, the document said, Williams changed the rules midstream about what was required for tenure. Although the two professors had received recommendations from all the required committees, Williams said they now had to be published in peer-reviewed publications. That was not part of the tenure requirements at the time.

"In making his decision to defer tenure to two highly esteemed members of the faculty, President Williams ignored the overwhelming recommendations of the faculty, and the strong recommendations of the Personnel Committee, which were based on a wealth of evidence that both faculty members had earned tenure," the document said. The faculty was "dismayed that the President would then move so hastily and capriciously to apply new standards at this time, and in such a way that threaten both a fine colleague's career and the functioning of the university."

On Friday, the trustees decided not to intervene in the tenure decision. They did, however, appoint an ad hoc committee on employee concerns.

"The board of trustees has one overriding mission," board chairman W.T. Young Jr. said in a statement, "and that is to make Transylvania the best educational institution it can be. Doing so places demands on all of us — students, professors, administrators and trustees. I am disappointed, frankly, that the faculty has taken a no-confidence vote. In my view, this is an extreme and unwarranted position.

"At the same time, I respect the absolutely crucial role of the faculty. My intention is to support its efforts to make the university even better than it already is. My hope is that in the months to come we can work collegially toward the goals we all share."

The faculty representatives said they were "deeply disappointed" in Young's statement, "that despite the amount and the gravity of information we provided to him and other members of the Board of Trustees ... he chose to characterize our actions as 'extreme and unwarranted.'"

No-confidence votes in academia are symbolic rather than binding, but they usually serve as a wake-up call to severe tensions on a campus, said John Thelin, a higher-education historian at the University of Kentucky.

"It's very symbolic," Thelin said. "My impression is that it's often dangerous because it often backfires."

Thelin mentioned New York University, where there have been several no-confidence votes in President John Sexton in the past two years, although he has kept his job. "It brought into the open this really sad rift between trustees and the faculty."

The larger problem, Thelin and others have said, is the decline of shared governance — the concept of faculty, staff and the administration governing universities together. Most university governing boards — including Transy — are mostly filled with people from the corporate world, where shared governance is "very alien," Thelin said. Faculty find themselves shut out of many decisions made by upper administrators.

"I think shared governance is very fragile," he said.

The trustees clearly like Williams' vision of putting Transy among the top 50 liberal arts colleges in the nation by 2020. On Friday, they also voted to support Transy's strategic plan. It would increase the student body from 1,100 to 1,500 and the faculty from 100 to 125.

Williams came to Transylvania in 2010 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.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader