Transylvania board chairman urges faculty to give president another chance

Transylvania University President R. Owen Williams presented degrees to graduates during the Transylvania University graduation on May 25.
Transylvania University President R. Owen Williams presented degrees to graduates during the Transylvania University graduation on May 25. Herald-Leader

The day after Transylvania University's faculty and board of trustees publicly disagreed over the leadership of President Owen Williams, the trustees' chairman sent an email to faculty urging them to "give this presidency the opportunity to work."

Although W.T. Young Jr. on Tuesday called the faculty's vote of no confidence in Williams "extreme and unwarranted," on Wednesday he called for all the parties to work together.

Young did not back away from the board's own unanimous vote of confidence in Williams, but said they would monitor his performance through committees and "in other ways as necessary."

"The board feels it has listened to and carefully considered all of the issues and concerns that were raised by the faculty representatives in their meeting with four trustees on April 28 and has made a good faith effort to reasonably address them," Young said in the email. "The board supports the president's plan to address the concerns voiced about his leadership style, which he presented to the faculty at their meeting on May 23."

Two committees, one on academic affairs and one on employee concerns, will bring together trustees and faculty to work on the issues at hand, Young said.

Those issues include Williams' management and leadership style, which faculty have described in various documents as aggressive and disrespectful, particularly toward women. The long-brewing conflict sparked earlier this spring when Williams deferred the tenure of two professors who had been approved by all the governing committees.

In a statement Wednesday, three presiding officers of the faculty said the overwhelming 68-7 vote of no confidence was taken only after three years of "fruitless attempts" to work with the president on a "range of behaviors on the part of Dr. Williams that disrupt and diminish student learning, faculty scholarship, and the mission of the college.

"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 leaders said.

In his email, Young said the board backed Williams' tenure decisions and urged faculty to "make every effort to support" Williams.

Young said that to replace Williams "would be a serious setback to Transylvania in its mission to recruit excellent students, to attract financial support, and to reach the other goals associated with the Strategic Plan. It would be very difficult to recruit a qualified president under these circumstances."

Meanwhile, news of the Transy struggle is reaching alumni, although many in Lexington have been hearing about issues with Williams for the past couple of years, said Tanzi Merritt, who graduated from the school in 1996.

Merritt said she had an unpleasant encounter with Williams, after she was a finalist for a job at Transy and interviewed with him.

"It was clear that he had not only not read my resume and he hadn't bothered to find out that I was an alum," Merritt said. "He made me feel like he clearly considered it a waste of time to be talking to me. He wasn't courteous at all."

Merritt said she's worried that the board is getting only part of the story.

"It seems that maybe only a very small part of the board has a lot of information, and a large number maybe don't really know how seriously people are taking this," she said. "A lot of them aren't local, and I don't know how connected they are to the university on a daily basis."

A group of alumni have set up a private social media account, where many people have said they will stop their donations to the school, Merritt said.

Professor Don Dugi is one of seven faculty who voted against the statement of no confidence in Williams. He said the faculty has "behaved badly" and "might cause it irreparable harm."

"Most of the charges are exaggerations if not outright falsehoods," Dugi said. "They want it their way or no way."

But Angela Hurley, chairwoman of the university's humanities division, said the no-confidence vote was far from being a sudden, angry decision.

"Groups and individuals have been worried about the president's pattern of inappropriate interactions with faculty, staff, and students and uneasy with many presidential decisions for the past three years," she said. "The vote that occurred last Friday was well-thought through and came after attempts to alert the board to the problems had apparently failed. The faculty members who moved this vote forward have not engaged in confrontational behavior in their many years at Transylvania. Only grave concern for and love of their institution and students could have brought about such a vote."

Rick Weber, a professor of German and French, said the tenure issue merely began a discussion of Williams' leadership.

"The collective mosaic that resulted was so persuasive as to move an overwhelming majority of what has traditionally been a cautious, quiet, even docile faculty to the vote of no confidence." Weber said.

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