Transylvania University hires interim vice president and dean

Michael J. Bell has been named the interim vice-president and dean of Transylvania University.
Michael J. Bell has been named the interim vice-president and dean of Transylvania University. Courtesy Transylvania University

After a tumultuous summer, Transylvania University announced Wednesday that it has chosen an interim vice president and dean to help lead the school until a new president is hired.

Michael J. Bell was chosen by a faculty and administrative search committee. He will start Aug. 1.

In June, President Owen Williams announced that he would resign at the end of the next academic year. The decision came after a 68-7 vote of no confidence by the faculty. The Board of Trustees unanimously held a vote of confidence in Williams, and Chairman William T. Young Jr. said the board accepted his resignation with "regret."

"I am very excited about the prospect of having someone with Dean Bell's experience joining us at Transylvania," Williams said in a news release. "We are all eager to work with him as we start to implement our strategic plan."

In June, Young announced that the interim dean would serve for the next two academic years. After a new president is found, the search for a permanent dean will begin.

Bell has recently served as vice president at a number of colleges requiring interim leadership, including Suffolk University and Merrimack College, both in the Boston area. He began his academic career as a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and later moved to Grinnell College in Iowa. Bell received his doctorate in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania.

"One of the advantages I bring to the table is that I have experienced a variety of institutions at a variety of stages in the institution's life," said Bell. "A few months ago Transylvania was poised to make a leap forward. If I can do anything to build on that momentum, then I would feel extremely successful."

Professor Martha Billips served on the search committee for Bell and said the faculty would support his appointment.

"Dr. Bell impressed the members of the search committee very favorably at all stages of the selection process," she said.

Bell said he believes people are "ready to get started" on Williams' strategic plan, which includes increasing the quantity, quality and diversity of Transy students, as well as an ambitious expansion of the downtown Lexington campus. Construction has already begun on new playing fields on Fourth Street between Newtown Pike and Jefferson Street.

"Everything I saw, everyone I met, suggested that this is a very strong community, one that cares deeply about the values of the institution," Bell said.

Faculty have criticized Williams' leadership style as being disrespectful and dismissive, as well as creating a hostile climate toward women on campus. The no-confidence vote occurred after Williams overturned two tenure decisions approved by faculty.

"We have high hopes that this year we'll be able to work with the administration and the board, and that the new dean will help us move forward," said Melissa Fortner, presiding officer of this year's faculty.

Long-time dean William F. Pollard stepped down in 2012, replaced in an interim position by Kathleen Jagger. In May, Jagger announced she had withdrawn her name for the permanent position; she will return to her full-time faculty position as a biology professor.

Spokeswoman Sarah Emmons said Wednesday that the Board of Trustees is in the process of assembling a presidential search committee, which will include trustees, faculty and a staff member.

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