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WCU budget cuts, reorganization trigger controversy

At the outset of the state budget crisis, Chancellor John Bardo and Western Carolina University’s Board of Trustees maintained the process of cutting $8.6 million would be transparent.

Faculty and staff, they said, would see their opinions truly matter as the university tries to maintain academic integrity in the face of deep financial cuts.

That promise of organic, grassroots problem solving didn’t hold true when it came to the College of Education and Allied Professions, according to Jacqueline Jacobs. The tenured professor submitted a letter of resignation two weeks ago. She will finish out the academic year.

Jacobs said Dean Perry Schoon, who has been at WCU since 2009, used the crisis as a smokescreen to reorganize the College of Education and Allied Professions as he saw fit, absent meaningful oversight or opinion outside a select few.

“The continued actions by Dr. Schoon, as dean of the college … and the support for him to behave as he has, create such a negative work environment for me and constitute such a total disregard for faculty voice that I find I cannot continue at WCU,” Jacobs wrote in her March 7 resignation letter.

Recommendations by Schoon that certain faculty not be reappointed is being reviewed — at Bardo’s request — by the university’s assistant provost, legal counsel and the chair of WCU’s Faculty Senate. The Faculty Senate serves as faculty’s “voice” for advising the chancellor and provost (second in command behind the chancellor) on the conduct of university affairs.

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For his part, Schoon maintains reorganizing the College of Education and Allied Professions will save $250,000 in administrative and overhead costs, and preserve four faculty positions. Saving money in the tumbledown of a $2.4-billion state shortfall is indeed critical — WCU has eliminated 10 positions university-wide already; up to 15 more will be cut by July.

“During the unpleasant task of identifying spending reductions, we have kept in mind the chancellor’s directive to do all we can to protect the academic core,” Schoon said. “The college’s faculty were involved in this process, and their input has been essential in identifying and recommending programs and resources that are most critical to our core mission.”

That’s only part of the story, and not particularly accurate, according to Jacobs. The nonpublic part, at least until now, is that the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions was forced on faculty and staff, some of whom are afraid to speak out for fear of job repercussions, Jacobs said.

And about that involvement of faculty Schoon refers to?

“It is true that there were faculty involved, but they were appointed by the dean as a task force reporting to him and as the Leadership Council which reports only to him,” Jacobs said. “That is, faculty in these groups were not elected by the faculty to represent them.”

Here’s why this internal debate at WCU should matter to anyone outside academia: The College of Education and Allied Professions is where most of the K-12 teachers, principals and superintendents who serve Western North Carolina receive their training. What happens here, in other words, counts in the region’s classrooms, and will matter to the children in WNC for decades to come. WCU is also the only university in this region that provides a doctoral program for educational leaders.


Reorganizing, or a power play?  

There are three issues: Schoon’s recommendation that three tenure-track professors not be reappointed; the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions, which reduces the number of departmental-level units from five to three; and questions about Schoon’s handling of the doctoral program. About 40 people are seeking that advanced degree.

First, the tenure-track issue. To get tenure, a faculty member must jump through certain hoops at different times for a number of years. Tenure means job protection and ensures the possibility of promotion.

The three faculty members recommended for job elimination by Schoon were in their third- to fifth-year of the tenure track process, meaning they have invested a lot into WCU. And, for its part, the university has invested much in them.

Normally, tenure track professors are invited by mid-February to remain on board with the university for the next year. The controversy erupted after interim Provost Linda Seestedt-Stanford asked the Faculty Senate for an extension to act on tenure track faculty reappointments.

The provost indicated to the Faculty Senate more time was needed in light of the budget situation — it was still not known how much money the university would have to cut — and reorganization efforts then under way.

The Faculty Senate, thinking it was a university-wide request that a multitude of deans had sought, capitulated, albeit reluctantly.

“The Senate voted to support the provost’s request on the grounds that this condition, while upsetting, may be the best chance we have to save as many faculty jobs as possible,” Erin McNelis, chair of the Faculty Senate, wrote in a faculty-wide letter sent Feb. 8.

The problem? This would, the Faculty Senate noted, remove the built-in “system of checks and balances in the collegial review process. However, the case remained that the decisions had been made by the deans, facing a tight timeline and with the best knowledge of the budget situation they possessed.”

Additionally, these were real people whose jobs and lives were on the line, and who would be placed, the Faculty Senate letter stated, “in limbo” by the acquiescence of the very group ostensibly serving as their voice.

“I was gravely disappointed that the faculty (senate) would capitulate to bad management on the part of the deans, but understood that they felt they were protecting faculty jobs,” Jacobs wrote. “When it turned out to be only three, third- to fifth-year faculty … in one department (ours), I was appalled.”

So was the Faculty Senate, which rushed to send a second letter in an attempt to clarify members’ position.

“Your Faculty Senate leadership has recently become aware that there is a great deal of angst among some faculty regarding the recent 3rd – 5th year non-reappointment recommendations for reasons of institutional needs and resources.  … the senate planning team determined that they did not have adequate knowledge of the processes or procedures surrounding these decisions and determined that a more thorough investigation is in order before further response.”

As it turned out, the provost disregarded at least part of Schoon’s recommendation, opting to reappoint two of the three faculty members in danger of losing their jobs.

That third faculty member is still waiting to hear whether she has employment. Since this person, Jacobs wrote, is the only faculty member in the College of Education and Allied Professions’ doctoral program with doctoral-level training in higher education administration, “‘institutional need’ is clearly not a consideration.”

Why the emphasis on institutional need and resources? Because that’s a specified reason, as laid out in WCU’s faculty handbook, allowing the university not to reappoint faculty members — that is, if they don’t fill said institutional need or resource.

Jacobs characterized the still possible non-reappointment of this third faculty member in the College of Education as “beyond belief.” She added in her letter, the “return of my salary, through my retirement, eliminates any effort to claim ‘budget’ as the reason for non-reappointment … based on ‘institutional needs and resources.’”

McNelis told The Smoky Mountain News this week that Bardo asked that the “processes tied to those reappointment decisions” be looked into.

“In doing so, we’ve looked into the college’s program prioritization, program review, budget and potential restructuring, as they relate to recommendations for reappointment,” the chair of the Faculty Senate said.

McNelis did not say when the results of that review would be made public.


‘Failure of leadership’

Secondly, the issue of reorganization.

Schoon said he took no joy in having to make these tough choices.

“Both the need to reduce the budget and to make organizational changes to achieve greater efficiency led to very difficult decisions, some of which we know regrettably affect people’s lives and families,” Schoon told The Smoky Mountain News.

Jacobs, at least, isn’t buying it.

“I want the record to show that my decision is predicated on what I believe to be the failure of leadership in this college and university as evidenced by how our college has been informed of Dr. Schoon’s reorganization plan, as opposed to being integral in the discussion of reorganizing it,” she wrote.

Schoon disputes the allegation that faculty members were excluded. In fact, he said faculty members were given “extensive input” into reorganization and prioritizing programs. A faculty task force was specifically created to guide the process, and input was sought from a leadership council that included the department heads of each of the five departments in the college.

Schoon said a proposal for reorganization was provided to the college in early February. “The college faculty then had the opportunity to provide input to their department heads, who discussed the aggregated information and provided it to the dean. In addition, several programs requested direct meetings with the dean and subsequent discussions were held,” Schoon said.

And lastly, the issue of the College of Education and Allied Professions’ doctoral program, which critics say is now bereft of faculty oversight. This, if true, leaves the university’s flagship doctoral program adrift.

“Doctoral students are overseen by the director of the doctoral program,” Schoon said in response. “The assignment of that directorship may change in the reorganization but it will remain with a faculty member.”

Jacobs, however, said the professors for graduate students have been split across three departments. She maintains the program’s faculty should be kept together in the same unit to ensure quality programming for students.



The Players

• Interim Provost Linda Seestedt-Stanford, who came to WCU in July 2007 and is founding dean of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. She is serving as interim provost and senior vice chancellor. Filling that position permanently has been postponed until a new chancellor is hired. She asked for more time from the Faculty Senate to delay making a decision on faculty reappointments, triggering the ensuing controversy.

• Dean Perry Schoon of the College of Education and Allied Professions, who became the dean in June 2009. Critics say Schoon used a power vacuum at the university — a retiring chancellor, interim provost and $8.6 million in budget cuts — to reorganize the college he oversees to suit himself, not the needs of WCU and the students.

• Erin McNelis, the current chair of the WCU Faculty Senate. McNelis, associate professor of mathematics and computer science, has been on the WCU faculty since 2002. She’s charged with helping to sort out whether Schoon’s actions on certain faculty reappointments were within university guidelines.

• Jacqueline Jacobs, a respected tenured professor in WCU’s Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations who quit in protest this month over a re-organization and attempted non-reappointment of three other faculty members in the College of Education and Allied Professions.

• Chancellor John Bardo, who after 15 years in the top slot at WCU steps down July 1. Has his pending retirement created a leadership void at a university struggling to deal with $8.6 million in budget cuts? Bardo says no — he described himself recently in a board of trustees’ meeting as a lame duck, but asserted, “this duck still has legs.”

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