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WCU Faculty Senate debates whether to intervene in dispute between professors and administration

At least three internal reorganizations in just five years have spurred a growing number of faculty members at Western Carolina University to call for changes to what they describe as top-down, heavy-handed decision making.

Anger and frustration with the university’s administration, coupled with anticipation of Draconian budget cutbacks by the General Assembly, resulted in a highly charged meeting of WCU’s Faculty Senate last week.

A group of professors called on their colleagues in the Faculty Senate to halt a reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions, but some members were hesitant to pick sides in what could be nothing more than an internal departmental squabble. Still unresolved, the issue is back on the agenda again in a follow-up meeting this Wednesday.

After more than two hours of debate — with a vote of 14 against, 11 for and two abstentions — the Faculty Senate last week rejected a resolution brought by nine of their colleagues in the College of Education and Allied Professions. The resolution would have signaled solidarity with, and support for, the faculty raising objections.

The uproar comes after Professor Jacqueline Jacobs, a tenured faculty member in the College of Education and Allied Professions, resigned on grounds that university administration failed to consider information from faculty when reorganizing the department, and targeted certain professors for layoffs.

The controversy has erupted in the run up to an announcement planned this Friday for who will replace long-time Chancellor John Bardo, who leaves his post July 1 after 15 years as WCU’s top leader. Bardo did not attend the Faculty Senate meeting. He has said most of his time is absorbed working on budget issues in Raleigh. The university is facing cuts of at least $8.6 million, and perhaps much higher.

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Resolution fails; issue still unresolved

Professors Mary Jean Herzog, Casey Hurley and Meagan Karvonen presented the resolution asking Faculty Senate to endorse a proposal tabling the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions for a year. WCU’s administration had instructed university leadership to prioritize and look for budget cuts.

That resulted in the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions from five to three departments, and the doctoral program — one of only two at WCU, and the university flagship with 40 some graduate students — would be left without qualified leadership, the faculty members claim.

Three tenure-track professors faced the possibility of being laid off, but two have since seen their contracts renewed.

In a rebuttal piece published last week in The Smoky Mountain News, interim Provost Linda Seested-Stanford countered charges that the reorganization was pursued without faculty guidance or help. She assured readers there was “no intrigue, no smokescreen and no deep, dark secret in the reorganization,” adding the newspaper’s reporting of the blowup was “good stuff for a spy novel.”

Though less pointed in her criticisms when speaking to the Faculty Senate, Seested-Stanford described Herzog’s take on the situation as “exaggerated,” and downplayed assertions that faculty were denied roles in university decision-making.

Seested-Stanford assured the Faculty Senate that Perry Schoon, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, had kept her well informed. Additionally, she said, the task force helping develop the reorganization was, in her mind, representative of the faculty at large in the College of Education and Allied Professions. There are about 87 faculty members in that college.

Psychology Professor David McCord, a department head in the College of Education and Allied Professions, leaped to Dean Schoon’s defense, as well.

“The accusation there is no faculty involvement here burns me,” McCord said, adding that his colleagues’ accusations were “inaccurate” and “absurd.”

McCord said he believed Schoon’s selection of members on the task force was the only means available to ensure the formation of a group capable of objectivity, one that could “step back and take a big-picture view … and work with others” while hard choices were being made.

“He wanted each department to be represented by a credible advocate,” McCord said, adding that the reorganization plan represents a better solution than other possible options. The psychology professor did not detail what those options might have been.


‘Culture and climate’ in question

There was some indication a few Faculty Senate members might have voted against the resolution simply because they felt endorsing the demand was outside their purview. The Faculty Senate is an advisory group.

“Let’s focus on the policy issues, and not get involved in management,” said Leroy Kauffman, a professor in accounting and financing and a department head. Kauffman added he believed there were “valid issues” being raised about faculty participation.

Cheryl Waters-Tormey, a professor in the geology department, said she was concerned about endorsing a resolution without knowing how many of the 87 faculty members in the College of Education and Allied Professions actually felt this way.

Karvonen, one of the professors seeking the Faculty Senate’s backing, said “the culture and climate” prevented some in the college from feeling as if they could safely speak out.

Waters-Tormey suggested drafting a new resolution that expressed the Faculty Senate’s support for consensus building, but without picking sides in this particular dispute. English Professor Catherine Carter responded she believed such a resolution, or one that endorsed the concept of transparency, “is like saying we are for clean air and water — it is meaningless.”

Another resolution is in the wings, however, and this one is crafted by the Senate Planning Team, a committee made up of Faculty Senate members and self-described conduit from the university’s general faculty. It will undoubtedly prompt more debate at this week’s meeting.

The new resolution asks that:

• “A task force be created to study university reorganization issues and develop a clear, coherent, and effective university reorganization policy and process that protects the integrity of WCU’s academic mission and provides for meaningful faculty, staff, and student voice;

• Leadership from the Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate, the Student Government Association and the Council of Deans propose the composition and means of election/selection of the taskforce members as well as a timeline for taskforce objectives;

• And each of those bodies must approve the composition of, membership selection methods for, and timeline for the taskforce by May 15;

• And we request that future restructuring does not take place without consulting the faculty on this restructuring committee.”


What is the Faculty Senate?

The Faculty Senate has 28 members, and serves as the main policy-recommending group for the general faculty. It is the link between faculty and administration on matters, advising the chancellor on the conduct of university affairs. Additionally, according to the group’s website, it functions to “serve as a collegial forum for the airing of faculty concerns.”

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