SUNY-ESF community members voted no confidence in president Quentin Wheeler. Now what?
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UPDATED: Nov. 16 at 12:33 a.m.
SUNY-ESF faculty and staff are trying to understand what comes after an unprecedented vote of no confidence in President Quentin Wheeler.
Of the 157 faculty, staff and students who voted last week, about 59 percent — or 92 people — voted for no confidence, while 35 percent voted they had confidence. Twenty-eight people abstained or did not vote.
The vote indicates a feeling of fear among some in the campus community, as well as frustration over what critics have called Wheeler’s top-down leadership style. The vote itself, however, cannot remove Wheeler from his position. It is only a signal to university stakeholders.
“It’s about who’s going to get on whose side and start moving forward,” said Kelley Donaghy, a chemistry professor and former executive chair of Academic Governance. “The Academic Governance has sent a very strong message now that says that we don’t like the direction you’re leading the college in.”
Wheeler is expected to speak Tuesday at the Academic Governance meeting.
This is the first vote of no confidence at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The previous three presidents all retired from their positions, according to various SUNY-ESF news releases. There have been at least three other votes in other SUNY schools, though: at SUNY at Plattsburgh, Rockland Community College and SUNY Polytechnic Institute.
Donaghy said there are procedures to avoid votes of no confidence, which SUNY-ESF tried last year. But after a team was brought in to survey the campus, it was confirmed there was a strong divide among faculty.
Margaret Bryant, an associate professor of landscape architecture, said in an email she is a supporter of the SUNY-ESF administration and she resisted the vote of no confidence.
“Expressing ‘no confidence’ does not point to a way forward,” Bryant said.
She also said this vote only makes clear the voices of those who voted, yet there are more than 2,000 members on campus whose opinions also need to be taken into account. Bryant said Wheeler will be seeking input from everyone moving forward.
Scott Turner, a professor of biology, said he was disappointed in the college upon hearing the vote results. Turner said he has worked with Wheeler on a number of projects and his experience with him was nothing like what proponents of the vote of no confidence said.
“I found him to be very engaging, very open to listening to other opinions. He’s been very open to reaching out to various faculty to engage them in the process of moving the college forward,” Turner said. “… I have never felt so much as a twinge of fear or intimidation from him, even though I have disagreed with him.”
Yet Wheeler’s actions over nearly three years have fostered an environment of frustration and fear for many other faculty members, according to a professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the climate of fear. The professor, who has been at SUNY-ESF for more than 20 years, said SUNY-ESF has never been as tense as it is now.
Some faculty will speak about the vote openly, but others only in whispers and behind closed doors because they fear retaliation, the professor said.
The standards for continuing appointment, or tenure, for faculty at SUNY-ESF include a perceived long-term need for their talents, demonstrated excellence in their positions and the perception that such excellence will continue and expand, according to a 2011 document listing the policies and standards for non-librarian faculty.
A new clause was added in a 2015 update to the document, which said faculty must also demonstrate “constructive cooperation and professional behavior as it relates to the candidate’s departmental and institutional roles.”
There has been uncertainty in the relationship between the department chairs at SUNY-ESF and Wheeler, the faculty member said, most notably after six of the eight chairs signed an Oct. 14 email to faculty and staff signaling support for the vote of no confidence.
That email simply supported the democratic process of having a vote of no confidence, Donaghy said, but Wheeler did not seem to interpret it that way. Instead, Wheeler saw it as a show of support in voting no confidence, Donaghy said.
Wheeler was unavailable for comment on this story.
A few days after the email had been sent, the chairs who had signed it were called in for individual meetings with Wheeler, presumably to be removed from their positions, Donaghy and the anonymous faculty members said.
“People assumed the worse, including the chairs,” Donaghy said.
Wheeler did not remove the chairs from their positions, but instead required them to attend daily 8 a.m. meetings with him. These meetings — held prior to the vote — were meant to clarify the misinterpreted email and identify college priorities, said Ted Endreny, chair of environmental resources engineering and one of the two chairs who did not sign the email.
He said the meetings yielded a joint statement, which stated that the two parties had addressed the misinterpretations and were committed to working together to improve SUNY-ESF.
Endreny said he has confidence in Wheeler and the vision he has laid out for the college. He said he has seen Wheeler and other administrators work patiently, as they have invited open criticism and have appointed some critics to positions of authority and leadership.
Edreny added that there is an expectation for department chairs to serve the interest of the president and administration.
“When the chair takes on the duty to serve, they are serving both their faculty and the interest of that department, and they are serving the college, and the interest of the chancellor, and the president and the provost,” Endreny said.
Wheeler addressed the email signed by the department chairs in an address to Academic Governance on Oct. 18.
“The chairs who signed the email to campus Friday have sought to undermine the directions I am moving the college while failing to offer constructive ideas or even engage in constructive dialogue,” Wheeler said in the address. “It is easy to criticize, undermine and tear down. It is much harder to be a leader, to develop effective ideas and to build constructively.”
It was the manner and tone of voice that Wheeler gave this speech that seemed to turn many faculty — especially those on the fence about the vote — against him, said another faculty member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity due to the climate of fear.
“I thought the speech was embarrassing,” they said. “… It doesn’t sound as bad written as the way he said it. He was attacking department chairs, (saying) it was unprofessional of them to criticize him.”
Wheeler was angry, Donaghy said, and people were offended. Having worked closely with Wheeler during her time as Academic Governance chair, Donaghy said this “angry” side would sometimes — but not always — show.
I thought the speech was embarrassing, … It doesn't sound as bad written as the way he said it. He was attacking department chairs, (saying) it was unprofessional of them to criticize him.SUNY-ESF faculty member
“I would say to people, ‘I’m never sure who’s going to show up,’” Donaghy said. “Angry President Wheeler, or, you know, I-want-to-do-great-things-for-ESF President Wheeler.”
At this speech, Wheeler also addressed the chairs’ treatment of Interim Provost Valerie Luzadis, describing some of their actions as “beyond unprofessional” and “nothing short of shameful.”
Yet Wheeler’s appointment of Luzadis has been questioned. The two anonymous faculty members and Donaghy said numerous faculty consistently told Wheeler that Luzadis’ appointment was not supported, yet he went ahead with the appointment without conducting a search.
The anonymous faculty member who has been at SUNY-ESF for more than two decades said Luzadis seems to operate in a system of rewards and punishments. In a report created by an outside investigator for the SUNY-ESF Board of Trustees, surveyed faculty described her as a bully and “harsh for no reason.”
However, the investigator determined there was no evidence that she has created a climate of fear and that not everyone agreed with those descriptions of her. Wheeler has since started a national search for a provost, Donaghy said, but she added there seems to have been little progress made.
There is also concern and speculation about the early retirement in June of Bob French, the vice president for enrollment management and institutional research. Reasons for his departure are unknown because a confidentiality agreement was signed, one of the anonymous faculty members said.
The discord on campus has also been pertinent in visual displays. The day before the vote, posters of Wheeler with “Obey” written underneath had been hanging on the bulletin boards in Gateway Center, Donaghy said.
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Donaghy and a group of faculty had been eating breakfast when they saw SUNY-ESF’s chief of police come and take down the posters.
“I was angry,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘We don’t have freedom of expression anymore?’”
Donaghy and the chief had an argument, and eventually the police chief’s boss told him the posters could not be taken down, Donaghy said. Later, Wheeler sent an email to the community saying that free speech was protected.
The tension between faculty and staff with administration is not the same among students. Tyler Shields, president of the Graduate Student Association, said what makes this vote of no confidence different from votes at other schools is that students don’t have much of an invested interest.
He said his experience with the administration has been mostly positive and constructive, and issues he has brought to the leadership council — of which Wheeler and Interim Provost Luzadis are a part — have been addressed quickly.
Shields said graduate students have expressed confusion over what the vote of no confidence actually does and if all the points made in the bill of particulars, a document listing grievances against Wheeler, were valid.
“We’re predominantly scientists,” Shields said. “We want to see this as objectively as possible, we want to see evidence. Without substance, it’s just a document.”
The passage of the vote doesn’t mean the situation is over, though, said another faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the climate of fear. That faculty member — who voted no confidence — said the vote shows it’s not just a small group of disgruntled faculty who are upset, which is what Wheeler previously said it was.
Even though that faculty member voted no confidence in the president, the faculty member said the vote still made them uncomfortable because they don’t like the idea of having significant negative energy directed toward one person.
“There was no winner,” the faculty member said. “There is no cause for celebration with the vote. It just needs to be an acknowledgement in working toward rebuilding these relationships between our administration, faculty, staff and students.”
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, Scott Turner was misquoted. Turner said, “… I have never felt so much as a twinge of fear or intimidation from him, even though I have disagreed with him.” The Daily Orange regrets this error.
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Published on November 15, 2016 at 1:04 am
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