Presidential Performance Review and the Provost

Campus movers and shakers, ranging from faculty, administrators, members of the Board of Trustees, staff and concerned students, convened for a marathon faculty meeting on Wednesday, March 18. The meeting’s length exceeded three hours, but the majority of conversation focused on only two proposed resolutions. The first resolution, passed by the Faculty Senate, sought endorsement at the faculty meeting and addressed Provost Mary Morton’s resignation.

The second resolution called for an immediate performance review of President Jack Ohle by the Board of Trustees. Both resolutions passed with resounding support, the first passing 138 to 5 and the second passing 133 to 6. Provost Mary Morton’s recent resignation catalyzed the events of Wednesday night’s faculty meeting. In an e-mail sent to students on March 11, President Ohle wrote, “I write to share with you that Dr. Mary E. Morton, provost and vice president for academic affairs, has informed me that at the end of this academic year, she will relinquish her position and return to the classroom.” Faculty received a similar message. Morton will teach in the in the Department of Biology and will serve as the Director of Science Initiatives next year. “I am so pleased that the provost has agreed to stay on and work administratively in the area of science initiative,” Ohle said.

The provost is a relatively new position at Gustavus, created after extensive campus-wide collaboration in 2006. The search committee’s description of the provost said that “while protective of a strong faculty role in a culture of shared governance, most faculty members had come to recognize that their interests would benefit from a more powerful academic leader who could act both as faculty advocate and counselor to the president on academic matters.” Originally defined as an administrator designated to oversee academic programs and strategic planning for the college, the search committee’s description said, “The provost will assume primary responsibility for coordinating long-range and short-term planning for the college and also dedicate a portion of his or her time to advancement and development efforts.”

Pressing questions surrounding Morton’s resignation led the Faculty Senate to pass a resolution on March 11. Faculty were notified in a message sent by Professor of Psychology Mark Kruger that, “after substantial discussion by members of the senate and the faculty,” the Faculty Senate passed a resolution stipulating three things. First, the resolution expressed a commitment to the position of the provost as originally defined, and secondly supported Morton specifically in that role. Thirdly, it called for an inquiry into her decision to resign. “We strongly urge that her resignation not go forward and recommend that the faculty and the Board of Trustees promptly examine the circumstances that have led to her resignation,” the resolution said and was endorsed following a ballot vote at the faculty meeting.

One line of the president’s e-mail drew special attention from faculty members. When Ohle wrote that, “Dr. Morton shared with me that she reached this decision due to changes in her role and scope as provost,” many faculty members wondered how the provost’s “role and scope” had changed and under who’s authority. “We ought to ask what those changes are and how they came about,” Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Max Hailperin said at the faculty meeting. According to article VIII, section 2 of the college’s bylaws, only the Board of Trustees can constitutionally alter the provost position. Ohle, however, emphasized that this was an administrative change that the Board need not vote on. “It was just a re-orienting of responsibilities,” Ohle said.

Proponents of the resolution expressed concern that Ohle wished to take strategic planning responsibilities away from the provost’s job description and into the president’s office. “There’s one major change,” Ohle said during a question and answer period during the faculty meeting. “The major change is that the institutional strategic planning belongs to the president. That is … the change in scope and role,” he said. Ohle explained in a WEEKLY  interview that the responsibility for strategic college advancement now falls under Gustauvs Commission 150 and the president’s office.

“Dr. Morton did a fantastic job of coordinating the establishment of the strategic plan that the board approved in April 2008,” Ohle said. “That strategic plan that she was so instrumental in has become the foundation for the board’s work now in Gustavus 150. She should be credited as an individual that really helped to direct that, and now that she isn’t carrying through with that, other than in the academic division, she felt that she would rather step down and go back to the classroom.” Sociology and Anthropology Professor Rich Hilbert felt differently and expressed so at the faculty meeting. While others took exception with his wording, Hilbert said, “[Ohle] didn’t actually fire her. He side-swiped her and sort of nudged her apparently by changing the definition of the job that the faculty approved of and without consulting us,” Hilbert said. “What we’re saying with this resolution is … we don’t approve of a president who would do this to our chief academic officer. We don’t think we should accept her resignation under the circumstances.”

Director of International and Cultural Education Carolyn O’Grady said at the meeting that, “The bulk of faculty here believe that the provost [position is currently] extremely effective.” For the sake of the resolution, Hailperin encouraged faculty members to set aside personal reviews of Morton and consider the position itself.  “Even if you disapprove of Provost Morton’s job performance, for today, join with me and the faculty senate … in offering support in this context to the provost,” Hailperin said.

Join they did, encouraging an investigation into the circumstances of Morton’s decision to resign and showing broad support for the position itself. Ohle admitted at the meeting that he should have consulted faculty members before announcing Morton’s resignation. “I made an error in judgment in not being here last Wednesday,” Ohle said. Following the vote to endorse the Faculty Senate’s resolution, Professor of Physics Paul Saulnier introduced the second significant resolution of the night: a call for an immediate performance review of President Ohle proposed by 59 tenured professors. That is over half of all tenured professors currently on campus. Saulnier said that, “In my view, this motion seems wise, measured, and appropriate, and in the best interest of Gustavus Adolphus College.”

Saulnier expressed concerns over stories he has heard from other faculty members that may not reflect qualities he hopes for in a Gustavus president. Saulnier said that a review could shed light on stories that, if true, are not consistent “with the best traditions of shared governance and consultative decision-making that have been the hallmarks of Gustavus Adolphus College.” A general call for transparency provided the backdrop for many of the faculty member’s comments. Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies and Executive Director of Linnaeus Arboretum Cindy Johnson-Groh said in the meeting that she simply wants to have many questions answered openly and honestly, including those about the provost. “We don’t know,” she said. “We have not been informed. We are in the dark, and transparency … would go a long ways [toward building faculty support of the president].”

Many professors said they felt they were in a climate where professors, especially those without tenure, were nervous to criticize the president’s administration. History Professor David Obermiller said, “I have learned as a historian that when people are afraid to stand up and speak, bad things happen. [As non-tenured professors] we are fearful,” Obermiller said at the meeting, “These things speak to me that something is not clear or transparent.”Chemistry Professor Scott Burr said, “I see this as a straight-up, fact-finding motion.” Johnson-Groh pointed out that just as professors face extensive review in order to receive tenure, so should the president. “We all need to be open to review, regardless of who we are.”

“Colleagues, friends, I urge you to support this,” Saulnier said. Once again, the resolution passed with a large majority and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Jim Gale ensured that the Board will move forward with a performance review that was already under way. Ohle spoke in support of the motion, and welcomed the opportunity to address faculty concerns. “I am totally in support of you getting an opportunity to examine the findings of the board. I believe that as an open community … we have a right to do that,” Ohle said while addressing the faculty at Wednesday’s meeting. “It is an opportunity for us to examine what we want this institution to be.”

Gale spoke on the Board’s behalf in support of Ohle. “President Ohle has the full support of the board and so does his leadership.” Gale encouraged all to cooperate throughout this process, “My request to all of you in this room … is that we together work through this. If we do, I am convinced that with the talents this president brings to the college, we will get better and better.” English Professor Laura Behling shares Gale’s optimism for the steps taken at the faculty meeting. “I think that what has happened today is actually the best Gustavus has to offer,” Behling said. As the Board of Trustee’s performance review of President Jack Ohle and the investigation into Provost Mary Morton’s resignation unfold, the community has yet to see just what will come of the day’s events.

4 thoughts on “Presidential Performance Review and the Provost

  1. Thanks for this article Danielle. As an abroad student, I appreciate the information!

  2. The second quote attributed to me ought to contain a second set of ellipsis points (three dots) to indicate omitted words between “job performance” and “for today.” I point this out only for strict accuracy of the record; the quote as printed does correctly reflect the essence of what I said.

  3. Thank you Danielle for writing such a clear statement of the situation. As a followup I’d be most interested in hearing Dr. Morton’s personal view on the matter.

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