Although talk of conflict between President Ohle’s administration and the larger faculty has been the topic of discussion for several years, dissatisfaction with the President made a strikingly public turn last week with the release of a student-run website called GustieLeaks. The website quickly went viral after going live on Tuesday, Nov. 27, appearing in Facebook newsfeeds, embedded in Twitter exchanges and publicized by posters all over campus.
The website includes links to several documents all geared towards concerns with the President’s current and past administrations.
In only a week, the website’s content has doubled, including articles and faculty letters all the way back from the President’s time serving as President at Wartburg College.
Several articles from prior editions of The Gustavian Weekly also appear on the site, revealing a protracted narrative of unrest and unease with the President here at Gustavus.
Call for contract termination
The most timely document, which includes a statement calling for the President’s termination, appears to be the most volatile as it was not to be publicly released and occurred in a closed Faculty Meeting on Oct. 19, 2012.
At the meeting, the faculty present voted on a resolution calling for the Board of Trustees to terminate President Ohle’s contract. The exact language of the resolution states:
“…[L]et it be resolved, first, that the faculty of Gustavus Adolphus College support the Board of Trustees ending President Ohle’s appointment as soon as possible, and second, that the faculty do not support his contract being extended by any length of time.”
The vote was done via paper ballot to ensure anonymity and passed with 88 in approval of the resolution, 7 in opposition, and 14 abstentions.
President Ohle did not offer a direct response to the call for his dismissal, stating that he defers to the Board of Trustees who makes the ultimate decision about his contract.
“I really feel strongly that we can’t get involved in the back-and-forth,” he said. “[Members of the faculty] have said what they want to say. The Board will respond, I’m sure, but that’s for the Board to respond to. For me to continue the discussion would be irrelevant.”
The President also made it clear that while he may disagree with the opinion of those faculty who voted in favor of his termination, he supports the freedom for faculty members to voice their opinions.
“I respect their viewpoint. I don’t respect their opinion because I obviously don’t feel that I should be terminated, but I do respect their right to speak. We’re an educational institution—that’s important,” he said.
History of conflicted leadership
As evidenced by GustieLeaks, the history of dissatisfaction with President Ohle at Gustavus spans several years. In 2009, the faculty passed a motion that reflected that the faculty had no trust in the President and his communication and transparency was questioned. Almost four years later, the sentiment remains.
“That is the feeling today,” Faculty Senate Vice Chair Mary Solberg said. “My understanding is that the majority of faculty don’t trust him anymore and if you don’t have trust, then leadership is ineffective. And that is the question we have today.”
President Ohle corroborated that the concerns raised by faculty have been ongoing, but stated that they have all consistently been addressed.
“I have responded to the faculty regarding all the issues raised,” he said. “We’ve been addressing those for four and a half years.”
While the President feels he has addressed these concerns, the growing climate of unrest and clear calls for his dismissal seem to say otherwise.
“It’s hard to imagine a way forward with President Ohle still as the President and with the College,” Faculty Senate Chair John Cha said.
He boils the conflict down to a difference in the President’s personality and leadership style and how it contrasts with that of the faculty.
“The best way we can illustrate [the conflict] is the different personality styles. [President Ohle] has a certain way of leadership whereas Gustavus has had a long tradition of how we move forward. Gustavus tends to be more of an egalitarian culture. We all depend on each other,” Ohle said.
“Without criticism of President Ohle, he has a leadership style that’s very much, ‘let’s go forward.’ He’s a unilateral decision maker, and that just doesn’t mix well [with the faculty].”
The President seemed to echo this statement about his leadership style at Gustavus, but insisted that he feels he has properly consulted the faculty. He remains focused on the decisions he’s made that he feels have advanced the College.
“That’s what I was asked to come here to do,” he said. “Not wielding a stick or making quick decisions without consultation, but to make decisions, to not take mediocrity as an acceptable way to operate. Everything we do ought to be at the highest level of integrity and quality. I will stand very firm on trying to make decisions that make this institution the best that it can be.”
Although the President seems to feel that he has done an adequate job consulting the faculty, Solberg stated that the issue at hand is in his failure to actually act on the concerns and requests made by faculty, which makes the idea of ‘consultation’ rather superficial.
“He understands consultation to be listening to what people have to say and then making whatever decision he wants to make anyway. And often it has appeared to us that he is not taking in what we have to say into account,” Solberg said.
Case study in leadership: The Bernhardson Chair
One point of contention between administration and faculty has been the appointment process of the Bernhardson Chair, which is a year-long, distinguished faculty position in the Religion Department.
The position is unique from a regular faculty position in that it holds more institutional weight. For instance, in addition to normal faculty responsibilities, the Chair also reaches out to congregations and churches and holds educational programs outside of the College. The Chair also teaches fewer courses per year due to their work on additional projects.
The conflict arose when the President chose a more top-down approach to the appointment of the Chair position, which broke with a the more collaborative appointment process of the past.
During the appointment process two years ago, the President appointed an external consultant to help assist with the decision, which was never communicated to those faculty involved in the process.
The consultant appeared to the faculty members as unnecessary as they felt their expertise should be sufficient to make the appointment. Then, after the faculty had made their recommendation for the position, they felt the President did not adequately take their recommendations into account.
Much of the tension surrounding this particular appointment of the Bernhardson Chair lies in discrepancies in how the position is defined, and therefore, who holds more weight in the decision making process.
President Ohle feels that because the Bernhardson Chair holds more institutional responsibilities than other faculty positions, he should have more say in who fills the position.
“The Bernhardson Chair is a faculty position that has a separate endowment that carries with it responsibilities that go beyond a faculty position. And because it is a different type of faculty position, it falls to the president to make the decision as to who that person should be—with consultation of the faculty. And so I appointed a search committee and I assured the committee that I would not appoint anyone they would not approve of,” President Ohle said.
Those in the Religion Department see the situation much differently than the President and feel the faculty component of the position outweighs the institutional obligations.
“President Ohle’s opinion is that this special chair is an institutional position and secondarily, as I understand, a faculty position. That’s not the case,” Cha said. “The Bernhardson Chair is housed in the Religion Department. The Bernhardson Chair sits in our department meetings. He or she is a voting member of the faculty. He or she can serve on faculty committees. The Bernhardson Chair is involved in the junior faculty for tenure, other faculty for promotion. Everything about the roles and responsibility of Bernhardson Chair reflect, I think, on a faculty position and that is how it’s been before.”
Those faculty involved in the decision process made it clear that they understand the President’s primacy in making appointments for institutional positions, but because they feel the position to be ‘faculty first,’ they see the President’s actions as breaking with a history of a traditionally collaborative appointment process, which placed more agency in the hands of faculty members for the appointment. Cha elaborated on this history.
“During the first Bernhardson Chair search, which happened 11 or 12 years ago, we had strong candidates, and the department forwarded its first choice. The then president spoke with us, and decided with us. It was a feeling of collaboration, of actual cooperation. This time—the process two years ago—there wasn’t. For the first time, there wasn’t,” Cha said.
Due to unresolved and largely unaddressed Faculty Senate concerns, the plan going into December is to convene a meeting of the general faculty to discuss and review President Ohle’s leadership and come away with a statement that effectively speaks for the majority faculty opinion. In regards to the Board of Trustees, they will be convening in January and will begin their scheduled review of the office of the presidency in the spring. There has yet to be any clear discussion as to how to address student involvement and concern.