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Transy faculty to board: ‘Our institution deserves better’; seeks Williams’ resignation

Staff report

Saying “our institution deserves better,” faculty at Transylvania University are calling for the resignation of President R. Owen Williams.

Transylvania University President R. Owen Williams

In a 35-page document sent earlier this week to members of the school’s Board of Trustees and Board of Regents and obtained by KyForward, faculty representatives write that Williams’ “lack of effective leadership” in general and, specifically, his “alarming record of aggressive behavior toward students, staff and faculty” have contributed to a hostile work environment and pose a significant risk for the university.

“Transylvania University stands at a crossroads,” the document states. “In partnership with the board, the faculty is ready to move forward with positive and concerted energy. We are eager to capitalize on the institution’s great strengths in the pursuit of new initiatives, many of which appear in the Strategic Plan. However, we have a president at the helm who is a liability … Hence, the faculty of Transylvania University ask the members of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Regents to request the resignation of Dr. R. Owen Williams.”

The document was mailed to members of both boards Monday after faculty representatives received several requests for additional information about their concerns.

“We know that you have the best interests of Transylvania and its students at heart. We all do,” the representatives wrote. “We also understand that the members of both boards have varying degrees of familiarity with the history and particulars of the current crisis of leadership at our university, and that many of you have asked for more information.”

“The whole board has been made aware of the faculty’s complaints,” said board chair W.T. Young Jr., who had not received it late Tuesday afternoon.

However, this morning after reading its contents, he issued this statement: “The board and I take the faculty’s concerns seriously and we will thoroughly review the detailed information the faculty has provided. For the sake of Transylvania and the educational excellence that it represents, I sincerely hope that we can resolve these concerns and continue to move the university forward.”

This latest collection of material comes on the heels of a 68-7 vote of no confidence by the faculty May 24 and a subsequent vote by the trustees and regents reaffirming their support for Williams, who is in his third year as president.

Associate professor of psychology Melissa Fortner, presiding officer of the faculty, said the board’s seeming disregard of the faculty’s no-confidence vote – with Young at the time calling it “extreme and unwarranted” – and the inadequacy of the solutions proposed was disappointing at best.

“I felt like we had made it very clear that this was a very serious crisis,” Fortner, also a Transy graduate, said. “At the same time, I understand the board must just be shocked. This isn’t easy for any of us.”

Tensions between the faculty and Williams have been simmering almost from the time he stepped onto the historic campus in downtown Lexington in August 2010 to replace longtime president Charles L. Shearer. According to the faculty document, his failed leadership dates to the earliest days of his tenure, as does a record of “egregious problems,” including:

• patterns of aggressive behavior toward students, staff and faculty, including reports of sexist statements, resulting in a hostile work environment
• inappropriate public remarks and alienation of alumni, students, donors and former staff
• undermining of students’ confidence in their education

“We were conscious about providing a number of examples of inappropriate behavior that we could verify but for confidentiality reasons we won’t discuss publicly,” Fortner said.

But the faculty was “galvanized” earlier this year after Williams refused to grant tenure to two faculty members after they had been approved by the faculty, as well as the personnel committee charged with making such decisions. It prompted faculty to send representatives Jamie Day, Angela Hurley, Judy Jones, Greg Partain and Ken Slepyan, to meet April 28 with representatives from the trustees – Chairman Young, Karen Caldwell, Jim Kenan and Byron Young – in a “collective attempt to express grave concerns” to the board. Williams and Dean Kathleen Jagger were also present at that meeting.


Following the meeting, Young, Kenan and Williams himself met with the faculty on May 23 and presented prepared statements addressing the concerns. Williams, in particular, offered his own solutions, which Fortner said were aimed primarily at improving listening skills.

According to the document, Williams said “I am aware that many of you think I don’t listen well enough and, after reflection, I have found that to be true … Starting now, I intend to spend more time listening to those opinions with which I do not agree … [in order] to take those opinions into greater account. …”

According to Fortner and outlined in the document mailed Monday, the board response basically reduced the “crisis” to minor grievances and failed to adequately address the deeper issues.

“The current crisis at Transylvania University is not primarily about tenure decisions, as some have suggested,” the document states. “The tenure debacle is but one example of Dr. Williams’ inability to lead through a reasoned and balanced process in which formal procedures and pertinent constituencies of the university are respected.”

Angela Hurley, professor of education and chair of the Humanities Division, agreed.

“The vote of no confidence taken by the Transylvania faculty … was not a sudden, angry decision brought about by tenure decisions,” she said. “Groups and individuals have been worried about the president’s pattern of inappropriate interactions with faculty, staff and students and uneasy with many presidential decisions for the past three years.”

As a result, the faculty met the next day, May 24, and voted overwhelmingly to express no confidence in their president.

“Based on numerous events of the last three years as described to four members of the Board of Trustees at a meeting on April 28, the faculty of Transylvania resolve that: We have no confidence in the ability of R. Owen Williams to continue to serve as president of our institution,” the faculty resolution read.

However, shortly after, the trustees voted unanimously to reaffirm their support for Williams, while the regents likewise unanimously expressed its confidence in him, according to a press release from Transylvania.

“The Board of Trustees has one overriding mission,” said Chairman Young, “and that is to make Transylvania the best educational institution it can be. Doing so places demands on all of us — students, professors, administrators and trustees. I am disappointed, frankly, that the faculty has taken a no-confidence vote. In my view, this is an extreme and unwarranted position.”

“At the same time,” he added, “I respect the absolutely crucial role of the faculty. My intention is to support its efforts to make the university even better than it already is. My hope is that in the months to come we can work collegially toward the goals we all share.”

To address faculty concerns, the board agreed to create an Academic Affairs committee and an ad hoc Committee on Employee Concerns, according to the press release.

Then in a letter to faculty May 29, Chairman Young reaffirmed the Board of Trustees’ and Board of Regents’ decision to support Williams and called on faculty for their support. In addition, Young stated that the “board is prepared to monitor the president’s performance through the recently created committees and in other ways necessary,” according to the faculty document.

That was not enough, Fortner said.

“As we say in our written response, we need decisive action now before additional damage is done to the institution,” she said.

“I think the board has misunderstood the depth, breadth and details of our concerns,” added Jack Furlong, philosophy professor, and one of two elected faculty members on the search committee that hired Williams. “To grasp fully the seriousness of the crisis, they will need to look more closely at the information we provided to the four board members on April 28 [and outlined in the most recent faculty package to board members]. Until those details are addressed, I don’t think the board will understand exactly why a heretofore quiet and contented faculty has, in the last three years become extremely upset and angry.”


Williams, a Wall Street investment banker for 24 years, was hired in April 2010 and assumed office in August of that year. He became the 25th president of the liberal arts school, the oldest college west of the Allegheny Mountains.

For a complete list of the Transylvania University Board of Trustees, click here.

For a complete list of the Transylvania University Board of Regents, click here.

KyForward intern Judah Taylor and other members of the KyForward staff contributed to the article.

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