Embattled Transylvania University President R. Owen Williams will step down at the end of the 2013-14 academic year, the university announced Monday.
The decision comes less than a month after the school's faculty took a 68-7 vote of no confidence in Williams and less than two weeks after faculty leaders called for his resignation in a 35-page document given to Transylvania's two governing boards.
William T. Young Jr., chairman of Transy's Board of Trustees, announced the decision during a meeting with faculty and staff Monday afternoon, the Lexington-based liberal arts school said in a news release.
"The Board of Trustees fully supports Dr. Williams' decision to continue to lead Transylvania University through the upcoming school year," Young said in the news release. "It is with regret that we accept his resignation."
Young said a national search for Williams' successor would begin later this year.
A spokeswoman for Transy said Williams was traveling Monday and was unavailable for comment.
In an email to alumni on Monday, Young urged the Transy community to work together in coming months.
"The differences that have divided us over the last few months are being addressed in good faith, and now it is time to put them behind us and move forward together," Young wrote. "Transylvania will require all of our support even more in the competitive environment which we are facing today and will certainly face in the future."
Several faculty members who had pushed for Williams to resign did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Political science professor Don Dugi, who was among the seven faculty members who voted to support Williams, said he was disappointed by the news and called Williams' decision to resign a mistake.
"He has done a good job, and I wish he could continue," Dugi said.
In their 35-page document to Transy board members, faculty leaders detailed their conflicts with Williams during the past three years and provided a chronology of meetings, conversations and events in which faculty said they tried to address their concerns over Williams' leadership style.
The document accuses Williams of displaying a "dismissive and disrespectful" manner toward faculty, staff and students. In 2011, for example, faculty members held three meetings with Williams about the "chilly gender climate" toward women on campus, according to the document.
In early 2013, the tipping point apparently was reached when Williams deferred tenure for two people after it had been approved by all necessary committees.
"We have a president at the helm who is a liability, enrollments and giving appear stagnant, and morale is at its lowest level in over three decades," faculty leaders stated in the executive summary of the document. "Our institution deserves better."
The university's board of trustees had remained ardent supporters of Williams, taking a unanimous vote of confidence in him on the same day faculty took their vote of no confidence.
In previous statements, Young had said the board would work with Williams to improve his leadership style. Williams also had pledged to do so during a meeting with some faculty and board members on May 23. A copy of his comments which was obtained by the Herald-Leader.
Williams came to Transylvania in 2010 after a career as a Wall Street banker and after earning a doctorate in history at Yale, with a focus on Civil War studies.
He launched an ambitious plan for the 1,070-student school to increase enrollment and make it one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation by 2020.
Gary Cox, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities, said he thought Transy would recover quickly from the controversy.
"Transy is a strong institution, and they will make the transition in great shape," Cox said. "I expect this year to be a positive year with President Williams."
Young also announced Monday that Transy would hire an interim dean for the school to serve during the next two academic years. Once a new president is selected, the search for a permanent dean will begin, he said.
Transy has conducted one search for a new dean but did not hire anyone. The current interim dean is leaving.
And from KyForward:
[In the] 35-page document [that was] 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.” ...
“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.” ...
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“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.
• inappropriate public remarks and alienation of alumni, students, donors and former staff
• undermining of students’ confidence in their education
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...
[I]n 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.”