Its been an eventful month for Ohio University President Roderick McDavis, whose tenure has drawn competing letters of condemnation and support, spawned rival student protests and rallies, and generated open forums, administrative changes and a show of unwavering support from the board of trustees.
Despite one biting letter by a group of critical faculty stating “that there is a serious and accelerating decline in Ohio University’s reputation and in its ability to recruit excellent undergraduates,” board vice chairman C. Daniel DeLawder on Tuesday reaffirmed “without a shadow of doubt” the board’s support of McDavis.
McDavis, who is finishing his third-year at the helm, is trying to implement his strategic plan, solve problems he inherited and balance the budget, despite a decline in state funding and the recent wave of criticism that’s hitting his administration.
“Those funding limitations, reductions in fact, have required the university to take some fairly drastic steps to address budget challenges,” DeLawder says.
“Those steps have included increasing tuition fees significantly. They’ve also included reductions in expenditures in some areas of the university. Whenever that happens, it is not unusual for affected parties to become vocal, some more than others.”
Jessie Roberson Jr., president of OU’s Caucus of Educators, Administrators, and Staff of African Descent, or COESAD, says McDavis may be enduring this criticism because he didn’t allow the faculty the level of input that they thought they deserved when he developed his strategic plan.
“It wasn’t that they were foreclosed from participating,” says Roberson, an associate professor of management systems. “They didn’t get the level of participation they wanted, so they are slamming him for that.”
Roberson also says McDavis’s race is another factor that may have played a role in the condemnation he’s received from a mostly White group of faculty and students.
“When you consider the things that are going on here, that have raised tensions, [they] are not things that are all that remarkable, it is really hard to believe that the fact that he is a Black man doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Roberson says. “In terms of the sheer volume and the mode in which the unrest is being played out, as a person of color, I have trouble believing that it is not a factor in what’s going on here.”
The month began when a scathing letter, written by a group of mainly White senior faculty, was given to the board chair and subsequently leaked to the press. Days later, COESAD said the letter “was an amalgam of misinformation and innuendoes clearly intended to plunge both President McDavis and the University into public controversy.”
Not long after that incident, McDavis announced a change in the university’s administrative structure, shifting his focus to fund raising and lobbying while provost Kathy Krendl took over more of the academic affairs of the university. In a follow-up letter published in The Athens News, the critical faculty applauded McDavis’ “redistribution of responsibilities,” but stated it must be “carried out in substance.”
The tensions came to a climax Friday when the recently founded Students Against McDavis organization held a rally calling for his job. About 65 people, mostly White, showed up for the rally. Nearby, the Student African American Brotherhood held a competing pro-McDavis rally.
Along with the university’s decline in its academic reputation, McDavis’ critics are condemning him for a series of incidents that have hit the school recently, including plagiarism problems that came to light in the engineering school in March. The was also a computer systems security breakdown last year, and the school was forced to eliminate the men’s swimming and diving teams, the indoor and outdoor track and field teams and the women’s lacrosse team in January.
“They were all over him about the things at the university that produced negative publicity,” Roberson says. “That computer security breach, he inherited that system. Educational institutions are notorious for under-spending on computer security until they have a problem. So he didn’t create those systems, and the fact that it happened to us is not in and of itself remarkable.”
At least one of McDavis’ critics has backed down. “I was one of the faculty members who were concerned about the direction the university was going and there was some criticism directed at the university,” says Dr. David Drabold, the Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Physics. “I don’t want to dwell on that because I think there has been an honest attempt to address it. So, at this point, I’m hopeful. I want to see things go in a good direction.”
Despite the board’s show of support, McDavis remains square in the sights of his critics. Students will be asked to evaluate McDavis on Thursday while voting in the Student and Graduate Student Senate elections. The American Association of University Professors is this week surveying the faculty to see how they feel about McDavis, and the board of trustees will do their annual review of McDavis’s performance this month.
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