ELKINS, W.Va. — With 37 of 53 eligible faculty members participating, officials at Davis & Elkins College handed down a no-confidence vote against President G.T. “Buck” Smith on Tuesday.
The Faculty Assembly, meeting for the final time this semester, issued the surprise 19-18 decision after an initial motion was made by assistant professor Brent A. Saindon. A no-confidence vote was not on the meeting’s agenda.
On Wednesday, a second vote was cast by the faculty – at the behest of Smith – with officials siding 25-4 with the longtime president.
Because Wednesday’s ballot was initiated by Smith, and the school’s bylaws state that at least a 48-hour notice is required for such a decision to be made, yet another vote is expected either late Friday afternoon or sometime Monday.
In an email to all D&E faculty members from Steve Mattingly, assistant professor of computer science, Mattingly wrote, “In accordance with Faculty Assembly Bylaws 2.3, I am requesting a call for a special meeting of the Faculty Assembly. By copying the FA membership on this message, I invite others to make a similar request. I am confident that the number of requests will exceed the 20 required to call a special meeting. …
“The purpose of the meeting, which can be stated with appropriate formality in the call, will be to entertain a motion to rescind the previously adopted resolution of no confidence. Due to the advance notice of this motion, a simple majority vote will be sufficient to rescind.”
On Wednesday, Smith, said he thought the whole situation was triggered by two faculty positions that were “not subject to renewal.”
“It’s in the letter of appointment (for those two positions),” Smith said. “I’ve followed the letter of the appointment. These departments got all out of joint, because they got to like these people as the year went on and wanted to keep them. When the Board of Trustees gets here next week, they will have no patience for this.”
Smith also said the recent departure of several key members of the staff, including Carol Schuler, and Tuesday’s announcement that Vice President for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer Joseph Roidt would be leaving the college for the provost position at Dakota Wesleyan University, seems to have caused some angst among certain faculty members.
“Some people have resigned to go elsewhere,” Smith said. “That’s shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing. The fact that Carol Schuler left for a nationally recognized position and Joe is leaving to be provost of another institution, that just means they have been noticed on a national level for their accomplishments.”
“I know what the Board (of Trustees) have asked me to do, and that is to pull things financially back together,” Smith said. “It’s not nearly as bad as before the process began of building the endowment and going out to get additional support for the long-term future of the college. Our survival was never at risk here at D&E.”
TUESDAY’S NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE
In his no-confidence resolution, Saindon sites the following:
“Whereas Faculty concerns about the overall strategic vision of the College related to long-term investment in programs, facilities, and enrollment have not been satisfactorily answered; and
“Whereas concerns about the long-term costs of the President’s short-term financial management strategies are still looming; and
“Whereas the Faculty has raised consistent concerns over violations of faculty governance in the areas of hiring of academic administration, development and curtailment of programs, and faculty compensation and benefits; and
“Whereas those concerns have been met with indifference or hostility by the President or other members of the leadership team appointed to answer questions,
“Be it resolved that the Faculty Assembly, as a collective body, no longer has confidence in the leadership of President G.T. “Buck” Smith; and
“Be it additionally resolved that the Faculty Assembly calls upon the Board of Trustees to find new, qualified, collaborative leadership with all deliberate speed.”
In his speech to the Faculty Assembly, Saindon said, “I’ve been trying to think about how I can justify to my colleagues what I am asking them to do. In some ways, it really is impossible, as a resolution like this really should not be my place. I work under a provisional contract. I’ve been here for five years, not a couple of decades. However, I know I can’t go on living and working under these conditions, and so long as I am here, it is my obligation even my contractual duty to make the college a better place to work and a better place for our students. …”
“In order for the faculty to have any influence over the long-term health of the college, they have to be part of the decision-making process. This is the basis of our principles of shared governance. Shared governance doesn’t solve all of our problems, but when actually practiced, it does provide a measure of insurance against poor or shortsighted decision-making. Changes to the faculty handbook are a case in point. When going through the document review process two years ago, the Professional Affairs Committee went line by line through that document and struck deals on wording with the VPAA. However, this year, the document was held up for review, and when changes were proposed, there has been no authentic dialogue or negotiation. We had to do amendments on the floor under duress,” Saindon said.
Concerning the amendments to the changes to the faculty handbook, Smith noted a final approval of the document has not been rendered, because it is “voluminous” and that other priorities trump the completion of the project.
“It is a huge project,” Smith said. “It was started by Michael Mihalyo and went from around 100 pages of policy to more than 700 pages. I won’t sign off on it until I am sure everything is right about it.”
“Wasn’t it better that I spent my time working on getting the $25 million gift – of that $15 million having to be matched – it was better that I spent my time on that and getting the matching funds than fussing around with 700 pages of policy. There only are 24 hours in a day, and you can only get so much done. You put time where your priorities are.”
Saindon also said, “But these concerns only hint at the most fundamental problem: the lack of strategic vision for the college and the privileging of short-term thinking. Obviously, there are real problems in the short-term that must be addressed, but strong leaders would not allow short-term crises to affect long-term strategic goals. We all believe in the idea of a balanced budget. We all believe in growing the endowment. But when we insist on meeting those two goals above all else, we have to ask: what are the long-term consequences of meeting these goals? In practical effect, here is what they have meant: 1) cutting the levels of staff members far beyond what is sustainable in the long term, with many jobs going poorly done and many of our staff overworked (I put them first because they should matter to us and because they were first to feel the brunt of this short-sighted policy); 2) demonstrated unwillingness to invest in facilities and programs that might have the long-term effect of driving up enrollment at the college and making retention easier; and 3) cutting of signature programs that make the distinctiveness of the college matter. … To save less than $10,000, we are willing to drive a program into the ground that we have been using to advertise to our accreditors, our peers, and our students. To save a faculty position (where need existed), we lost a program design that was part of our signature pitch to the Teagle grant that program change cannot be staffed.”
Smith noted that while some staff positions have been cut, other vacancies are in the process of being filled.
“It can’t happen overnight,” Smith said. “I have to make certain decisions. I don’t work for the faculty, I work for the Board of Trustees. We have to be focused on the business at hand, and that’s the students, on exams and the end of the semester.”
STUDENT AND ALUMNI SUPPORT
Smith said since the vote of no confidence on Tuesday, he has heard from alumni from around the nation.
“In this day of Facebook and social media, it’s just crazy,” Smith said. “I am getting calls from all over the country.”
Current students on campus also have weighed in on the recent vote.
“Yesterday, I heard about a faculty meeting in which 19 faculty members voted with ‘no confidence’ in our president, Buck Smith. After the students heard about the meeting, an uproar has sprung around the college. There is a petition among the students saying that we do have confidence in Buck, because he has saved the school on countless occasions,” wrote Nicola Merriman, a member of the student assembly, in a statement Wednesday.
“He has continued to be in support of the students and has increased the student body and decreased the school’s debt. The students are not only upset about the lack of confidence in Buck, but also in the 19 faculty members who have made such an impactful decision on behalf of the students without the students’ best interests. There also is a large number of faculty members who were not able to attend the meeting and were therefore unable to stand up for our president. There have been a lot of changes in the college this year, but everything Buck has done has been to benefit the school in the long run. I have 100 percent confidence in Buck and will support him. It is unfair that he has been put in this position so we, the students, have decided to do what we can. We want to show him that we care and we have confidence in him,” Merriman added.
In addition, the new president of the Student Assembly also has come out in support of Smith.
“Yesterday, there was a vote by the faculty regarding their confidence in President Buck,” Mary Jane Braham wrote in a statement on Wednesday. “With vote, the conclusion was brought forward that the faculty does not support Buck. I strongly disagree with this vote. In Buck’s years at D&E, he has brought the college back to life. He has done many things to improve the college drastically including: The two largest gifts in the history of the college have come under Buck, the enrollment has increased drastically, and the Highland Scholarship Program has flourished under his leadership, along with countless other things.”
“Although 19 faculty members have voiced that they have no confidence in Buck, I will not,” Braham added. “There has been a petition started on campus by students voicing that they support Buck and will continue to do so. Countless students have signed so far, and I am sure many more will in the upcoming days. I have placed my trust in Buck and will continue to do so.”
In an email late Wednesday, the previous president of the Student Assembly added his support, as well.
” I still can’t believe how the faculty behaved yesterday in the Faculty Assembly meeting. Their position was absolutely ridiculous,” wrote Guilherme Hubsch. “I decided to write to you and let you know that you have my support. I really admire you, you are a great leader and role model. You know how to make decisions (even the very hard ones) and you always use logic and fairness. I don’t understand why the faculty decided to do what they did, but it does not reflect how hundreds of students and I feel about your leadership. We trust you and Joni 30,000 percent.”
“I can’t stand when people are mean, unfair and spread malicious rumors. … I don’t really have enough words to describe how outraged I am at their vote and attitude. … I don’t have enough words to describe how much I support you and your decisions,” Hubsch concluded.
D&E BY THE NUMBERS
Smith, 80, said there have been challenges since taking over the reigns of the college a year ago. However, he said the overall financial, academic and athletic health of the institution has never been better,
“It is, indeed, no doubt safe to say that most small, private colleges face financial uncertainty, especially those with a limited permanent endowment and/or which are saddled with heavy debt,” Smith said in a recent report to the Faculty Assembly. “Given our progress in recent years on both of these fronts, we seem to be in much better shape than many of our peers.”
“In fact, rather than ‘facing a challenge for survival’ as some have alleged, D&E is in the strongest financial position of its 112-year history,” Smith added.
Examples of this include:
Gifts to date this year exceed $10 million, roughly 50 percent more than in any previous year in the history of the college.
As a result of private gifts and gift commitments over the past six years, the college has been able to pay off all of its debt, including $10 million in external debt and a nearly equal amount borrowed over decades from the endowment.
This puts Davis & Elkins in a unique position among its peers, with absolutely no outside debt.
The permanent endowment of the college has increased from about $20 million in 2008 to more than $35 million today.
Enrollment-wise, Davis & Elkins is on the upswing, too.
Full-time campus fall enrollment grew from a low of 511 in 2008 to a high of 847 in 2013. Currently, enrollment sits at 796, which was higher than expected. Enrollment includes 776 full-time students and 20 part-time students.
“The distinguishing quality or characteristic of the small college, the private small college in particular, is the personal attention between the students and the faculty members and the students and the coaches,” Smith said. “We see that play out in the graduation rates. The graduation rate is significantly higher, therefore, students finish in four years and sometimes three years as opposed to five or six years at larger public institutions.”
“In general, it really is that personal attention,” Smith added. “Also, it is that sense of community, of being part of a community that reciprocates. It makes a difference when people know you by name and call you by name.”