UK president halts criticized dean search, commits to faculty requests on governance

This article was originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader on May 12, 2021 05:01 PM, Updated May 13, 2021 02:25 PM

In response to faculty concerns over shared governance, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto announced this week the halt of a dean search process that has drawn the criticism of faculty.

Capilouto and Provost David Blackwell halted the search process for the dean of the university’s graduate school, the president said in an email to campus on Wednesday. Additionally, Capilouto committed to many of the faculty requests laid out in a handful of resolutions passed by the university senate last month.

At a rally Wednesday afternoon in front of the university’s main administrative building, the announcements were generally celebrated by close to 100 university faculty, staff and students, many of whom are affiliated with United Campus Workers of Kentucky, a campus workers union. Many of those present gave credit to collective action on the part of elected faculty and the union.

“(Capilouto’s) statement today makes clear that he’s heard our concerns and he is committed to acting on these resolutions, if not to the letter of any one resolution, but to the spirit of all of them,” Gail Brion, a member of the university senate and now a union member, told the rally crowd.

In a statement on the union’s rally Wednesday, UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said the university looks “forward to continuing our work with the university’s elected faculty, staff and student leaders on our shared goals for progress.”

“It has been a challenging year, but in many ways a remarkable one. Our community is safe and healthy,” Blanton said. “The large majority of our campus community has been vaccinated. And we are working to craft a budget for the coming year that will help staff most in need and make strategic investments in the continued success of our students, who already are graduating at record levels.”

In an emergency meeting last month, the university senate passed five resolutions which included suggested policy decisions on improving shared governance.

The resolutions included updating university regulations to bring in more faculty voices on hiring processes for high-level positions and following a set of best practices on search committees until those regulations can be updated.

Additionally, the resolutions also called for a restart of the search for a new dean for the College of Arts and Sciences and a hold on the hiring process for the dean of the graduate school, until more finalists can be brought forward for the position. The full resolutions can be found on the University Senate’s website.

Capilouto’s announcement Wednesday stated that the university’s acting provost — who hasn’t been named yet but will take over when Blackwell leaves in June — will meet with leadership in the College of Arts and Sciences on restarting the dean search this fall.

Akiko Takenaka, also a university senator and member of the Arts and Sciences Dean search committee, said the original abrupt forcing out of the college’s dean last fall created disorder. Then the halting of the search to fill the position has led to several more emergency meetings, emails, phone calls and just generally hours spent not being able to do her job as a professor.

“These hours that could have been spent on teaching, hours that could have been spent reaching out to students struggling because of the pandemic, hours that could have been spent providing more feedback to the students,” Takenaka, also a union member, told the crowd on Wednesday. “That’s what I really wanted to do, instead of being in those meetings.”

With the hiring process for the dean of the graduate school on pause, the acting provost will also create a new search committee for the position and will begin a new search process in the fall, Capilouto wrote in a separate email to campus on Tuesday.

Elected faculty members took issue with the hiring process for the position in mid-April after administrators only named one finalist for the deanship. Typically, the university’s senate council wrote in a letter at the time, multiple finalists are publicly named for such a position so that the campus can give feedback on each candidate. Having only one finalist faculty input moot, they argued.

Faculty stressed then that they never took issue with the finalist for the position — Ann Vail. In his email, Capilouto said he and Blackwell met with Vail to tell her of their decision to halt the search.

Vail was “gracious, kind and steadfastly supportive of UK. She offered her assistance as we move forward. That’s who she is,” Capilouto’s email stated.

“I committed yesterday to starting a conversation this summer with our elected leaders to determine whether university regulations with respect to searches for important positions work the way they should,” Capilouto wrote in his Wednesday email. “Specifically, we want to ensure that shared governance is honored in how elected voices in these processes are appropriately represented and heard. And I believe we also want to make sure that these committees are more diverse and representative of the community we are and the community we aspire to be.”

Karen Petrone, a UK faculty member who helped to widely circulate a petition in support of greater shared governance that garnered over 500 faculty signatures, said she’s hoping search committees will gain the power to better discuss the strengths and weaknesses of specific candidates and give that feedback to administrators who will be making hiring decisions.

Joni Jenkins, the Democratic minority leader in the Kentucky House, also attended the rally on Wednesday and urged the union members to “stand strong” and be an example for other campuses across the state.

Other members of the union present at the rally Wednesday said Capilouto’s commitment to follow university senate advice on shared governance was a great first step, but they’re also hoping for greater action down the road.

The union as a whole will be pushing for greater wages for workers across campus, said Mary Sherman, the union’s undergraduate head steward and also a resident adviser in the university’s dorms. The union will be pushing for a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers along with better health and leave benefits, Sherman said. Currently as an RA, Sherman said she’s paid $7.25.

Abi Stephens, a graduate worker in the university’s history department, said that graduate assistants are “overworked and underpaid” and told the crowd that she made $16,000 per year.

“During the pandemic, my fiancee lost his job,” Stephens said. “We were in danger of being evicted. I could not support us solely on the stipend that the university gave us. It was terrifying.”

In an email to campus earlier this month, Capilouto stated that the next university budget — which will be considered by the university’s Board of Trustees in June — will “invest in our staff at all levels with higher compensation...”