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Faculty Senate votes "no confidence" in Gordon, asks Regents to revoke contract

The Faculty Senate of Stephen F. Austin State University unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday expressing it has “no confidence” in the effectiveness of university president Dr. Scott Gordon the day before Regents called a special meeting to discuss campus culture and the university budget.

As part of that resolution, the group asked the Board of Regents to revoke Gordon’s contract for cause because of a failure to achieve the goals of his position and for subjecting the university to “poor publicity, scorn and ridicule.”

Thursday, Regents called a special meeting that includes consideration of “appointment, employment, evaluation assignment, duties, discipline or dismissal” of Gordon and the vice president of finance. That meeting begins at 3 p.m. Sunday and may be viewed at tinyurl.com/SFARegents.

Faculty Senate chairman Dr. Brian Uriegas declined to comment further. University officials released a nearly 900-word response from Gordon that was sent out to all faculty and staff.

“I do not take this vote lightly. I recognize that it expresses the fears and frustrations of good people trying to do good things. I can identify with that,” Gordon said in the statement.

The Faculty Senate resolution cites several issues including Gordon’s acceptance of an $85,000 raise during a time of financial hardship. Last week, Regents voted to rollback the raise, at Gordon’s request. The resolution also questions Gordon’s efforts to launch several large-scale initiatives that place additional burdens on faculty and staff — especially during a time when employees are struggling to serve students during the pandemic.

“We have to work together. We cannot see each other as adversaries, but rather as partners in the endeavor to address the new and longstanding challenges. We need to be able to have constructive and respectful debates and disagreements. We have work to do together, and we cannot go about it in a spirit of division,” Gordon said.

Senate members also pointed to initiatives instituted by Gordon that “have failed outright and/or produced little to no tangible results,” such as an analysis of combining some of the university’s six colleges and multiple Lumberjack Innovation Teams.

“I apologize if I have expressed my passion and vision in a manner that has come across as aggressive or otherwise negative. I am optimistic and I push for achievement. I believe in SFA and its people and I truly want the best for them,” Gordon said.

In September 2020, Gordon told the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce that the university would launch a series of “innovative goals, initiatives, strategies and partnerships.”

That included multiple start dates for students, eight-week courses and expanded online offerings, all of which faculty members say they weren’t consulted about.

The no-confidence resolution calls the changes “a conversion burden heaped on top of the faculty and staffs struggling to provide online and socially distanced versions of courses designed for 16-week deliveries.”

Accompanying the resolution, the Deans Council and group of department chairpersons issued letters expressing “indignation” in the fiscal decisions by Gordon and his “lack of leadership and collegiality.”

“The academic deans encourage the Board of Regents to engage in deeper conversations with stakeholders in order to be better informed of campus climate and concerns,” reads a portion of a letter signed by deans of the university’s six colleges.

Department chairs agreed, calling for Regents to conduct an immediately external audit of the university’s budget “to determine the institutions financial stability before any decisions are made about additional cuts or restricting within academic units.”

“I have striven to be open and collaborative from my first days as president. I have pushed for more information to be shared and understood, so that we might all have a more realistic picture of what needs to be done,” Gordon said. “We have very real budget issues to address. We have enrollment trends that are challenging. We have building projects to complete, debt service to overcome, scholarships to establish, salary issues to correct, relationships to nurture and partnerships to strengthen.”

Gordon was hired in August 2019, coming to Nacogdoches from Eastern Washington University where he served as provost. His salary and other compensation totals $365,000 a year, according to documents on file with the Legislative Budget Board.

During Gordon’s tenure, SFA has engaged in a significant amount of construction projects started under former president, the late Dr. Baker Pattillo. The university has also seen enrollment decline because of COVID-19 and revenue decrease after the state clawed back 5% of funding from state agencies.

Fall enrollment at the university totaled 11,946, a decrease of 674 students, or 5%, university officials said Friday.

Total undergraduate enrollment decreased 6%, or 688 students, enrollment of new first-year undergraduate students increased 4%, and transfer-student enrollment increased 2%.

Overall graduate enrollment increased by almost 1%, from 1,633 to 1,647 students. This is the second consecutive increase in graduate enrollment from 2019, when 1,475 students were enrolled.

The Faculty Senate is made up of elected volunteers who represent each of the university’s six colleges.

Residents concerned about city planning process

Nacogdoches city leaders are expected to decide later this month whether to move forward with a proposed downtown master plan and comprehensive plan.

City Council in December began discussions about hiring outside consultants to complete a downtown master plan and to update the city’s comprehensive plan, last updated in 2003, with an Interstate 69 corridor study and housing needs assessment. The cost of both plans is estimated at $450,000.

“I know it’s a lot of money, but it’s like when you build a house. You don’t want to spend money on a set of plans, but it’s necessary,” resident Ron Collins told the council during a workshop Tuesday. “If we make this investment, it’s important we follow (the resulting plans) and hold people accountable who are going to carry this out.”

Collins is Nacogdoches market president for BancorpSouth and member of the Nacogdoches Economic Development Corp. board.

The council on Aug. 24 held a public meeting with representatives from DTJ Consultants, the firm selected as a finalist to complete both the downtown plan and comprehensive plan update.

About a dozen residents, many of whom attended the Aug. 24 presentation, spoke Tuesday to express concerns.

“In the strategic priorities for the Nacogdoches City Council for downtown, there is no mention of history or historical preservation,” former Main Street board member Barbara Gandy told the council. “There has been so much hard work here, and it seems of no importance.”

A longtime real estate agent, Gandy said she can attest to a desperate need for residential neighborhoods.

“When you say your priority is attainable housing options, that seems very vague,” she said. “If you want economic development, which I am totally for, you have got to have available (single-family residential) housing. I do not see needing a consultant for this. The city needs to get problems worked out with water and other issues so new subdivisions are feasible.”

Retired Stephen F. Austin State University professor Mary McCleary compared the city’s situation to a financially irresponsible family.

“The pantry’s almost bare, but the parents want to spend the remaining money on extras like Netflix,” she said. “Ten years ago in 2011, our city was nearly out of water. We relied too much on Lake Nacogdoches while our other sources — our wells — were neglected. There was no preventative maintenance. When wells went down, they stayed down. The Army Corps of Engineers allows us to draw 20 million gallons a day (from Lake Nacogdoches), but we’re only capable of treating half of that.”

Better sewer and water treatment are needed to be able to expand business opportunities in town, she said.

“We understand the city intends to float a bond issue for water. We probably need that,” she told the council. “Wouldn’t it be more likely to pass if city council demonstrated frugality and a thoughtful approach to spending money? Why not spend some of this money designated for the comprehensive plan and start fixing water here. Next time you lose water, what will you tell constituents?”

The majority of funding for both plans would come from the city’s general fund balance, which stands at about $11.8 million, city officials have said.

Resident Albert Lasater told the council that the “speed and lack of transparency” in vetting consultants has created red flags for the public. He suggested the council build its credibility by reducing its scope to a single project.

“I think you need to narrow it down — pick one,” he told the council, “whether it’s the downtown plan, I-69 corridor. It’s important for the city council to get a win on the board.”

Lasater held up a copy of a NEDCO study completed last year, pointing out that Page 17 contains a good priority list to improve Nacogdoches.

“I read it. I think it’s great,” he said. “I’ll bet you if we pay $450,000 we’re probably going to have a table that looks very similar to what Pegasus (consulting firm) already provided NEDCO last year. We already paid for it — let’s just execute it. What we need to do is execute a smaller plan, get that win on the board and go on to the next one.”

City Council will hold a discussion on whether the city should go forward with the plans during a workshop at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at City Hall. All city meetings are open to the public, and are also streamed live at www.ci.nacogdoches.tx.us/21.

Cases still climbing

Nacogdoches County’s record number of COVID-19 cases continued to climb this week as state officials added more than 100 new cases in one week.

Active cases — patients considered to be contagious — were at 664 Friday afternoon, up from 463 a week prior and 593 Tuesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

As the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spreads and sends unvaccinated Texans to the hospital with serious illness, hospitals are under enormous pressure to make room for growing numbers of patients.

Fifty-eight patients — just shy of 9% of all active local cases — were hospitalized Friday, according to Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, a regional health care coalition.

All but three of the county’s 22 intensive care beds were filled Friday morning, and all 19 of those patients have coronavirus.

Doctors also say the only way to permanently slow down the record spike in hospitalizations is to vaccinate a majority of the state.

More than half — 52.21% of Nacogdoches County residents 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Tuesday, and 41.62% were fully vaccinated.

Pfizer’s two-shot vaccine is approved for children as young as 12. Moderna’s vaccine is approved for ages 16 and older, and Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine is available only for adults.

President Joe Biden announced sweeping new vaccine mandates Thursday that will affect tens of millions of Americans, ordering all businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be inoculated or face weekly testing.

Biden also said he was requiring all health facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding to vaccinate their workforces, which the White House believes will impact 50,000 locations.

And the president announced he would sign an executive order that would require all federal employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus — without an option for those who prefer to be regularly tested instead — in an effort to create a model he hopes state governments and private companies will adopt.

The cluster of new policies comes as the country grapples with the highly contagious delta variant, which has sent cases surging to more than 150,000 a day and is causing more than 1,500 daily deaths. The White House has struggled to convince hesitant Americans to get vaccinated and has been increasingly shifting toward requirements.

Gov. Greg Abbott — who has resisted making vaccinations mandatory in any form in Texas, going as far as to bar local governments and school districts from enacting their own vaccine mandates —dubbed Biden’s move to compel businesses with more than 100 employees to make their workforce either get the shot or submit a negative COVID-19 test result each week a “power grab.

“The federal government needs to stop trying to run private businesses,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement. “Texans and Americans alike have learned and mastered the safe practices to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID, and do not need the government to tell them how to do so.”

Abbott has encouraged Texans to get vaccinated but insists that they shouldn’t be forced to do so. At the governor’s request, state lawmakers will consider legislation to bar local governments from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for their residents when they convene later this month for a third special session.

“Biden’s vaccine mandate is an assault on private businesses,” Abbott tweeted on Thursday evening. “Texas is already working to halt this power grab.”

The Texas Tribune contributed to this story .