The Stephen F. Austin University Board of Regents held a special meeting Sunday via videoconference to share concerns of faculty and staff who offered harsh criticism of university leadership.
“To say morale is low in the faculty ranks is a gross understatement,” said board chairwoman Karen Gantt.
Gantt during Sunday’s meeting provided a detailed report on comments she heard during a recent “listening tour” made up of forums focused on gaining feedback from faculty and staff. Those concerns largely centered on the Board of Regents, university president Dr. Scott Gordon and the budget. The comments were important for the board to hear and would provide “a springboard to a better university,” though they are not an official finding, she said.
“We have to figure out our next steps, and we’ve got to figure that out immediately,” Gantt said.
Last week, the Faculty Senate, department chairs and deans of the university’s six colleges supported resolution saying they have no confidence in Gordon’s leadership.
During the tour, some expressed concern that Gordon has an inability to take criticism in a healthy way, Gantt said. They described his management style as “authoritarian,” and the word “bully” was used frequently, she said.
Others claimed Gordon takes credit for others’ work when successful, but there is no accountability when work is not successful. Recent efforts toward shared governance were cited as one example of this issue.
“After mounting frustrations, Faculty Senate and Chairs Forum asked for improved shared governance,” Gantt said.
They expressed a belief that Gordon was taking credit for the efforts toward shared governance, which were initiated by their organizations, resulting in anger and distrust.
Members of those groups told Gantt that Gordon at first reacted angrily to their initial efforts. Further, they said they had been informed the Board of Regents, as a whole, was angry with the groups proposing shared governance.
There were discussions about poor communication of reorganization proposals on campus that caused frustration and unrest on campus, then efforts would be abruptly dropped.
Efforts to launch “minimesters” and the university’s Lumberjack Initiative Teams were cited as examples.
Concerns also included a pervasive impression that the Board of Regents has been and is inaccessible and unapproachable. That situation has existed for decades, Gantt said.
“From the highest level of faculty, throughout the staff – no matter who it was – they were not allowed to speak to the regents,” Gantt said. That applied to substantive issues, university work, as well as casual conversation.
“After we expressed that that was ridiculous and that culture should not remain at SFA, folks felt slightly more comfortable.”
Many people told Gantt that the recent meetings were their first opportunity to speak to a regent.
Gantt said she offered information on the difference between governance and management, but added that, “no one is off limits for basic human communication.”
Employees also said regents seemed to be unaware of the scope and scale of budget issues facing the university. A lack of transparency about the budget was often mentioned during the listening tour, Gantt told the board.
“Many people don’t know how much is in their budget, and don’t understand why it’s not more clearly communicated,” she said.
Staff members said their salaries are low compared to peer institutions and they haven’t received substantive raises in years. Those who work in academic areas said they are frequently told they are the number one priority, but that sentiment isn’t reflected by the budget process.
Those staff members said academic areas are the university’s primary revenue producer, but they also take all the budget cuts.
They suggested more of those cost-cutting measures should be directed to athletics. Gantt said the athletic department was not represented at those recent meetings.
Other staff members said they were worried about their future at SFA, expressing the concern that they wouldn’t have a job in a year due to out-sourcing and other budget measures.
Teaching staff that have not yet achieved tenure also expressed great concerns about speaking out, believing that doing so might end their careers.
These concerns and the pervasive feeling that staff and students have no voice has escalated matters to a boiling point, Gantt said.
However, one positive stuck out to Gantt during the series of meetings.
“It doesn’t matter who you are talking to on campus, the common thread among those groups is a belief that SFA is a special place. We don’t want this unique university to just exist, we want it to thrive. We know we are not thriving right now,” she said.
Following a nearly six-hour executive session, the board of regents reconvened and unanimously passed a resolution approving a change to the audit plan for the 2022 fiscal year.