Faculty Senate meeting leads to discussion of non-renewal of math department head’s contract


Michael Dylan Payne

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said Bruce Kessler will no longer be the math department head starting July 1, 2020. It is actually July 1, 2021. The story has also received small corrections for typos and clarifications. The Herald regrets the errors.

The Faculty Senate discussed the decision to not renew Math Department Head Bruce Kessler’s contract on Thursday.

In a statement discussed during Thursday’s meeting, several concerns were raised about the lack of information surrounding the decision not to renew Kessler’s contract for the upcoming academic year. The document also raised concerns that the way Kessler’s contract decision came about violated the university’s policy on how department head positions are filled and managed.

His contract for teaching will be renewed. It is his contract as department head that has not been.

“The Faculty Senate asserts that unilateral action by [Ogden College] Interim Dean [Greg] Arbuckle to not renew Dr. Kessler as Depart Head violated WKU Policy 1.5041.III.A., on the renewal of Department Heads,” the statement reads. 

The full document can be seen here.

The statement also stated the timing of the decision suggest it could be related to Kessler’s decision to allow his faculty to choose the modality of their courses without regard to university targets as well as his criticism of the universities COVID-19 response along with the publication of his COVID-19 model in the WKU Herald.

Mac McKerral, assistant director for the School of Media, said the reason the faculty ends up in an adversarial position with administration is because they may not understand how things are supposed to work.

James Barker, associate professor of religion, said while he agrees this may be the case in this circumstance, he’s not convinced that this keeps happening because of ignorance.

“It’s not simply that people are ignorant to the process,” Barker said. “Rather they just disregard what the handbook says.”

Those present in the faculty senate meeting were reminded of the incident that occurred two years ago with Potter College Dean, Larry Snyder

Acting Provost Cheryl Stevens reacted to the senate’s statement on Dr. Kessler. At the time the resolution to publish the statement was passed with no opposition and only 4 recorded abstensions. She said that Dr. Kessler served two full-terms and is loved by his students, but this decision was a leadership decision and that it’s not personal.

“Not one single individual approached Dean Arbuckle nor me to talk about this,” Stevens said. “This is a situation that has been inferred by coincidental things. I understand the timing makes it look like Bruce’s model had something to do with this, it didn’t.” 

Stevens said she and Dr. Arbuckle respect people’s ability and right to express their opinion and the statement implies that Ogden College of Science and Engineering administration are retaliating against Kessler for expressing his opinion.

“I just want to say on the record, that is not true and the implications here are much broader than what happened,” Stevens said. “It’s a change in leadership.”

In response to Stevens, McKerral said he understands change and a simple explanation of why could diminish any perception of foul play, but it actually gets back to process and how people are treated on this campus.

“When you’re going to make these changes, maybe you should say why,” McKerral said. “The fact that no one has approached you or the dean about this issue, I think says something about the climate around this campus. We don’t want to speak up, we don’t want to question, and they don’t want a challenge.”

Stevens said to McKerral that WKU policy doesn’t allow for public discussion of personnel files.

“Personnel files are public information,” McKerral said.

He said his frustration comes from not knowing what’s going on.

“If nobody’s going to tell us why we’re wrong, but everything we’ve learned in this statement indicates that there were at a minimum problems with the way it was handled,” McKerral said.

Claus Ernst, Faculty Regent and a professor in the math department, said the reason this statement exists, is because their concerns regarding this decision were expressed and went unaddressed.

“There was a letter written to the dean signed by the overwhelming majority of the department, precisely to give the dean a chance to react before this went public, and we got zero response on that,” Ernst said. “That’s the record on that.”

Stevens insisted that this is not a dismissal, that department heads serve at the pleasure of their Dean, and that this is a Dean’s decision and is without cause.

As of July 1, 2021, Dr. Kessler will no longer be the Department Head of the Mathematics Department but will continue to teach as a professor at WKU.

Michael Dylan Payne can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mdpayne_.