Leadership changes lead to sense of insecurity for faculty

WKU President Tim Caboni attends the Board of Regents Meeting on Friday, Sept. 22 in Honors College and International Center.

Lily Burris

Editor’s note: The print edition of this story gets cut off prior to the final paragraphs. The full edition is available here. The Herald regrets the error.

When President Timothy Caboni arrived at WKU on July 1, 2017, a lot of changes followed him. Those changes first became evident through the budget cuts starting in Spring 2018.

The first draft of the budget plan hit Caboni’s desk Feb. 20, 2018 with focuses on strategic reductions, a new budget structure and student life improvement, according to the WKU Budget Restructuring Plan from that date. All of this called for a university-wide culture change.


“President Caboni will admit to you, he’s trying to change the culture,” University Senate Chair Kirk Atkinson said. “There’s no secret about that.”

However, Faculty Regent Claus Ernst said culture change isn’t just caring more about students and building less buildings. Various positions within the upper levels of WKU have changed hands or have been eliminated altogether.

“What also is in the process of happening is that we see this level immediately below the president and the provost,” Ernst said. “We see a tremendous change over.”

Change has come from the top down with Caboni’s presidency. Former Provost David Lee retired at the end of the 2017-18 school year, and current Provost Terry Ballman arrived from California State University San Bernardino to fill the position. Lee remains at WKU as a professor and the university historian.

“I believe our new leadership wants to be more transparent,” Ernst said. “I don’t think we are quite there yet. A lot of decisions are made in a quiet, nebulous, intransparent way, but I think there is an emphasis to becoming more transparent, to become more accountable.”

The colleges within WKU have also seen much change throughout this transition. The University College was eliminated during budget cuts on June 30, 2018. Dennis George, the former dean, is now the interim dean of the College of Health and Human Services. The previous dean was Neale Chumbler, who left the position to work at the University of North Texas as a dean.

Former Dean of Gordon Ford College of Business Jeff Katz stepped down and back into regular faculty on June 30, 2018. Katz said he wanted to go back to teaching and spending time with the students before his retirement, according to a previous Herald article.

The College of Education and Behavioral Sciences acquired a new dean in the fall after former dean Sam Evans retired on June 30, 2018. Scott Lyons was the dean of the graduate school until he resigned from the position, which was announced on June 11, 2018.

“Any time you have that much change in a two-year period, there’s that sort of leadership vacuum, if you will,” Atkinson said.

While some positions have been rearranged, others have been eliminated. Richard Miller was the vice provost for policies and personnel before his retirement in the spring of 2018, but now the position does not exist within the university.

“The provost’s office is developing, putting together a new office with new vice presidents,” Sylvia Gaiko, former associate vice president of planning and program development, said. “I’m in a faculty line, but I miss that leadership piece.”

Gaiko was demoted from her position in the upper levels of the university starting in the fall of 2018. Her former position was eliminated during budget cuts. She will begin a new job as dean of the College of Health and Human Services at Indiana University Pennsylvania. The position at IUP is very similar to the one here, but it became available first, Gaiko said.

Doug McElroy was transitioned from associate vice president of academic enrichment and effectiveness to continue teaching as a Professor in the Department of Biology.

Other positions have been created as a part of this process, specifically executive vice president for strategy, operations and finance and the upcoming position of vice president for strategic communication and marketing, according to an email recently sent by Caboni.

“With new leadership from the top down, there’s new initiatives,” Gaiko said. “There’s all kinds of regulations that are changing at the state level and at the national level, and through accreditation, and with our own leadership completely turning over with a new president and a new provost, they’re just bringing in their own ideas.”

The team of people looking to fill the new positions are also looking to fill the dean positions for GFCB, CHHS and the vice president for philanthropy and alumni engagement, which has been held by John Paul Blair for the past year and a half as the interim vice president.

In the email to faculty and staff, Caboni said WKU candidates will be equally considered for vacant positions and the committee will “promote appropriately from within.” In a meeting with the Herald editorial board, he explained his job is to attract and grow talent, which is why WKU has conducted national searches.

“We want to make sure we cast a broad net, attract people who have seen lots of things in higher education, good and bad, and have learned from that,” Caboni said.

In the meeting, Caboni said he’s had several questions from faculty about organizational change and why there has not been much change from his predecessor.

“The answer to them is, ‘We’re creating change, but it has to be measured change,’” Caboni said.

In terms of organizational change, Caboni explained a university must handle leadership transitions differently than other institutions. He said in the next two years, he anticipates new faces filling his cabinet as people naturally move out.

“If one were to do like we do in government and have a complete change in cabinet, you lose tremendous institutional memory and institutional history, and it creates awful instability that’s not healthy for an organization,” Caboni said.

“When you promote somebody internally, you are getting somebody who has institutional knowledge. If you bring somebody from the outside, you are getting somebody who has outside knowledge,” Ernst said.

People have acknowledged the values of outside and inside hires. Atkinson said there have been some upper-level positions that were filled from the outside.

“I prefer to see promotions from within, again, when possible. Sometimes it’s not possible to do so,” Atkinson said. “I think they should be cautious when hiring from the outside.”

Atkinson said he’s noticed low morale within faculty members and attributed it to different initiatives and changing organizational structure.

“Just what I’m feeling from faculty is that there are still some morale issues, and there’s this general feeling of less security than perhaps they have in the past,” Atkinson said. “They’re all sort of waiting for what’s the next thing that’s coming. That’s just the general feelings as I hear people talk.”

In October, a Faculty Work Life Survey reported low morale among faculty during the 2017-18 school year. 40 percent of faculty said it strongly disagreed

with satisfaction for the merit increase process, which rewards more productive and higher-performing workers.

There are other initiatives in place which could cause morale to decrease such as the Comprehensive Academic Program Evaluation process, which looks at all WKU programs and could potentially suspend, transform or grow certain programs. Gaiko said with ongoing budget cuts at WKU, faculty members are looking for other options.

Ernst said there has been a spike in faculty members leaving, and he could anticipate the CAPE process adding to the spike.

“There are forces at work which are much larger than what WKU can influence, and so we are forced to acknowledge the difficulty of declining enrollment,” Ernst said.

Ernst said it’s hard to say what declining enrollment and leadership changes mean for the university. Changes are hard to evaluate while they’re happening, and this will be an ongoing process.

“I think the faculty are still the same, which is what makes WKU,” Gaiko said. “They love the students, they love the community, and so, that piece hasn’t changed, which is nice, [be]cause that’s what we’re here for is the students.”

News reporter Lily Burris can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @lily_burris.