Disgruntlement with president rises to surface at Gustavus

By  |  Monday, February 4, 2013 1:23 PM

Numerous Gustavus Adolphus College faculty, students and alumni are calling for President Jack Ohle’s resignation following years of complaints about his leadership.

For several years, members of the faculty, students and alumni have voiced concern regarding what they call Ohle’s business-minded administration, his lack of concern for academic quality, and disregard for faculty involvement and concerns, among other things.

Recently, the turmoil has boiled over into the public forum, growing in intensity due in part to an anonymous and controversial student-run website called GustieLeaks that has publicized documents, some confidential, regarding the Ohle administration.

According to documents on the site, the Faculty Senate, chaired by religion professor John Cha, recently passed a motion to present a letter to Ohle outlining the various faculty concerns about his leadership and a request for him to resign by the end of the academic year.

The letter stated, in part: “We have reached a point where lack of trust and confidence in your leadership over the span of four years precludes the college from moving forward in its educational mission under your leadership.”

Ohle was present at the meeting, according to the Gustavian Weekly student newspaper, and stated he would treat it with serious consideration. At a previous closed faculty meeting in the fall, those present passed a resolution asking the Board of Trustees to terminate Ohle’s contract as soon as possible.

Faculty demand ouster

A Faculty Survey Executive Summary leaked on GustieLeaks.com outlines many faculty complaints. Of the 77 responses, 73 (or 95 percent) rated Ohle’s performance in mostly negative terms, the senate summarized. Cha declined to comment.

Via email to The Free Press, Faculty Senate member Eric Dugdale cited several examples that have angered faculty, including that Ohle tried to “unilaterally change the college bylaws to remove the authority of the Faculty Manual” and operates outside the established channels of faculty committees.

“The series of crises that such incidents engender have distracted faculty from their focus on the college’s educational mission and have had significant negative impacts on morale,” Dugdale said.

Dugdale said the tension on campus has been brewing for years, long before GustieLeaks.

“I see the tension as a result of problems in presidential leadership, to which the faculty has been responding with concern,” Dugdale said. “… Certainly individual incidents have escalated the tension. But at its root is a lack of confidence in President Ohle’s leadership: poor financial stewardship; a lack of transparency in the budget process; failure to respect the college’s model of shared governance; decisions detrimental to the academic program; (and) an autocratic management style out of keeping with the core values of the college that has led to the resignation or departure of a number of key members of the leadership team.”

Dugdale said the Board of Trustees has not given an indication of the nature or timeline of a review of Ohle scheduled for this spring.

“… This vacuum in which the faculty is operating may help explain why the Faculty Senate sent the letter to the board that communicated the gravity and urgency of the situation,” Dugdale said.

Board reviewing issue

Ohle has deferred comments to the Board of Trustees. Through the college, Board Chair Mark Bernhardson issued a statement acknowledging that the board is in the process of reviewing the situation closely and plans to respond appropriately.

Bernhardson spoke with the faculty at their monthly meeting in December, and Ohle has responded personally to the Faculty Senate and many students directly, the statement says.

“By its very nature, a college campus is a diverse mix of individuals and opinions and Gustavus is no exception. … It is a natural process to openly engage in civil discourse about disagreements in the way in which an institution of higher education is governed,” the statement goes on to say.

The statement also points out Gustavus’ achievements during Ohle’s tenure: an increase in enrollment; a substantial increase in donations to the college, including $4.5 million given to the 2011-12 Annual Fund; and the royal visit of Their Majesties King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, among other things.

The statement ends by saying: “The president and the Board of Trustees are committed to continuing the college’s strategic progress, while at the same time welcoming the opportunity for all voices to be heard to make the Gustavus community even stronger than it is today.”

While Ohle preferred the board comment to The Free Press, in a previous article in the Gustavian Weekly Ohle expressed concern about GustieLeaks publishing confidential documents, as well as concern about student involvement.

“I’m sorry that the students are brought into this, because it is difficult for all of the facts to be known and, as a result, people can only make their own assumptions,” Ohle was quoted as saying in the paper.

Students go public

On Jan. 9, students and alumni initiated a collective public effort to post letters to Ohle to Facebook pages, YouTube channels and blogs. The letters had been written in December asking Ohle to resign and were accompanied with small gifts as gestures of good will, said student Ian Shay.

Students said due to a lack of response to the letters, they went public.

One letter-writer and alum Bethany Ringdal recognized strides in college advancement, but wanted Gustavus’ other core values to also remain priorities.

“As a community, Gustavus is more fragmented than I’ve ever seen it; too many community members feel that they aren’t being valued or heard,” she writes. “It breaks my heart to see the very staff and faculty that taught me so much about living well near tears due to your leadership.”

Junior Kelly Dumais said, despite comments to the contrary, the faculty and administration problems are of student concern.

“I’ve been aware of it the whole time I’ve been at Gustavus,” she said. “(Community) is the defining aspect of what makes Gustavus such an amazing place to not only go to school, but to live and learn.”

Two petitions have been created on Change.org, one for alumni and one for students asking the Board of Trustees for Ohle’s removal by the end of the academic year. Dumais said the petitions combined have about 400 signatures.

Numerous comments were made on the petition site by students.

Elizabeth Johnson of St. Peter wrote that her family’s large investment in the college should give her a voice there.

“My parents and grandparents have saved for a long time in order for me to go to a good college and get a quality education,” Johnson wrote. “Especially since this money is not my own, I want it to be used in ways I approve of, and Jack Ohle does not seem to be doing this.”

Shay said one of the biggest reasons the situation affects him and other students is because faculty have either left already or plan to leave the college if Ohle remains.

“We think he wants what’s best for the college, but we believe it would be best for the college that he left,” Shay said. “Some people say it’s normal to have conflicts between administration and faculty and staff, and it’s normal for there to be some head-butting. But I would stress we do not have a normal situation here on campus.”

Student Senate co-presidents Tasha Ostendorf and Jessica Flannery said via email that the senate does not have an official opinion regarding the issue and neither wishes to comment.

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