Why did I leave the University of Arkansas? And an Epilogue on the 2022 Chancellor Search.
This is me handing out stress hogs during finals week in the student union. This is one of the fun things provosts get to do at the University of Arkansas. And, stress hogs really are great. The photographer caught me at a moment where I kind of looked like the most interesting man in the universe (for those that remember that TV commercial), so I had to post one of the few pictures that make me look good.
November 16, 2022 update.
The search for Arkansas's new chancellor is over and Charles Robinson will start a three year term. The Board Chair apparently said he "earned the right to be Chancellor through old-fashioned hard work and honesty...". If you read the blog below, I hope you agree with me that Board Chair Gibson has a strange definition of old-fashioned hard work and honesty.
I will never forgive my old colleagues for creating and perpetuating a narrative that Dan Reed was simply a computer nerd from Utah and Microsoft, as opposed to an outstanding candidate with superior experience and success in building the full range of the academic enterprise and, as Chair of the National Science Board, a national and international figure in leading science and education planning at the National Science Foundation.
In the end, the Board selects who they want, and they, along with many people wanted the person they know and felt comfortable with, and perhaps even trusted.
The university will survive and maybe even thrive-but I suspect pushing toward excellence, and making people uncomfortable with that push, is less likely to happen than if Dan were selected. The result is reassuring. in an odd way to me. It helps me recognize that I was not hallucinating when seeing images in the rear view mirror of malevolent politics and addictions to mediocrity. Knowing now that I can see clearly, it will be a pleasure throwing my rear view mirror into the trash and focus on moving forward. Best of luck to the new permanent chancellor and best wishes to the University of Arkansas. I really did try to help make it a better institution when I was there and I hope some of the good things I did are nurtured until they bear fruit.
October 16, 2022- original post with addendums
Ere to discussing some painful circumstances in my life, let me say the following: 1) I loved the University of Arkansas, and thought there were awesome faculty and staff who were spectacular colleagues. Most deans came to work every day to make their college better, and I felt I hired some excellent people (one is now the VP for Agriculture). I believed the university has amazing potential- the chancellor and I came in to work every day wanting to make the university better at student success, research/creative activities, and improving people's lives in Arkansas' communities. Neither of us were interested in self aggrandizing power, and I thought we both respected the chain of command (board to president to chancellor to campus). It was spectacular to me to be so aligned with a chancellor who I respected so much as an academic, as an extraordinary smart individual, and as someone who was always all about the institution. Much to my surprise, I still root for the Razorbacks 2) My wife and I truly enjoyed living in Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas. When we told our friends in Arizona that we were moving to Arkansas, we usually got reactions like "do they wear shoes there?". That reputation is extraordinarily unfair and way more unfair than we even knew before we had arrived; 3) If I hadn't been hurt so badly, we would have stayed and I would have been a very high paid faculty member, making twice as much as make as a faculty member now; 4) I was the first Jewish senior administrator in the history of the campus and I never felt any overt anti-Semitism (albeit it might be part of why I am gone).
So, why did I leave? Before answering that question, let me say that I am extraordinarily proud of what Joe Steinmetz and I accomplished as a Chancellor/Provost team, with deans, the provost's team, and with the faculty senate, over three years. Student success, research, and the impact of the university on the State improved significantly over three years. Major initiatives like the student success center (now CORD.. https://success.uark.edu/); the I3R (https://i3r.uark.edu/); the IDEALS institute (https://diversity.uark.edu/ideals-institute/index.php); The Chancellor’s Innovation and Collaboration Fund (https://chancellorsfund.uark.edu/innovation-and-collaboration/- amazing outcomes); A fund for humanities and social sciences; working with faculty to restructure general education and redo P&T policies, both of which made it through faculty senate in less than a year; implementing an incentive model for profession master's program which played a major role in buffering enrollment for the university through COVID; creating the community college transfer tuition program, reallocating $6M towards need based aid; and helped literally save the life of a colleague . You can see my CV (it has been updated with active links and additional items since its original posting) or my fall 2019 update- the update gives a sense of how much was accomplished through teamwork. I truly believed that we could make an argument as being one of the most successful provost/chancellor teams in the country over that 3-year time period with respect to academic improvement. When talking to me, he concurred.
But, that was not the narrative in small (maybe be larger) corners of UArk's political atmosphere. When I first arrived, several deans were not happy with me (though I don't know why), and they communicated their displeasure to members of their advisory boards, community members, and the System president etc., though those relationships got better with time. It may also surprise you to know that the role of a provost is not to make deans happy, but to better the academic mission of the university, but one needs to have working relationships to do so. Provost is the punching bag job of higher administration if one wants to facilitate improvement in the university. Also, the Walton Foundation hired a person to manage their relationships with the campus, that person was focused on research and innovation (my strength from ten years a very successful chief research/innovation officer and well known researcher) and I believe that person, perhaps through encouragement from deans or others who wanted more resources, threw me (and another female colleague) under the bus before she left the Foundation.
In any case, a narrative was created in a small group of connected non-campus community members, that I was indecisive (though no one could tell me what decisions I didn't make) and maybe incompetent (which I was not and I have lots of outside support on that one, and it would be hard to suggest I was incompetent given the things the university accomplished. I never heard anyone say those positive things happened in spite of me, and many recognized my role in facilitating them).
I am very open about my challenges with anxiety and depression in order to encourage people to seek help and to destigmatize mental health. The chancellor got at least one anonymous letter (sent to all of the members of the Board and to the President), that after a long bullet point list of things that the author believed the Chancellor should be ashamed of, appeared a bullet point indicating that I was "crazy and under psychiatric evaluation" because I was open about seeing a therapist. I was also an outsider and a Jew. The anonymous letter seemed somewhat unhinged, and a letter that in most cases would not be taken seriously. Yet, it concerned us more than the many communications the chancellor got expressing extraordinary unhappiness (often with vulgar language) with the football team, basketball coach (when Mike Anderson was coach) parking, Greek life, diversity (both too little and too much emphasis) and everything else. I think I recall that several bullet points in that anonymous letter were identical to things that were said by members of that small group of connected non-campus community members mentioned above, board members (at least one who said one of them directly to me), and perhaps even members of the chancellor's team when they spoke to others inside and outside the university.
I am a high-functioning Aspy, so I think I was wired well for my job of facilitating the improvement of the academic mission, but was not wired to understand politics, and was particularly unskilled in Southern communication where one needs to read between the lines of what people say. I tend to take everyone at face value.
I also had a challenge in that I simply never figured out a chord progression to sing my own praises-- I thought giving credit to others and the strong statistics on academic outcomes, would make the case for me as a strong provost, just like an 11-0 record would make the case for a football coach. It doesn't work that way.
In September, 2019, just as I was finally able to accept that I was a good (and maybe excellent ) provost, Chancellor Steinmetz had a meeting with me. That meeting was about his reappointment by the President and the Board of the UArk System. He told me that the Board and President had given him two choices: 1) Not be reappointed; or 2) be reappointed, but move me into another administrative role or to faculty, and that he would have to name Charles Robinson as interim provost.
This hurt. I loved the university and felt like I was hitting my stride. A great executive coach helped me smooth out relationships with colleagues whose brains weren't wired like mine. And, the Chancellor told me how happy he was with my work as Provost. So, I didn't understand why this happened. It also was hard for me to believe this was actually about me or my performance.. The accomplishments I facilitated as provost were excellent (even if not appreciated by everyone). The President or the Board did not ask for the Chancellor to review me. The Chancellor never gave me an annual review specifying performance issues- in fact he gave me strong performance evaluations. The Board did not give the Chancellor an opportunity to defend me. No one at a leadership level above the chancellor ever asked me about the narratives or even my strategy and plans for facilitating improvement in the university. Candidly, from what I was told, the board seemed actually quite disinterested in what I actually did as provost. Also, even though I made invitations, not a single board member ever engaged me in conversation regarding the efforts we were undertaking, my priorities for the academic mission of the university, the action items on our strategic plan (which the interim chancellor pretty much completely ignored), or even congratulated me when I was elected a AAAS Fellow.
This was unlike almost every situation, at least that I know about, where someone is transitioned out of a position. There usually is at least one meeting, where it is explained to someone why they are being transitioned that usually includes an opportunity for the person being transitioned to present their case and defend themselves, even if it had no chance in changing the decision. So, since the board showed no interest in actually learning about my accomplishments and plans, it seems that they only had narratives to use in making decisions about me (they may have had some specific information from the System President- I don't know). Given the lack of interest in directly trying to understand the many decisions I did make or anything about me a provost, I assumed that the actions regarding the Chancellor's reappointment were about the Chancellor and/or about Charles. That is only an assumption- but I can't find any other reason. And, it has been shared with me from several search consultants, that the Chancellor believed I was an exceptional provost, and that I, unfortunately, ended up being a political sacrificial lamb.
The chancellor was allowed to keep me as provost through the academic year, enabling me to find another job. I was never fired (someone indicated that to me on Facebook the other day, suggesting another incorrect narrative) and if I had not found another job, I still would have had a vice chancellor position at my provost level salary or a prominent faculty position at 75% (9 months) of my provost salary which would have made me, I think, the highest paid faculty member in Fulbright College. I want to emphasize that although those false narratives mentioned above roamed the community outside of campus like a lone wolf looking for prey, my accomplishments and my performance reviews were excellent. In fact, I think I remember the board chair at the time saying that I deserved being treated well after the board decision, since "I hadn't done anything to embarrass the university."
I just could not accept any of those offers to stay at the university. It just hurt too much and I didn't think I had the emotional strength to have to relive the anger and hurt every day. For those that think Arkansas lost something good when I left, thank you. But, I know that provosts are rarely remembered. That just increases the hurt associated with it all since it isn't really fun to be instantly forgotten, or a ghost or invisible.
I only ever had second hand information on why the decision that changed my life (and more importantly, Adele's, who truly loved living in Fayetteville) forever was made. The Chancellor told me that he believed that someone internally had leveraged connections with a small group of political power players to go after him, and that I was essentially collateral political damage. That is also what I learned was conveyed to search firms who referenced me. Had this ever broken public, though, the chancellor would have been forced to indicate it was his decision to make this move- moving me into a different role and bring Charles into the Provost role, as that assumption flowed from the vow he had to take to keep publicly silent about the matter. At the public portion of the Board meeting, the board simply indicated the chancellor was reappointed. The Chancellor told me, changing out the provost was not his decision, so I assumed the political power players and a majority (even maybe a slight majority) of board members wanted Charles in that role, and I can only conjecture that might have been because they liked him and thought he could keep an eye on the Chancellor. Others outside of the Board, but connected to them, confirmed the story the Chancellor told me.
Over the course of the remaining year, Charles apologized to me saying he had nothing to do with that board/president decision (I do not believe that); the deans and vice provost who had now mostly grown to enjoy working with me (other than the Dean of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences who had a tenser relationship with me) in person expressed extraordinary support for me. But, when asked by me whether they could just send a letter to the Chancellor stating simply that they enjoyed working with me, they decided not to. I don't know whether their support in person was real or not. Being an Aspy- I of course thought it was real because on its face it seemed sincere. But, the South is a place where truth lives somewhere between the words (yes, I am one of those people that would have thought "bless your heart" was a compliment without friends to alert me before my arrival; and I did think that when a waitress said "it will be a minute", after we had been waiting for an hour for our food, that it would just be a short minute- such is life as an Aspy). Nonetheless, I dedicated my self to my job including leading the proposal effort for the I3R, that was ultimately successful. My attitude was that I was provost until I was not and I am proud of what I accomplished while having to live in that unsettling situation for an entire academic year.
It was also a bit destructive to my ego to have given gallons of my sweat and blood to the student success center (now CORD) and to the nearly $200million I3R (and other things) and never was publicly recognized for those efforts. But, again, provost is the wrong role if one wants recognition.
Many chancellor candidates (including me) would not accept a chancellor role if they were told by their boss or the board who they had to hire as provost. The chancellor-provost relationship is one of the most important relationships in running an institution. I am sure the Chancellor weighed option one to quit. I don't know why he accepted this devil's bargain to stay on. He told me he did so because of wanting to protect me (and perhaps he was not worried or even happy about working with Charles, and perhaps he still had many things he hoped to accomplish). I have no reason not to believe him given what I thought was a great working relationship as chancellor/provost. If he truly accepted the role even partly to protect and help me, I am extremely grateful. I appreciated never having to be publicly humiliated (until writing this blog).
I will always remember the Chancellor's interpretation of what a provost does. In his honors class teaching students about leadership in public higher education institutions, I was invited to lead one class on academic affairs. I started off by telling the students my short version of what a provost did. The chancellor interrupted me, and lightly said "that's all fine. But, I was a provost and I know what a provost does. The provost does whatever the chancellor doesn't want to do." Fortunately, he had vision. And, he needed a provost to understand and implement that vision and we worked well together.
back to the story...
It was clear that Charles had many relationships with board members. In fact, he would go to board meetings, even with no agenda items, so he could mingle with board members. Friends told me he bragged about that. The chancellor very much believed in chain of command- board to president to chancellor to campus, so did not encourage me to create any independent relationships with board members. So, I was surprised the chancellor tolerated that behavior. But, he did.
I also once told the deans that if they were contacted by board members and responded, that they make sure to report the conversation to the Chancellor's chief of staff, so that the Chancellor would not be caught off guard. I have always worked under the assumption that my boss should never, ever, be surprised by his/her/their bosses and should know of any interactions I had with system leadership and/or board members. My request to the deans, of course, became a narrative that I tried to inappropriately isolate the deans from the board. I doubt it won me any favors.
And, then there was a time when a dean made a presentation at a board meeting, coordinated with one board member. That presentation included the need for the commitment of university resources (for something I thought was a stupid idea). The chancellor nor I had never been briefed on the idea. The Chancellor was called to the table at the board meeting and asked if he supported the initiative. He had to say "yes" even though he did not. If I had done something similar in my leadership roles (surprising the chancellor at a board meeting) at the University of Missouri, Rice, VCU or NAU, I would have been fired. Firing, however, was not an option given the politics. The rules can be just a bit different in Arkansas.
OK.. no more digressing. The story ends soon. Promise.
It is particularly dangerous for provosts to not have political relationships, because unlike deans, or chancellors, provost have no constituency (faculty, students, alumni/donors). The chancellor joked to me that when he was provost at Ohio State, that he would get thrown under the bus by the deans in the morning and by the President in the afternoon- and there is no one to rescue provosts when that happens. That is the life for many provosts. Fortunately, the chancellor's take away message from his experience as provost at Ohio State was to not throw the provost under the bus (i.e., scapegoat or blame) in his new role as Chancellor. And, I don't recall any time where did, at least publicly or to me directly.
The people that we thought had been political power players that put pressure on the board, were all engaged with the Dean of Fulbright College. Our hypothesis was that intentionally or unintentionally, discussions that the dean facilitated with these individuals set off this chain of events. I have heard that dean strongly denies that he had conversations of that sort, and people who are close to him believe his denial is true.
Since then, individuals who I know, who know Charles , and also our my friends, have told me that Charles was the or a significant instigator of facilitating a false and negative narrative about both me and the Chancellor. I actually had come to terms with having to leave Arkansas a year or so ago. But, when friends revealed this to me ,including some very specific details of false narratives that they indicated Charles had perpetuated, a scar was opened that changed my brain biochemistry and threw me into a deep depression this past summer (2022) that I only recovered from several weeks ago..
Again, I really do not know what is true. But, I do believe in Occam's razor. So, I have been asking some simple questions: 1) Who would benefit the most creating a narrative against the chancellor leading to my removal? That is easy, that would be the person who the board told the chancellor he had to hire as provost (Charles). 2) Who would benefit the most from the chancellor leaving the chancellor role? That is easy, that would be the person who inherited the interim chancellor role. Perhaps there are different more complex explanations- Occam's razor is not always correct, and the simplest answer may be hidden from view.
I only had conversations with the chancellor, friends, and conjecture to go on. All those directly involved have remained steadfastly silent, so I will probably never learn the truth, So, if you think I am wrong, that is fine. If you think I deserved what I received, oh well, that hurts, but I don't need to know. If you actually know the truth, do what you want to do with it. I have been hurt enough already. Eric Clapton sang "I'm tore down, I'm almost level with the ground:" this fits me. So, I am ready to move on after this blog post hoping no one needs to tell me more hurtful surprises about what happened. So, don't bother telling me, just blog about it on your own- someone will probably make sure I see it, even if I don't want to..
Let me summarize my truth. I was hurt. The accomplishments of the team in academic affairs were never acknowledged beyond the chancellor. No concern of any kind was expressed to me by the chancellor. No one ever asked me to implement a performance improvement plan since my annual reviews were all very strong; No reason was ever given why I had to move out of the provost role. No one ever indicated the things I brag about above were not real. The chancellor told me he was never given an opportunity to defend me to the Board, even though I reported to him, and he told me he wanted that chance. That's is more than enough for me to know that there are moral and ethical issues in system/board leadership. In fact, I don't think I would ever accept a position I wanted, as Charles did, if it were given to me in that way. I hope none of the readers ever have to go through such a situation. And, if you do, although I was strong enough to give my heart to the job until my last day, I hope you are emotionally stronger than me.
The chancellor search at Arkansas has great meaning for me for many reasons- most importantly because I would like to see the things I facilitated bloom. But, I also care for other reasons. On one hand, there is a candidate that I strongly suspect, but do not know, rose to the provost and then to the chancellor role by figuratively assassinating or helping to figuratively assassinate those in front of him, not through tactics based on leadership and significant accomplishments, and without, in my opinion from working with him, any sincere caring about the transformational mission of public higher education. And, I know the other candidate and many that know him. He is a nationally recognized higher ed leader, with impeccable credentials at AAU institutions, and who lives a professional life based on integrity,
I just don't want to live in a world where people rise to power because of their skill in manipulation of others for their own benefit. And, I keep hoping that higher education can still be a place where good people win. I mean an important mission of higher education is to build students up and propel them on to meaningful and successful lives as ethical and responsible citizens. I don't know how we do that if leadership uses the rules of the Game of Thrones to model behavior.
I will also say that I have been in a search where I was the top candidate coming out of campus interviews. But, it became clear that the person who would be my boss, really didn't want to hire me causing decisions to drag. I did what I think is the appropriate thing to do in those situations- withdraw from the search. I chose not to create a political battle because I wanted the job (and I wanted that job), that would just bring chaos, that in the end would do nothing to benefit me and wouldn't do anything good for that campus.
In the Arkansas case, the email that was published after an open records request by a news outlet showing that one candidate turned down an offer of $500,000/year salary to return to provost (where he previously made in the $330,000 range), makes me surmise that this is a very strong signal that the President of the system did not want that individual as permanent chancellor, but had to make sure he was treated unusually well (there are many, many searches where the interim person does not get the permanent job- and when they don't necessarily move back to their old position with greater compensation, and sometimes they just move back to the faculty roles at a rate of faculty compensation [f they are faculty]). Accepting such a reality gracefully is a virtue- especially when not doing so hurts the university, its national reputation, and the reputation of three other outstanding individuals with leadership records, national reputations as scholars and academic leaders that make them "all stars" in academic leadership with understanding of how to build the academic enterprise.
Nobody wins from turning a search into a circus because of one's own ambition. And, it appears to me that the declination of the offer to return to provost at a ridiculously high salary, turned a job search into a figurative and embarrassing duel, where one of two people (interim chancellor or system president) is going to "win" the board's majority vote, with the other professionally "dead" or badly weakened. Chancellor searches have enough drama, already- do they need to include duels, too?
It would be easy, and perhaps true, to assume that this is all about racism- that would be an easy narrative. But, the story above does not point to racism anymore than my situation points toward anti-Semitism (I don't think it did- perhaps anti-non-Arkansanism). Several people who remained good friends after I left, who are Black, would suggest than anyone that wants to throw the word racism into the mix of the search maybe should talk to Black faculty before cementing that narrative and also ask why the only Black member of the board voted to accept the President's recommendation for the candidate from Utah (it least that is what was reported to me).
In the end, though, this will get sorted out like all things do and life will go on- perhaps it will go on with all kinds of new people in different jobs-something that is too common in modern day academe. I will continue to figure out what to do with my anger and hurt, but at least I wrote my story. And, Arkansas will probably keep doing things to perpetuate its stereotype. Adding this search debacle to Jon Stewart's interview of Leslie Rutledge, provides great nutrition for the stereotype to live on.
One individual on Facebook already indicated that they kind of don't think anyone should listen to someone (like me) who was fired from the university (I wasn't fired from the university- but hey- I was sacrificed from provost role for a reason I don't understand) regarding the current search. I also ended up in a situation at UNCG where a platonic text exchange with a junior faculty member resulted in allegations that were completely dismissed, but way too long after I was forced to leave the provost role the day before Christmas. I filed a law suit against the university that was settled, but not in my favor. So, I fully understand that for some of you, my career trajectory may ruin any credibility I might have had, and/or that I am just a bad person (at least I know the vast majority of y students in classes I teach would would vehemently argue against that conclusion). For, others, you may have never liked or wanted me as provost at UARK. If you are one of these people who thinks I have no credibility, insight, or worth, that is your choice and I am surprised you read this far. Perhaps you think I am a racist because only white racists would not support a Black man for a leadership post. My guess is, though, if you are one of those people, you really don't know me very well.
I always tell students in classes I teach to watch out for narratives that seem created with just a few data points, especially when they ignore any data to the contrary. I have heard too many narratives based on basically no data in science, politics and now a chancellor search..
I hope we all create narratives from all the data we have, and try not to ignore data that doesn't fit the narrative (me included). If the data from what I said above does not fit the line you have drawn through the data points you have, you might want to do what good scientists do- adjust the line. Or, you can do what seems to be the rage these days and ignore those data and call them outliers or "fake news.". I will admit that I don't have the facts as to why the chancellor was put in a situation of needing to move me into a different position had I stayed at the university, and why he had to accept Charles as a predetermined replacement in order to keep his job. And, any interpretation I made above is mostly from second hand information or disconnected pieces of data I have- and, yes, it is just a narrative I have created from those disconnected pieces of data.
In the end, to finish this tortuous post, Arkansas is the kind of place where people who just destroyed your career with a very sharp sword in the back (e.g., board members) will come up to you at events, with big smiles, shake your hand, pat you on the back in a friendly way, and look so sincere when they ask you how you are doing. I so wanted to use my middle finger in response (but that is also not me).
Southern politeness will always be foreign to me. I grew up to value authenticity more than anything (also part of being Aspy)- like many traits, can be one's greatest strength and one's most vulnerable weakness at the same time.
The sad thing, though, is that from the moment I was told that I would need to transition to another job in the university, I lost all most all of the trust I had with a vast majority of people (but still trusted some!) in Arkansas, even those I thought of as friends and great colleagues. A person with pathological authenticity from being on the spectrum does not function well in world where they can't trust anyone because they have been hurt by surprise and can't read the cues of trustworthiness vs. deceit in anyone. That loss of trusting anyone was a really destructive side effect for me- and it still plagues me now. It is very hard to make friends in new places when you don't believe the signals from your trust radar- so have to assume the worst about everyone.
Whatever you think of the treatise above, please leave this note respecting that I do know the facts of exactly what happened to me (not necessarily why it happened) and I know what the chancellor told me about the devil's bargain he was given. That represents my truth of how I came to leave the University of Arkansas.
PS- since this blog was posted, there have been additional letters of support submitted for the interim chancellor to the Board of Trustees that have been published by media and an op-ed by Steuart Walton in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in support of the external candidate.
One success that was cited for Dr. Robinson in these letters was Adohi Residence Hall. Dr. Robinson oversaw Housing and Residential Life and had a large role in the project. There are a number of things special about this residential hall including some of its living-learning design where Dr. Robinson deserves credit, in my opinion (and, remember I do not know everything).
A key part of this project, though, was to build Adohi Hall using mass timber (cross laminated timber)- a sustainable and structurally wonderful material that is used more frequently in Scandinavia. The Dean of Architecture (Peter MacKeith) is a visionary for bringing this technology from Scandinavia to the US (https://news.uark.edu/articles/60377/messenger-of-mass-timber). Through his leadership, and support of the chancellor, the university took on the library annex project and then Adohi Hall as a proof of concept. Peter's vision, that aligned with the Chancellor's and my vision of the role of a flagship land grant university, would be to demonstrate to Arkansas' businesses, architects and building contractors how to accomplish building projects with sustainable material that could be produced in Arkansas. Our explicit hope was that Walmart might be swayed by this proof of concept project to consider using cross laminated timber in their new headquarters. We thought (and I give Peter full credit) that a successful demonstration of using cross laminated timber in a large and somewhat complex building like a residence hall could sway major new building projects to use cross laminated timber. And, if that did happen, that this could lead to a rapid jump starting of the Arkansas timber industry, perhaps allowing the state to become the leader in producing mass timber building materials, in a sustainable way, using Arkansas' forests. Walmart made the decision to build its massive new headquarters with cross laminated timber, and invested over $100M to create the mill infrastructure.
Although I played nothing but a supportive role in this project at executive team meetings and with the dean, doing whatever little I could to help make his vision a reality, I was so very proud of this project. For me, this was one of the best examples I knew of developing the modern land grant mission of flagship universities beyond agriculture. The University of Arkansas, based on the architectural and design expertise of leading professional in the field who served as a dean and faculty member, took a risk to demonstrate the use of new materials, which if successful would improve the quality of life for a large number of individuals and the entire timber region of Arkansas. It apparently worked.
Based on my memory, I think I recall Dr. Robinson being somewhat supportive of the concept, but did not want to implement this project without additional donor money because of the costs that would be born by a unit he oversaw, Housing and Residential Life. That money did not come which I think greatly dampened Dr. Robinson's enthusiasm for the facility and for Dean MacKeith's vision. But, again, what do I know.
I have been kind of shocked and saddened by the responses I have seen on social media to Steuart Walton's op-ed. Personally, I think he hit the nail on the head. And, he also made sure to cite the candidate forums. But, that is not the what has shocked and saddened me. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and although I care, I don't really have a horse in this race. And, the university will survive and remain important to Arkansans no matter who the chancellor is. In reality, I don't remember any of the president/chancellors from when I was in school or a postdoc. And, except for a few bigger than life personalities and real visionaries (e.g. Michael Crow; Freeman Hrabowski III) and some terrible chancellors, universities do just fine no matter who the chancellor is. The lifespan of chancellors is short. And, unless there is major financial upheaval, faculty basically teach the same course and do the same research independent of who the Chancellor is. I saw one metaphor that described Chancellor's being more akin to mayors of pretty big cities, than CEOs of a corporation. And, I think that is correct in at least 95% of cases.
But, I concede that how aggressively different initiatives are pursued and how well a chancellor can align with the imagination of donors differ, and some chancellors create massive amount of unproductive anxiety on their campuses.
Back to the op-ed. I know that it is unfair that wealth and power allow you to publish an Op-Ed that reaches thousands of people, while others simply wrote letters to the Board (albeit they seem to have been released to media from FOIA requests and published). I was shocked in saddened by the social media reaction to Steuart's op ed for two reasons: 1) There was so much derision towards the Walton family in their gall to publish an opinion. One post called Steuart "Boy Walton"- and it was written by a professor. Really?
The Walton family has invested 100s of millions of dollars into the university for everything from the honors college, to graduate programs, to student success (and the program the interim chancellor mentions as a major accomplishment in DEI), to the business school, and other programs. Most without any political bent (other than in Educational Reform). They have also invested a lot more to make sure NWA is a great place to live including Crystal Bridges, the Walton Art Center, the Greenway, and so much more that play a significant role in why NWA is a great place to live. Steuart was the lead family member in the $196million gift for the I3R, which is going to take leadership from the chancellor to be successful. I agree that doesn't mean that Steuart or other Walton family members should have more say than anyone else, but they have made visionary investments and they should care and be able to express opinions about the leadership of the institution without being derided. And, in my experience, they were great partners in advancing the previous chancellor's vision, not at all micromanagers of the university.
Secondly, the social media remarks were so angry at the Waltons. I suppose it is human nature to despise the rich an powerful. But, some comments were just wrong. For example, it has been widely discussed on social media that all the Walton's want to do is turn the university into a technology commercialization enterprise. Ridiculous! Such comments even came from faculty who engage with the honors college and with Arkansan students and other students who are supported in Honors through Walton gifts. They are faculty with graduate students that might not have been recruited. The community seems to ignore the $120 million that Alice invested in a School of the Arts, with a particularly high expectation in Art History (one commentator made a quip that he though such humanities areas were central to the university and implied that the Walton's goal was simply a technology entrepreneurship university). Some of my politically progressive colleagues who love Crystal Bridges, the Greenway, the Arts Center, the quality of life in NWA, but just ripped anger at them because of supporting Dan Reed. They also ignore the Walton's and Walmart's investments in DEI programs. One does not need to kowtow or celebrate them, but I think they earned some level of respect and gratitude for how much they care about the University and NWA. Disagreeing with someone does not mean you have to hate them.
Also, the tenor of some of the comments were "we need someone who knows us and cares about us." I don't agree with that opinion, but again I don't have a horse in the race. But, it represents one of the most frustrating things about Arkansas. The state is ranked in the bottom five states in important things like education, etc. Outside people come in with visions to make the university better, and the reaction is kind of "who in the hell do you think you are? Being 47th in all these things is just because non-Arkansans don't understand Arkansas. "To me, this symbolizes fear of change and addiction to mediocrity. But, again, what do I know.
In the end, I hope that the Board considers the willingness of candidates to embrace and implement initiatives that potentially have major effects on the university and the State as a whole, even if implementing such visions may cause challenges for units in the university whose myopic views may not allow them to see the big picture. The myopic view of stove piped units and a cultural addiction to "local optima" was a challenge for me as provost. In my opinion, this plays out with a unit leader defining their primary job as advocating and supporting individuals in their unit, with success being measured as how much they are liked, even when doing so requires decisions that are bad for the university as a whole, and/or even bad in moving that unit forward in quality and innovation.
I consider building Adhohi Hall with CLT as implementing an exemplary land-grant vision, even though it was not the least expensive option for housing and residential life. I also think that the I3R has the potential to realize that same kind of success, if academic leadership can reject "local optima" and accept and embrace a new way of thinking about faculty hires and their space as key to the University's success, even if not optimal for individual units. I hope the Board selects a chancellor that will push these sort of bold and risky projects even if that puts stress on the culture of "local optima" at the University of Arkansas.
On a truly final note, I was told (I didn't watch) that the internal chancellor candidate indicated that the university had to move from 8 guiding priorities to 3 guiding priorities because 8 was too many. The original 8 were essentially: student success, faculty excellence, research, teaching innovation, graduate education, interdisciplinarity, diversity equity and inclusion and the land grant mission. The people I talked to didn't remember the three, but were pretty sure it was student success, research and innovation, and perhaps DEI. Anyway, this is the kind of stove pipe thinking that ensures U. Ark's place as a mediocre university. For example, an institution can not make progress in student success without at least embracing faculty excellence, teaching innovation, DEI and graduate programs. A university can't make any serious progress in research without embracing faculty excellence, graduate education and interdisciplinarity. A university can't fulfill its land grant mission without building on all 7. The reality is that all 8 of these priorities are inextricably linked and all necessary for a modern day university- that was, in my opinion, the genius of Chancellor Steinmetz in using them to shape a strategic plan. It was frustrating as provost that there were individuals in leadership who weren't able to embrace the 8 priorities as linked in a tightly integrated system, as opposed to needing to think of each individually both in terms of investments and outcomes.
In the end, the University of Arkansas has the quality of faculty, students and donors to be a truly excellent university with respect to its core mission of teaching, research, and outreach. The lack of state support will always serve as a kind of glass ceiling to the institution. The crazy structure that I observed regarding the politics around the division of agriculture will probably always limit the potential of the Bumper's College to be a leading College of Agriculture- but it could be.. I also think the State's and the Board's infatuation and pride associated with athletics and Greek Life that I observed, in lieu of any pride in the teaching and research excellence in the university, doesn't help. Really- I went to one board meeting where more time was spent by the board beating up the chancellor regarding increasing parking for sororities to an even far greater density per student than students in residence halls, than was spent on academic affairs, in total, for all of board meetings I attended for the entire 3.5 years I was provost. That kind of says it all. But, I invested 3.5 years of my life trying my best to facilitate greater excellence in academics, so I can't help but hope the board chooses a chancellor who is laser focused on winning academically at the national level to the same degree that people care about football. The University's academic budget, including external research, overseen by a provost is probably more than 3 times larger than the budget for athletics. Someday, in a dream, the role of a provost might be understood in the way the role of athletic director is understood, since there are no athletics without a university focused on academics. And, accomplishments in academics might be celebrated to even half the extent of athletics.
The search for Arkansas's new chancellor is over and Charles Robinson will start a three year term. The Board Chair apparently said he "earned the right to be Chancellor through old-fashioned hard work and honesty...". If you had read my blog, then I hope you might agree with me that Board Chair Gibson has a unique definition of old-fashioned hard work and honesty.
This blog has had over 5,000 views- just a bit less than 300X my previously most read blog But, it apparently had no impact beyond those (many) who appreciated my candor and vulnerability because of having gone through similar destruction by evil people. There was no outpouring of concern about the malevolent politics and the lack of character in board members and the new chancellor. And, what is most surprising, is that many member of an academic community that celebrates critical thinking, not only accepted false narratives, but were passionate about them. I have many friends in Arkansas who completely agree with my conclusion, but they have to live in the university with a chancellor who they believe, as do I, has excelled in assassinating the characters and careers of people in his way. So, only those who saluted the false narrative were loud on campus.
I will have a really hard time forgiving my old colleagues for creating and perpetuating a narrative that Dan Reed was simply a computer nerd from Utah and Microsoft, as opposed to an outstanding candidate with superior experience and success in building the full range of the academic enterprise and, as Chair of the National Science Board, a national and international figure in leading science and education planning at the National Science Foundation. And, a man whose accomplishments were outstanding. To use a metaphor, on paper, Dan has the accomplishments of a major league all star, while the winning candidate is still in single A baseball
In the end, the Board selects who they want, and they, along with many people wanted the person they know and felt comfortable with, and perhaps even trusted. And, I suspect that Chair Gibson's motives were about going down in history as the board chair that broke the color barrier in the UArk chancellor seat. I agree that is something that needs to be done. But, he did so by adopting a strategy of "the ends justify the means" and employing utter dishonesty to win that legacy. I wonder if Dr. King would be sad about Chair Gibson's motives- I mean they seem to me to be 180 degrees in the other direction of Dr. King's famous words, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In my opinion, the board decided to violently ignore the content of someone's character (and their own) and hire someone without much character and with few accomplishments beyond figuratively assassinating those in front of him, because of the color of his skin . I wish more had listened to the very loud the silence from the Black Faculty, The Black Student Union, The Black Alumni, and the many in the Black community who might nod their head.
The university will survive and maybe even thrive-but I suspect pushing toward excellence, and making people uncomfortable with that push, is less likely to happen than if Dan were selected. The Walton Family has remained committed to NWA even in the face of mediocre leadership. But, in my experience, they also needed to have some trust in leadership to significantly invest in initiatives. The derision that the interim chancellor and his supporters showed to Steuart Walton (an old colleague addressed him as "Boy Walton", really? he probably said this while teaching honors students, visiting crystal bridges or riding on the Greenway) and their buy-in false narrative about his motives was astounding to me. Will the I3R continue? Will the next generation of the Walton family have the same commitment to UArk as the previous generation? If I were them, I would retract existing support as much as possible, and focus on another university in the midwest - Iowa State, University of Kansas, University of Missouri, etc that have a value of excellence and do not label new leaders from other states as carpetbaggers. I certainly have no idea how the future will play out, but the last scene was a nightmare.
Surprisingly, though, the result and comments by the board chair are reassuring in an odd way to me. They help me recognize that I was not hallucinating when seeing horrific images in the rear view mirror of malevolent politics and addictions to mediocrity. And, I learned that the images in the rear view mirror of how I came to leave Arkansas were real and not imagined. Knowing now that I can see clearly, it will be a pleasure throwing my rear view mirror into the trash and focusing on what is in front of me. In communicating with the previous chancellor recently, he reminded me "we did great things despite strong headwinds". I needed that.
Despite all of my negativity and anger, I still can sincerely say best of luck to the new permanent chancellor and best wishes to him and the University of Arkansas- there are just too many people in the university I care about. I really did try to help make it a better institution when I was there and I hope some of the good things I did are nurtured until they bear fruit.
But, it is time to let go, hold my middle finger up high for just 10 seconds or so, and the let bygones be bygones.
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