It has been a disappointing summer for the University of Louisville. Much attention has been paid to the compensation packages of President James Ramsey and former Provost Shirley Willihnganz. Disgracefully, Governor Steve Beshear saw fit to leave the school’s Board of Trustees without African-American representation for the first time in 45 years. Little was said on our campus; less was done. Unfortunately, even less attention has been paid to the disturbing deterioration of the workplace’s culture downstream. It is a reality that negatively impacts faculty, staff and ultimately students.
Despite their troubles, I am the first to defend Ramsey and Willihnganz on many fronts. As a team, they weren’t always perfect but they did their level best to not only do what was beneficial for the university, but also for the people they worked with and the students we all serve. Through many struggles over the years they never created an environment that left people feeling unheard or uncared for. That is no longer the case.
Arts & Sciences (the largest and most essential college at the university), for instance, thrived over the last decade under the leadership of the late Dean J. Blaine Hudson. Tragically, Hudson unexpectedly died early in 2013. Earlier this year, Willihnganz announced that she was stepping down as provost. With these exits, Louisville’s landscape has changed — and not for the better.
From financials to research to instruction to staff proficiency, we have entered a moment where new administrative appointees seemingly perceive every employee as a potential criminal, ne’er-do-well, hustler or deadweight. I can say it no better than a colleague from another department — we have sank into “a zeitgeist of fear and mistrust.” As some have succumbed to the false notion that very little is right in our college (and maybe our university), the door has been opened for a heavy-handedness I have not seen in my two decades at the school.
Let me be clear, I don’t really care how much money the president earns. This is just another example of the yawning chasm between American CEO types and their employees. It merits addressing, but it’s not new or earthshattering. However, I do care when financial bureaucracy at the very same institution is so intense that it is difficult for me to secure a $188 book reimbursement for one of my young faculty members. I do care that we are now witnessing unprecedented levels of administrative aggression. The previous caring and respectful tones used by “partners” have been set aside for the more strident directives of “bosses.”
I care when faculty and staff alike feel vulnerable. I care that senior faculty members who have dutifully served the university for most of their lives are now threatened with elevated teaching loads or there seems to be a desire to push them out altogether. I do care that units and institutes led and populated by colleagues I know, respect and trust are menaced with the possibility of dissolution. I care that talented and knowledgeable long time staff members have either retired or left the college in disturbing numbers. Many who remain toil on feeling unappreciated, disrespected, fearful and powerless. Louisville has a long history of senior faculty taking care of junior faculty and all faculty protecting staff. Put simply, the stronger have stood up for the most vulnerable. To our shame, we have not done a good job of that lately.
Much and more could be said, but I will close by reaffirming that I, along with many of my colleagues, have stayed at UofL (not because of a lack of other opportunities) because we sincerely felt it was a great place to work. Sadly, I can’t say that anymore. I have never seen morale so low and trepidation so high. I’m not sure if our top-tier leaders are aware of this. Some even believe they have sanctioned the current viciousness. I disagree. The interim provost is an unknown commodity, but the Jim Ramsey and Shirley Willihnganz I know would never do such a thing. I could be wrong. Maybe my college is unique. Or maybe this is happening university-wide. I don’t know. What I do know is Louisville is at a crossroads and we need to do something about it. We don’t need any more big men or women on campus right now … we need a few more brave ones. •
Ricky L. Jones is professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @DrRickyLJones.