“We have but one rule - that every student must be a gentleman.”
— Robert E. Lee
King Conner: Provost Seizes Faculty Hiring Power

King Conner: Provost Seizes Faculty Hiring Power

By Ben Whedon ‘18

The departure of Suzanne Keen has left the position of Dean of the College vacant. In filling the post, Provost Marc Conner has decided to play the kingmaker and suspend usual hiring practices to sneak in a controversial replacement of his own selection. Normally, the professors and other faculty play an active role in hiring decisions, particularly when it comes to those positions affecting their activities. Instead of the usual search for a qualified replacement, Conner has created a sham “search committee” including students and untenured professors to maintain the façade of a legitimate hire. In practice, the committee examined a single predetermined candidate and will make no effort to explore alternatives. Conner presented his choice during the last faculty meeting. Both the selection process and her qualifications have stirred serious controversy amongst the faculty.

Lena Hill currently holds the position of Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Iowa. She is an untenured associate professor of English at that institution. She has never held a department chair. Her full CV can be viewed on the University of Iowa website. The Dean of the College at Washington and Lee is one of the most important administrative positions on campus. Different departments compete for funding which is allocated through the Office of the Dean. Hill lacks any experience with financial management. Moreover, to install her as Dean would require that she be granted tenure with no trial period and placed in complete job security upon arrival. No demonstration of merit required. Dean Keen, by contrast, was the English department head for two years before her appointment and held a tenured professorship.

Faculty response has been overwhelmingly negative. Faced with clear controversy, Conner released several emails to the faculty supporting his choice and selection process. Frankly, the motivations and rationale behind this decision are absurd and are indicative of the more concerning trends in the administration which we have seen in recent years. Conner’s full emails can be viewed on our website. Note that these have been be edited to remove the name of the recipient who disclosed them to us.

Let’s start with what has changed in the hiring process. In an email to the faculty dated February 10th, Conner explicitly states “I have cut out the usual faculty committee role of helping to select the final candidates – while preserving the Provost role of being the decision-maker on the dean appointment.” Under normal circumstances, a faculty committee would work together to identify multiple candidates for the position before selecting the best choice. Conner admitted to the entire faculty that he has cut their usual role and assumed full authority in making this hire. Moreover, he acknowledges that he has chosen to examine only one candidate when he refers to “narrowing the choice of candidates at this time to one.” Attempting to assuage their fears, he tells the staff that “I will abide by the vote of the interview committee.” This is a joke. Conner appointed every individual member of the committee directly. It includes both students and untenured professors who are subject to strong administrative pressures over tenure and/or administrative access. Will they really use their best judgement and make a fair decision with faced with literally a single option? Conner himself admits that his process “does not clearly empower their judgement.”

The committee members are as follows:

Dayo Abah (Journalism), Michelle Brock (History), Alex Brown (Religion), Jonathan Eastwood (Sociology), Shawn Paul Evans (Theater), Tammi Hellwig (Community Based Learning), Lisa Greer (Geology department head), Helen I'Anson (Biology), Lucas Morel (Politics department head), Howard Pickett (Poverty), Taylor Walle (English), Mason Grist '18, and MaKayla Lorick '19. 

So why make this decision? Why is it so important to Dr. Conner that the faculty approve his handpicked designee for the position of Dean? He offers conflicting explanations in his own emails. In a separate email to the faculty he tries to justify his refusal to consider additional candidates as a time constraint:

“Some will say, why not reach out to 2 or 3 such candidates? The steps involved in generating more such candidates would likely have added 6-8 weeks to our current process, even assuming we were able to convince them to apply to W&L. Extending this into March, April, and May would have severely constrained our ability to hire, and also to appoint an interim dean in the event these outreaches fail.”

He uses a similar justification in the February 10th email arguing that “there is not time to delay if we identify such a top candidate: they won’t be there if a school delays.” He also mentions that all the qualified candidates have “all been hired by Yale, Northwestern, and Brown.” Dr. Conner is clearly proposing that there is a shortage of qualified doctoral graduates fit to hold the post. It was my understanding, and perhaps even that of conventional wisdom, that academia faces a labor surplus. Don’t argue that we can’t afford to take our time and examine multiple candidates. There are thousands of potential applicants who would give an arm and a leg to work at Washington and Lee.

Everything he says regarding time constraints or a lack of qualified candidates is a farce. He makes his intent clear in writing. In the February 10th email, he states “I am committed to hiring someone who will be both an excellent dean and someone who will enhance our diversity.” He has predetermined that new Dean shall be of some minority status. Moreover, he explicitly uses the phrase “diversity hiring” in the email and refers to a minority candidate as the “desired goal.” In amending the standard hiring policy by skipping a search and essentially steamrolling his chosen candidate, Conner is compromising the standards of this institution for the sake of hiring someone of a diverse background of his choosing. Even if one truly supports an active administration effort to increase diversity, this is insulting to those qualified minority candidates. Conner is willing to force in a black woman that he insinuates is unqualified (hasn’t been hired by Brown, NW, or Yale yet) for the sake of a statistic. This tells highly-educated, qualified minority candidates that they only matter for the color of their skin, for the sake of keeping up appearances.

While I have my reservations, Dr. Lena Hill’s qualifications for the post are a matter for the faculty committee to consider. Conner’s seizure of power however, will not allow that to happen. If we are truly going to be an elite institution, we need elite faculty. I don’t dispute this point, but I feel we need to be honest and objective about our hiring process in order to accomplish this. This means an independent search committee, one that is not appointed by the provost. This means legitimately searching for multiple qualified candidates and rigorously vetting them until one remains standing. I strongly urge the members of this committee to vote down Dr. Conner’s appointee or at least, to suspend any vote until an actual search fields more candidates for fair consideration.

When the University removed Lee Chapel from the tour route, we asked supporters to call into the Admissions office and email the Deans directly with their concerns. Thanks to your help, we changed the policy. We now ask this of you again. Lena Hill will be on campus this Thursday and the committee is expected to vote her into the position that afternoon. If you have concerns about Dr. Conner’s hiring process and want to see a legitimate search conducted, then please call or email the Office of the Provost with your concerns. Dr. Conner can be reached at connerm@wlu.edu or at 540-458-8418.

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