Someone once observed that trying to lead faculty is like herding cats. Academics are notoriously difficult to lead because they typically are more loyal to their disciplines rather than the institutions that employ them. More than that, the best professors are true contrarians, taught to pursue ideas that are out of the mainstream.
None of those notions make faculty at a business school or any other university department particularly fond of deans. So few could have guessed the outcome of a survey of faculty at the Marshall School of Business in the immediate aftermath of the decision by University of Southern California Interim President Wanda Austin to cut short their dean’s third consecutive five-year term by three years.
On Nov. 27th, the 71-year-old Ellis was summoned to an 11:30 a.m. meeting with President Austin and the university’s general counsel, Carol Mauch Amir. During a terse 10-minute session, Ellis was given written notice that he was being terminated as dean, effective June 30th. Two months after the decision, the precise reason for his dismissal remains unclear because President Austin has been unwilling to spell out any details on the basis that it is a personal matter.
‘THE UNIVERSITY LEADERSHIP BELIEVES THAT WE DO NOT HAVE A POSITIVE CULTURE HERE’
The most complete explanation for the what happened came from Ellis himself who informed faculty and staff of the decision in a brief email on Dec. 3. “To the best of my knowledge,” he wrote, “this decision was not based on anything I personally had done, but rather a cumulative record of OED (Office of Equity and Diversity) cases from Marshall. The vast majority of these cases were never brought to my attention. Nevertheless, this apparently has led university leadership to believe that we do not have a positive culture here. Therefore, they feel a change in leadership is in order.”
To prepare for a meeting of the university’s Academic Senate on Dec. 10th, Marshall’s Faculty Council wanted to take the pulse of the school’s professors as they absorbed the immediately controversial decision on their dean. Some 296 full- and part-time faculty were surveyed and 210 responded within 48 hours, an impressive 71% response rate. Besides seeking opinions on four statements, the survey also allowed professors the opportunity to write whatever they wanted about the situation.
The big takeaway: Faculty overwhelmingly believe that Dean Ellis has performed well as dean of the Marshall School and that he would continue to provide excellent leadership if the decision to fire him was reversed. On a scale of one to five, with five indicating complete agreement, the faculty gave Ellis a 4.6 for his performance as dean and a 4.5 on the statement: “I expect that Dean Ellis, if retained, will continue to provide excellent leadership to the Marshall School.”
FACULTY SURVEY SHOWED NEAR UNANIMITY IN ITS SUPPORT OF DEAN JIM ELLIS
Ultimately, three main themes emerged, according to the report obtained by Poets&Quants.
The most prevalent theme concerned the faculty’s feelings toward both the decision-making process used and decision. Our faculty said they were feeling ‘concerned,’ ‘shocked,’ ‘disturbed,’ ‘fearful,’ ‘dismayed,’ ‘upset,’ and ‘outraged.’
The second theme that appeared with great frequency was the faculty’s perception that the university’s decision to ask for Dean Ellis’ resignation was lacking in due process and transparency. In fact, the words ‘process’ and ‘transparency’ were the two most frequent words that showed up in the comments, as well as ‘unfair.’ What seems to be most troubling for Marshall faculty in this process is that, to the best of the faculty’s knowledge, the university did not communicate any concerns, share information, or ask for faculty and/or student input during their investigation.
The third theme was the faculty’s strong support of Dean Ellis. In particular, we received many personal accounts of his fair, unbiased, and supportive treatment of faculty and students. The faculty also observed that during Dean Ellis’ tenure the atmosphere of the Marshall School has improved tremendously (both subjectively and objectively), especially in areas of equity and diversity.
‘FACULTY & STAFF ARE MORE WORRIED TODAY THAN SIX WEEKS AGO WHEN THE SURVEY WAS TAKEN’
Since the survey was fielded, faculty remain unified in their support of the dean and their condemnation of the university administration. “Fundamentally, I think faculty members continue to be deeply disturbed by the lack of transparency and apparent lack of fairness in this process,” says Peter Cardon, academic director for the MBA for professionals & managers and professor of clinical business communication. I know dozens of faculty and staff members who are more worried today than they were six weeks or so ago when the faculty survey was taken.
“At this point, hundreds of faculty and staff members have spoken out only to be ignored entirely by President Austin and her team. Thousands of members of the Marshall community have spoken out. Also ignored. This silence from the top has increased the fear and anxiety among many faculty and staff members. Nearly everyone thinks, ‘If they can do that to Jim, they can do it to anyone.’ Increasingly, I’ve heard people say they’ve lost faith in USC.”
The most surprising part of the report, however, is the collection of comments relayed anonymously by the school’s faculty. Sure, there are a couple of remarks that show just how hard it is to herd a cat, with one professor believing that Ellis should go. But of the 117 profs who put down their perspectives, only a single one was overtly negative.
‘THERE ARE MANY PROBLEMS AT MARSHALL AND THE DEAN HAS NOT MADE ANY EFFORTS OF SOLVING THEM’
“Jim is a fun guy,” the professor wrote, “but there are too many problems at Marshall and he has not made any efforts of solving them. The lack of transparency is a big problem at Marshall. Not everybody is treated equally. Some are more equal than others. I like him as a person a lot, but I do not think he should continue in this position.”
Yet another believed that the school doesn’t quite measure up on female faculty and leadership. “Although there is good ethnic diversity at Marshall, it falls short in terms of its gender diversity at the faculty level,” wrote one prof. “One department is high in full-time female faculty—but it is entirely non-tenure track. At the tenure level, the school has a fairly low percentage of female full-time faculty. Faculty leadership has historically thus been low in female leaders, particularly in non-teaching related roles. Like the university itself, there seems to be a low recognition of women in important roles and in fact, at times, seems to be run like an ‘old boy’ system in the selection of faculty for important roles and decision making.”
Far more impressive, however, was the fact that more than 110 comments were either completely supportive of the dean or of the notion that the decision to fire him was poorly made and communicated. That’s something like a 97% approval rating from academics who ordinarily love to take contrarian potshots at just about anything. If nothing else, the opinions of the faculty effectively represent a no-confidence vote in Interim President Wanda Austin, Provost Michael Quick and Board Chair Rick Caruso who won support of the decision in a controversial board of trustees meeting on Dec. 12 (see USC Trustees Slam Board Chair Rick Caruso Over B-School Dean’s Dismissal).
What follows is a dozen representative opinions by Marshall faculty culled from the survey results: