Following a Friday meeting between faculty leaders and the La Sierra University Board of Trustees, President Joy A. Fehr’s resignation was announced late Saturday, effective Sunday. April Summitt, the university’s provost, will become acting president until the Board selects a new leader for the Southern California campus. Summitt was appointed provost in July 2020 after about seven years in academic dean roles on campus and almost 20 years teaching history at Arizona State University and Andrews University. With classes beginning in about a week, the three sentence statement noted that the “academic schedule for the fall quarter is unaffected by this change in leadership.”
Although staff, alumni, and outside observers voiced concerns about the vision and management skills of the president, it was the campus academic leadership that directly affected this executive move. Concerned that the Board would merely make recommendations for presidential self-improvement during its Friday meeting, Maury Jackson, the Chair of the Faculty Senate, appealed to speak to the governing body during its scheduled on-campus retreat. On Friday afternoon, the board listened as Jackson, Professor of Pastoral Studies, and his divinity school colleague, John Webster, Professor of Theology and History of Christianity and immediate past Chair of the Faculty Senate, explained why the faculty could no longer work with Fehr.
It was Webster’s June 9 letter, sent to the Board Chair, Pacific Union President Bradford C. Newton, that publicly detailed the faculty's reasons. These included a lack of motivating leadership vision, very limited fundraising skills, and a dwindling of trust due to an increasing number of presidential decisions that misstated support, included an unclear process, and were poorly communicated. The six-page letter noted that her off-campus projects seemed to show a lack of financial attention to the campus, as well as a sense that longtime campus culture markers such as the Honors Program, Research and Scholarships, the liberal arts, participatory governance, and the campus’ progressive Adventist identity were increasingly ignored. The largest section focused on power. It noted that the president’s insertion into campus decision-making processes has created a culture of fear in the administration building, impeding initiative, and leaving the Provost, Vice-Presidents, and Deans unable to do their jobs. Painting a picture of decision paralysis then micromanagement, the list of eleven concern areas closed with this all contributing to what one emeritus faculty member described as the lowest campus morale in 49 years.
This June faculty letter was sent in response to a Board letter to the university on May 11, 2023, affirming its support of Fehr as president following a 360-degree evaluation. Concern with the very limited faculty input for the 360-degree evaluation led to meetings and eventually a unanimous faculty vote to circulate a survey open to all faculty and staff. The 40-pages of results were sent to each board member over 100 days ago. Conducted during the final days of the 2023 Spring quarter, 79 faculty and 73 staff (72% and 36% response rates, respectively) rated the president’s job performance as “well below average.” There were 93 written comments. Five employees offered unequivocally positive comments regarding the president and another group of around five offered mixed assessments with significant praise. Even her critics acknowledged the difficult pandemic hand she was dealt at the beginning her tenure. Overall though, there was an overwhelming message that the Board needed to weigh the president’s good personal qualities in light of what’s needed to run the institution. As one comment stated, “I wish we could have/find a new leader in the same person, but if not we need to protect this young university from premature aborted growth.” Essential to the faculty goal to protect La Sierra University lies the principle of “shared governance,” a structural application of the strong, participatory faculty policy role that has defined the campus even before its split from Loma Linda University in 1990.
A Canadian, Fehr joined the sprawling Inland Empire Adventist community in 2015 as associate provost and was promoted to provost the next year. She began her tenure as the university’s fourth president on July 1, 2019, after former president Randal R. Wisbey’s retirement. Fehr had been dean of the arts division and an English professor at Burman University, the 116 year old Adventist institution in Alberta with a student body about one third of the size of La Sierra University. Her university bio states that, “before her academic career, she served as co-owner of Fehr West Industries Ltd., a mechanical mobile repair business, where she was responsible for key business decisions.”
Just a few hours before her resignation was announced in a 9:00 p.m. press release, Fehr gave the “welcoming remarks” to begin the Sabbath afternoon Fritz Guy memorial service at the La Sierra University Church. In what few knew would be the final public act of her presidency, Fehr extolled Guy's "heroic" ability to create change—in minds, lives, and entire institutions. Thirty years apart in the role—they spent about the same amount of time as president. Every word precisely selected and delivered, her final 5 minutes and 21 seconds showcased what even critics praise. Fehr’s rhetorical gifts—for the last time, the gracious host deployed well-chosen words and poignant anecdotes reminding the audience to not only look back, but also to look forward.
In a statement to Spectrum, Maury Jackson, Professor of Pastoral Studies and Chair of the University Faculty Senate, said the “faculty and staff exhibited disciplined and determined patience throughout the process,” and that trustees showed courage in their willingness to have challenging discussions and make sound decisions. “The president exhibited grace in choosing to begin a new phase of her journey, and the university continues more than ever to be positioned for a bright future,” Jackson said. “As she now steps in the gap to serve in the role of acting president, we express our gratitude and support for April Summitt.”
Alex Aamodt and Samuel Girven contributed to this report.
Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.
Title image from La Sierra University livestream.
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