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Viewpoint: A Crisis of Leadership at Washington Adventist University


President of Washington Adventist University Weymouth Spence and Provost Cheryl Kisunzu recently announced that four faculty are being laid off because of budget constraints. Dr. Susan Comilang, chair of the English Department, Joseph Tobing, assistant professor of Computer Science, Dr. John Quah, assistant professor of Mathematics, and Professor Alvin Tucker, Clinical Instructor in the Respiratory Care Department, were all terminated by the administration in March 2014. 

Full-time students at Washington Adventist University (previously Columbia Union College) for the fall of 2014 are projected to be down by 100, from 750 to 650, and earnings from the School of Graduate and Professional Studies are projected to fall short by $1 million, the administration said.

As a result of the most recent faculty cuts, the Math, Computer Science, and Respiratory Care departments are left with only one professor each. The English Department is without a chair and reduced to two and a half full-time positions, since one of the remaining professors divides his time between literature courses and directing the Honors Program. The Communication and Journalism Department, responsible for the general education requirement of public speaking, is also down to one professor, the other one having been let go. 

The impact this latest announcement will have on general education classes is not yet fully known. All students must take English, math, computer science, and communication classes. It will be difficult to find adjunct teachers willing to teach several sections of general education classes in the daytime. Majors in those departments will necessarily be taught by adjuncts as well. Many students have already expressed misgivings about the quality of education and attention at the hands of adjuncts.

With regard to the effects on the quality of teaching the president and the provost seemed unfazed. In an open forum information session the provost responded to a student’s question about adjuncts with the remark that when she was dean of a community college in Texas she oversaw a faculty made up of 70% adjuncts and 30% full-time faculty. The implication was that this is a model she would be happy to establish at Washington Adventist University. Many wondered how a university can maintain accreditation with percentages like that.

And accreditation is an issue. Two weeks after the termination notices went out, on March 14 Washington Adventist University’s Nursing Department accreditation was denied. The letter of denial that the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing posted on its website was blunt: WAU’s Nursing Department had numerous shortcomings in the standards of Mission and Administration, Faculty and Staff, Curriculum, and Outcomes. 

For many in the WAU community this action came as no surprise. 

Between 2001 and 2013 pass rates for the N-CLEX exam fell below the acceptable rate of 75% seven times. The department received its first warning in 2004 (62.5%), its second warning in 2005 (72.4% – a conditional warning), and its third warning in 2006 (66.67%). There was a rise in 2007 to 86% and another in 2008 to 90.8%. But the following year it dipped again to 84%. Then in 2010, the year that Columbia Union College became Washington Adventist University, the pass rate fell to 65.22% and continued to fall each year afterward: 58.93% in 2011, 59.68% in 2012 and finally 50.53% in 2013. In August, 2013, shortly before the year was to begin, the department chair resigned in tears, reportedly worn down by the disorganization and lack of administrative support.

The department has filed an appeal as of May 7, along with the appeal fee of $10,000. If ACEN consents to a review of the decision and grants the appeal, WAU must comply in every particular before re-accreditation will be granted. That will take months, and in the meantime graduates and current students wait nervously for word. 

Loss of accreditation would be a hard blow to the department and to the campus. Traditionally, the Nursing Department has had one of the highest enrollments on campus, and it bears the distinction of being the first baccalaureate nursing degree program in the state of Maryland. That this should have happened speaks to the instability of leadership and the inability to retain qualified faculty. The lowering of admission standards for prospective nursing students in the interest of tuition dollars is also being pointed to as a factor. 

Since Spence arrived at WAU, seven years ago, departments across the university have been gutted. By March of 2008, after only seven months on campus, President Spence had closed the Math, Physics, and Computer Science departments and ordered them taken out of the bulletin. Only after strenuous negotiation and pleading by the department chair did he relent and allow the majors still in those programs to be taught through their courses. In a simultaneous move, he fired two professors from the Communication and Journalism department, effectively dismantling the journalism program and stranding scores of junior and senior students in the department. Another professor resigned in protest and the remaining faculty member resigned the following year.

Meanwhile, staff cuts followed and new administrative vice presidents and vice presidential positions proliferated.

By 2010 he had fired the director of the MBA program, the largest program in the School of Graduate and Professional Studies, and had placed the new provost on sick leave. There followed a carousel of provosts, most removed after a year. For several months three of the deans served on a weekly rotation, and Proforma (now known as Credo), a consulting group often hired by the president, even took a turn. Vice Presidents and deans took positions elsewhere, resigned, or were fired. By the summer of 2013 the sixth (and current) provost, Dr. Cheryl Kisunzu, had arrived. 

That kind of instability has not only eroded the confidence of faculty in the administration, but also made it more difficult to maintain processes and procedures. Every time a new administrator took over something of value in the history of institutional practice was lost—usually without tangible benefit. If the Board of Trustees was aware of this level of administrative turmoil there was no indication of it.

One faculty member recalled a story the president told soon after he took office. Years ago, when he was managing a radiography lab, he kept losing employees; they would stay a few months or maybe a year, and then leave. “At first I thought it was something I had done,” he said. “But then I realized that I had trained them well and they were anxious to get out on their own.” Employees who found themselves out of a job or who left because of differences with the administration would hear that story with an incredulous look and a shake of the head. 

Through all of this, however, anyone not intimately acquainted with the campus community and who only learned their news from official university publications, would be impressed with the new music building, the renovation of the cafeteria, the reconstruction of the former swimming pool into a student activity center at a cost of over a million dollars, financial stability for several years in a row, and, at one point, the highest enrollment in campus history. So it came as a shock to many outside the campus to learn that enrollment projections necessitated drastic faculty and staff cuts.

But even to faculty and staff the messages coming through were ambiguous. At a General Assembly following the Board meeting in March, a faculty member asked why severance for one of the terminated faculty was only $417 after 15 years of service. The provost replied that “that was all the university could afford.” And yet several days later, at one of the public forums the administration held to answer questions, the president remarked that the university was in strong financial shape. He spoke with pride about the $16 million worth of repairs and renovation they had made to the campus in the last six years. 

“The Board was very supportive of the budget we brought,” he remarked. “They remembered when we were selling property just to stay open. Now we are buying property and looking to buy more. We have to diversify the revenue stream.” 

It struck those present as strange that on the one hand declining enrollment would necessitate faculty cuts, while at the same time increased capital investment (such as the impending renovation of the sports field for $1.8 million) and a board-mandated $1 million profit surplus were deemed equally necessary.

Later, a faculty member noted that “The university can’t afford to pay for an assistant professor but it can take out a loan for $1.8 million to renovate the athletic field. And it won’t pay for the chair of the English Department, but it can spend over $1 million on an Activity Center for students which is hardly ever used. It can’t afford the salary for a clinical instructor in Respiratory Care but it will renovate the cafeteria for $2 million.”

Faculty and concerned alumni have also noted the apparent passivity of the Board of Trustees since Dr. Spence took office. The perception is that the Board is happy as long as the administration brings them a balanced budget. It is rare that the budget is scrutinized in a board meeting line by line; it is more often the case that a smaller Executive Committee meets with the officers, signs off on the budget, and brings it back to be approved. 

Nor does the Board communicate with faculty or ask them how administrative and board decisions affect them. Since the faculty is discouraged from contacting board members with complaints, and since letters and communications to Union officers often go unanswered, the faculty feel isolated.

For years faculty have struggled with cognitive dissonance over the fact that this administration doesn’t seem to understand the way an educational community works. They were used to collegiality, an informal meeting in a hallway or conference room, the excitement of trying out ideas and having them taken seriously by colleagues and administration. 

But that all changed once Dr. Spence took command. Now there was a rigid hierarchy, a clear delineation between management and line workers. The language used in faculty meetings, committee meetings, and presidential pronouncements radically changed. Almost overnight students became “customers,” tuition and fees turned into “revenue streams,” and the word “strategic” was sprinkled into conversation and memos like salt on fries. No longer was it enough to plan; now everything that required two or more people had to be an “action plan.” The president announced in faculty meeting that his favorite book at the moment was Execute by John Maxwell, a pastor who turned himself into a leadership guru. More and more, day by day, the relationship between faculty and administration came to resemble a corporation. 

And this is where the present crisis of leadership takes on a new meaning for many faculty members. There seems to be a rift between those who believe in an Adventist community and those who believe in a corporation that is Adventist. As one faculty member put it, “Our mistake was in assuming that within an Adventist college community people regarded each other as friends and colleagues. This administration assumes a corporate perspective of work-for-hire.” Employees are regarded as disposable: everyone serves at-will, no loyalty expected, none given.

In the last few months some faculty have begun to speak of a “culture of fear,” by which is meant the cultivation of fear through administrative reprisals and disciplinary actions against those who question policies or are seen as publicly dissenting. There is no question in the minds of many on campus that some have been targeted in the past and the present for speaking out. Thus, dialogue between faculty and administration is inhibited and mutual distrust grows.

Humility is a characteristic not usually found in business leaders nor in college or university presidents. But it stands to reason that if some of our greatest leaders and teachers have had that quality — Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus — perhaps we should be looking for it in our own leaders. 

Education at all levels is undergoing tremendous disruption and facing challenges that are reshaping it into something not yet completely understood. Adventist higher education is also struggling to define its unique qualities and to clarify what it offers above and beyond what secular universities offer. Ask Adventist professors what they yearn for and there is a good chance they will answer,”A sense of mission and purpose — and the leaders who can encourage that purpose by nurturing community.” 

Recent events at Washington Adventist University provide an example of how community breaks down when there is misunderstanding about the relationship between faculty and administration.

A community’s “identity” is understood intuitively and seen most clearly in times of crisis. We can sense when it is fraying at the edges and when “the center cannot hold.”  Is there a distinctive identity to an Adventist college or university? Yes, there is, but there’s not much point in trying to compare or contrast it to a secular campus. It’s ours, we know it when we experience it —and we can sense when it is dissolving. It’s an organic system of assumptions that changes and adapts over time, but keeps us together because, like a river, it flows through us. Because it is a community of grace we carry the memory that there is more that unites people than money and hierarchy. There is faith in each other and in Christ, there is hope for each student and for the mission of the university, and there is love — a difficult ideal, but one worth striving for. 

See a Facebook page dedicated to posting concerns and news about Washington Adventist University and the webpage of the group We Are Washington Adventist Community for more information.

See a Spectrum interview with Weymouth Spence in 2008, soon after he became president.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, DC, and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. 

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