After losing support from faculty, SUNY-ESF president faces a vote of no confidence

Delaney Kuric | Head Illustrator

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry Academic Governance body is preparing to submit a vote of no confidence.

The SUNY-ESF community is preparing for an upcoming vote of no confidence in President Quentin Wheeler.

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry Academic Governance body is meeting privately
Tuesday to discuss the resolution, which would not remove Wheeler from his position but would be a strong indication of the community’s views of him.

“If the resolution passes, it’s on him to do something to bring us together,” said Kelley Donaghy, a chemistry professor and former executive chair of Academic Governance. “And if the resolution doesn’t pass, then it’s on the faculty and campus to find a way to work with him going forward.”

Donaghy said there are about 180 members of Academic Governance who can participate, which includes high-ranking faculty, 30 professional staff members and 16 students.

Claire Dunn, SUNY-ESF’s director of the Office of Communications, said voting will be done by a secret electronic ballot in a two-week period after the meeting but declined to comment further until the process is complete.

Discontent with Wheeler’s presidency has been building since early 2015, when faculty and students began to feel Wheeler lacked knowledge about the university’s values and grew frustrated with the strategic planning he was implementing, according to a timeline written by Donaghy.

The first “flashpoint” occurred in March 2015, after Wheeler, who was appointed in January 2014, announced the hiring of a new administrative position: college chief of staff. There had been no search committee or input from the community, according to the document.

From there, it was a series of other flashpoints — the release of strategic planning drafts that didn’t seem to include any of the feedback from faculty and other staff changes — that harbored increasing tension and frustration and led to talks of a vote of no confidence in fall 2015, according to the timeline.

bill of particulars was released in February 2016. The bill listed Wheeler’s failures of the strategic plan, obtaining funding, managing financial resources, his “problematic relationship” with the board of trustees and other examples of poor leadership, such as creating “a climate of fear on campus in terms of retaliation for speaking out against his agenda.”

The situation cooled down again until the beginning of this semester, when talks again resurfaced and the resolution was released, said Ben Taylor, president of the Undergraduate Student Association.

Thomas Amidon, current Academic Governance chair, and five other SUNY-ESF faculty and staff members declined to comment.

Taylor said many students were unaware of the issues surrounding Wheeler until published a story on Oct. 13.

The vote of no confidence is more of an issue for faculty than it is for students, he said. Students have been consistently represented on different committees, such as Academic Governance and a leadership council, which includes the president and Provost Valerie Luzadis.

“Some of those issues, students are like, ‘yeah OK, some things like that could have been handled better,’ but we don’t see it as enough reason to say ‘we do not have confidence in President Wheeler,’” Taylor said.

Diversity is not fueling the vote of no confidence, Taylor said. He, along with Tyler Shields, president of the Graduate Student Association, and Kristine Earley, president of The Baobab Society, wrote a letter to published Oct. 19 stating that while SUNY-ESF has had activities relating to diversity and inclusion, “not once have these events led to students or faculty calling for a vote of no confidence.”

The main issue driving this vote of no confidence is change, Taylor said.

“A changing college, a changing SUNY system, a changing government and a changing world,” he said. “And change is difficult.”

Donaghy was Academic Governance chair from 2010-16, and while she was in the position she said she “tried everything” to resolve the discord on campus, including reaching out for help across the SUNY system and holding regular meetings with Wheeler. Something she said she wished she pushed more for was professional mediation.

“I’m a chemist,” Donaghy said. “I am not a mediator.”

While initially it was faculty who were displeased with Wheeler that spoke out first, Donaghy said now it is faculty who are in support of Wheeler who are more vocal because of this “climate of fear.”

While the vote may not reflect well on SUNY-ESF’s campus in the moment, in the end it has brought the campus together and will strengthen its direction, she said.

“In order for our campus to be strong, it needs to have a strong and engaged faculty,” Donaghy said. “ESF has a strong, engaged faculty.”


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