Shortly after John M. Lilley was introduced as Baylor's next president, a refrain was heard from Nevada that sounded all too familiar on the Waco campus: faculty discontent. And Lilley wasted no time engaging Baylor's faculty in dialogue about the issue.
Lilley met with the Faculty Senate, the American Association of University Professors, groups therein, and held a facultywide forum all within the first two weeks following his announcement as president. He said it was a priority for him that he and the faculty are "on the same page."
Lilley's proactive approach, which has received good reviews, was in response to an unfavorable report dated Aug. 17 on faculty morale that came out of University of Nevada, Reno. Prepared by an ad-hoc committee at Nevada, the report cited an environment of "intimidation, fear and powerlessness among university faculty and staff." It stated that it was "widely believed that many popular administrators are gone because they disagreed with the new administration." One of the participants said, "There is so much distrust here. I've never seen such distrust and fear - almost to the point of being ridiculous."
The report is a compilation of statements delivered at several open meetings to which all UNR faculty and staff were invited. The report, which did not involve a survey instrument, includes 289 responses out of about 3,000 employees, 800 of which are faculty.
When the report came out, some of Lilley's colleagues suggested to him it wasn't valid statistically, but Lilley said he had a very different reaction. "Even though it said 7 percent of the total employees were unhappy, I said, 'I don't care if just one person is unhappy. If there are good ideas in this report on which we can build, that will be good for us; that's where I want to be.'"
John Frederick, provost at Nevada, said the report "pointed up some things that needed our attention, and we're giving them that attention." He also noted that a lot of the issues raised in the report were longstanding ones that had existed on campus for 20 or more years. "They couldn't possibly have had their origin in President Lilley's tenure," he said.
Previous to Lilley's arrival at Nevada in 2001, Joe Crowley had been UNR's president for 23 years. "We had had so much stability and peace and quiet, I think people had forgotten that we were supposed to be on the move and attending to societal needs," Frederick said. "John gave us a big wake-up call on that. There were a lot of things that needed to change. I've got to tell you, he is a ball of energy, and a lot of changes were made."
Lilley took the issue of faculty discontent head-on at Baylor both with the regents and with faculty. "Every report like that has a context and there is a story behind it," Lilley said. "I shared that story."
After Lilley's several exchanges with faculty, Eric Robinson, associate professor of educational psychology and chair of Baylor's Faculty Senate, said he believed the faculty are "cautiously optimistic, and I think that's to be expected."
good working relationship
The comments out of Nevada echo those released in a statement by Baylor's Faculty Senate two years ago regarding former President Robert B. Sloan Jr. That report was the precursor to the senators' two votes of no-confidence in Sloan's leadership.
Robinson said the Nevada report had "unnerved" some faculty members. "A lot of it reads very similarly to other issues we've had on campus."
Nevada's Faculty Senate Chair, Leah Wilds, associate professor of political science, said there were two major issues that came out of the faculty morale report: the centralization of power at top administrative levels and increasing responsibilities given to lesser administrative positions. "The faculty and staff have not really bought into the strategic planning [he instituted]. They see it as more paperwork and busywork without any real authority," Wilds said.
The other issue that emerged in the report was the "climate of fear of retaliation, of 'don't rock the boat,'" which Wilds said was a criticism directed at the top administration, not solely at Lilley.
Wilds said she agrees that these issues are a concern. A more formal faculty and staff survey and evaluation of the president had been conducted earlier and sent to a committee comprised of some UNR regents and other members, who received it in May. Wilds said that report had "similar" results to the faculty morale report issued in August.
She also said that as Faculty Senate chair, she had a good working relationship with Lilley, and that the Faculty Senate's executive board had as well. She believes the 289 responses in the report were indicative of faculty morale overall, but she said she gives Lilley credit for his response. "They [Lilley and Frederick] embraced the report and were willing to move forward. I think that's a good sign."
A task force is further studying the situation and will make recommendations to the administration, Wilds said.
A 'positive feeling'
After Lilley's first meeting with the faculty group at Baylor, many "walked away with a very positive feeling," said Robinson, senate chair. "I think he tried to address every issue as directly as he could.
"I feel very comfortable and very confident that we, the Faculty Senate and the faculty at large, are going to give Dr. Lilley a lot of room and space for him to show us his leadership style," he said. "I'm comfortable with his ability to understand faculty governance, which is vitally important to faculty. I think we're going to work very hard to make him successful, and I anticipate he's going to work very hard to make us successful."
Robinson also said Lilley asked faculty to hold conversations about how to strive toward greater excellence while remaining a Christian university in the historic Baptist tradition. "He's asked me as chair of the senate to help structure those conversations," Robinson said, adding that Lilley said he doesn't plan to hire a permanent provost until those conversations had occurred.
Board of Regents Chair Will Davis said the Regents Search Committee continuously read reports from the LexisNexis database as one of its primary background checks on candidates. The Nevada faculty report did not surface until the day before Lilley was presented to the regents.
"We looked into it further, made calls out there [to UNR], talked to people on the scene and talked to Dr. Lilley about it," Davis said. "We became comfortable with the circumstance and the uniqueness of the situation. We were not blind to it."
Davis said the regents were satisfied they had found a candidate who could manage divergent opinions. "He seemed to us to be a man of consensus-building and success over some 25 years in two major university settings," he said. "I think he can do well with all the divergent groups that we have here."
Bill Brian, chair of the Regents Search Committee, said the committee received 102 names for consideration and that Lilley was one of 13 with whom they talked. He said the committee made no visits to college campuses, that "it never came up as something we'd think about doing," he said.
When the faculty morale report surfaced, Brian said the search committee was eager to put it into context by talking to Lilley and his UNR colleagues. "All the indications we had was that Lilley was a person that if a problem arose, he wanted to talk about it, address it head-on," he said.
Nevada Provost Frederick describes Lilley's approach to problems or dissension as consultative. "I can think of very few instances in which he made a major decision of any kind before he had done extensive and exhaustive consultation."
Lilley said it is important to him to seek continually the best solutions, and he doesn't shy away from difficult conversations that can lead to improvement or to making tough decisions. "You hate to have problems, but in the life of the university, you'll always have challenges," he said. "But when you have those kinds of problems, you take them head-on, you deal with them."
Brian is convinced Lilley's appointment is an answer to the prayers of people who really care about Baylor. "God has always brought to Baylor the person needed to lead Baylor," he said, "and I believe he's done so with Dr. Lilley."