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Power struggle: Cal Poly professor to argue at hearing that school administrators violated faculty rights 

Tensions between Cal Poly faculty members and the school’s administration haven’t necessarily subsided since a CSU system-wide strike was averted in April.

On May 23, a faculty committee will hear a grievance highlighting a dispute between members of the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) and university administrators over how an Agribusiness Department leader was selected.

Wayne Howard, a professor and a former chair of the Agribusiness Department, filed the grievance last June. Howard claims that university administration “violated the rights of Agribusiness faculty by refusing to use the process outlined in the Agribusiness Department’s Personnel Policies and Procedures to choose a department chair.”

The origins of the conflict date back almost two years.

In 2014, Agribusiness Chair Jay Noel announced his plans to retire at the end of the school year. The Agribusiness Department has internal bylaws—approved by Cal Poly—that outline the process of choosing a successor chair. Since 1998, chairs have been selected through a department faculty vote, with an agreed upon candidate forwarded to the dean of CAFES for approval.

In February 2015, faculty members submitted their choice—Agribusiness professor Lynn Hamilton—to fill the open chair position to CAFES Dean Andrew Thulin. 

Meanwhile, Cal Poly administrators were expressing interest in changing the department’s leadership structure—to replace the “chair” position with a “head” position. Department heads generally serve for longer terms than chairs, tend to be hired from outside the department, and work more closely with the college dean and upper university management.

Three months after Hamilton was picked for chair, Dean Thulin and Provost for Academic Affairs Kathleen Enz Finken notified Hamilton and the department that she had been rejected for the position.

Then, in June, Thulin announced the appointment of Cyrus Ramezani, previously the chair of finance in Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business, as “interim chair” of Agribusiness, with a term length of three years.

The move caused an uproar in the college. In June, 99 of CAFES’s 160 total faculty members participated in a “vote of no confidence” against Thulin. It passed with a 79 percent majority.

In response to that vote, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong wrote to CAFES faculty members on June 10.

“We want to be clear that Dean Thulin has our full confidence and support,” Armstrong stated.

The fallout also led Howard to file the grievance.

“I have three very simple issues,” Howard told New Times. “[Cal Poly administration] did not follow the procedures; Dr. Hamilton was never interviewed about her vision for the department; and Dean Thulin appointed an interim leader for three years, instead of declaring a failed search and opening it up again.”

Email communications shared with New Times show that Hamilton was not interviewed as part of the chair selection process.

“I wanted to give you a heads up about our meeting with Lynn [Hamilton] today,” Thulin wrote on April 27, 2015, to Vice Provost for Academic Personnel Albert Liddicoat and Enz Finken. “Lynn was angry that none of us interviewed her or allowed her the opportunity to present her ideas on leading the department.”

Liddicoat responded to Thulin’s email the next day.

“If you feel comfortable that you gave Lynn [Hamilton] full consideration for the position and are ready to move forward, I would advise you to continue with the plans to share the decision with the department,” Liddicoat wrote.

Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier declined to provide a statement on the upcoming grievance hearing. Dean Thulin also declined to comment because it’s an ongoing personnel matter. But in an interview with New Times for a previous story in March 2016, President Armstrong denied the charge that his administration obstructed faculty governance in Agribusiness. 

“We followed the rules,” Armstrong said in the previous interview. “In the end, they recommended one candidate for the chair position, and we disagreed. We had very clear reasons for disagreeing with that candidate.”

Those reasons were not shared with New Times and were apparently unclear to Howard and other faculty members in the department.

“It’s never been communicated to us why Dr. Hamilton wasn’t accepted,” Howard said.

Howard, a Cal Poly faculty member since 1999, said he’s moving forward with his grievance to defend the principle of shared governance at Cal Poly, which he feels has diminished.

“It seems that we’ve had a change of culture here at Cal Poly,” Howard said. “I think it’s important that faculty remain as colleagues, rather than just employees.”

Last year, President Armstrong signed a Cal Poly academic senate resolution supporting the principle of “shared governance” and respecting departmental policies relating to department leadership.

Howard said that the administration’s handling of his department sets a worrisome precedent for the future of faculty input.

“If departmental leadership is something that faculty are no longer involved in, are we then going to lose such things as curriculum?” Howard said. “Shared governance is also curriculum. It is a slippery slope.”

The proposed remedy in Howard’s grievance is for department faculty members to be allowed the chance to continue the search for a chair.

“What I would like is for the department to be given the option: Do we want a search for an internal candidate, or do we want to have an open search?” Howard said. “And that’s for the department to decide.” 

Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com or on Twitter at @pljohnson9.

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