When Ohio University President Duane Nellis announced his resignation in early May, the university publicly declared that an interim president would be named in the days that followed and a national search would be launched to unearth the institution’s 22nd president — business as usual under such circumstances.
But neither happened.In what came as a shock to much of the university community, the Board of Trustees last Thursday emerged from an hours long executive session and bestowed Nellis’ successor, former College of Business Dean Hugh Sherman, with the title of president for a two-year term, rather than naming him an interim as is typically done between more permanent changes in leadership while a search committee is initiated to find the next full-time executive.
The Board of Trustees argued the university required “secure leadership” in the pandemic’s wake.
No search committee was ever created and faculty had no formal say in the appointment of Sherman, despite them historically being included in conversations surrounding the hiring of university leadership, including presidents and deans.
The unusual moves by the Board of Trustees raised questions about how the body narrowed the field of candidates down to Sherman at such a critical moment in the university’s history as it works to rebuild in the face of fiscal troubles.
“The Board of Trustees has ultimate decision making authority with regard to a Presidential appointment,” university spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said in a statement. “The Board fully understands that this process was highly irregular, but they also recognize that these are irregular times.”
Faculty Senate Chair Robin Muhammad said in an interview she was never consulted by the Board of Trustees regarding Sherman’s appointment and that the opaque process through which he was installed caused “confusion and alarm” among faculty who were uncomfortable with the lack of both transparency and commitment to shared governance from those at the top.
“This is certainly not about the candidate or candidate’s credentials … It’s about process and the message that is sent when faculty are not consulted when they have always been consulted in the past,” she said.
It’s unclear whether university policy requires a search committee or input from faculty prior to a presidential appointment, but both are customary. The university said guidelines also aren’t clear on how to fill a presidential vacancy.
“There is no policy provision addressing appointments to interim positions, nor does it address procedures to be followed during the irregular event of a president stepping down two years before the end of his term during a global pandemic. Ultimately, the Board’s role is to act in the best interest of the institution and the students we serve,” Leatherwood said.
“With that in mind, the trustees unanimously agreed that it was necessary to act with urgency to ensure continued progress on strategic initiatives in light of President Nellis’ recent decision to transition to a faculty role at OHIO and to provide secure leadership for the University as the institution and the industry continues to rebound from over a year of COVID.”
Muhammad argued the university’s rationale for not engaging with faculty in Sherman’s appointment is insufficient, saying changes to university policy have been nimbly adopted in recent months amid the pandemic and that the administration, in concert with faculty, could have outlined a formal procedure for presidential succession under the extenuating circumstances of Nellis’ departure.
Loren Lybarger, president of the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, indicated in an interview that formal consultation with the Faculty Senate would have been the bare minimum the Board of Trustees could have done to demonstrate a commitment to shared governance.
He also stressed that he’s agnostic toward Sherman as a leader, but felt the process through which he was selected as president lacked clarity, raising significant concern among members of his chapter.
“It just sort of emphasizes that when it comes to decisions that matter at OU, faculty do not have any real way to shape these decisions in an open, transparent, formal process. It’s all very informal,” Lybarger said.
The university has maintained that a search committee will be initiated at some point in the next year to find Sherman’s successor, and that faculty will be included in that process.
“The Board values shared governance and is deeply committed to engaging the full University and the broader community in the search to begin next year, and the naming of Dr. Sherman at this time will allow time for robust input in that process without risking continued forward momentum for the University,” Leatherwood said in a statement.