Western Kentucky University’s Faculty Senate condemned the recent demotion of mathematics department head and professor Bruce Kessler – a move the senate contends is retaliation after Kessler was publicly critical of WKU’s coronavirus response.
On Thursday, during the group’s monthly meeting, faculty senators endorsed a statement asking for the decision, which is effective July 1, 2021, to be reversed. The statement said mathematics department faculty were “highly satisfied” with Kessler’s leadership, that the decision violates university policy because department faculty were not consulted and that it “serves to chill criticism of WKU’s response to COVID-19.”
“If this is what can happen to one of the longest-tenured, most respected and well-liked department heads on campus due to his speaking out, we are concerned about who else will be retaliated against for speaking out on the issue,” the statement said in part.
In the statement, the WKU faculty raised concerns about the timing of the decision, pointing to Kessler’s support of allowing faculty to teach in their desired format, whether virtual or in-person, regardless of the university’s broader goals for course offerings.
Faculty also contend that Kessler’s criticism of WKU’s coronavirus response and data modeling related to its response, published in an Aug. 24 article in the campus’ student newspaper, contributed to the decision to demote him.
The decision violates Kessler’s academic freedom, the statement said. Quoting from WKU’s Faculty Handbook, the statement said academic freedom is the freedom “to research and to publish the results of those investigations, and to address any matter of institutional policy or action whether or not as a member of an agency of institutional governance. Professors should also have the freedom to speak to any matter of social, political, economic or other interest to the larger community.”
In her own statement to the Daily News, WKU Acting Provost Cheryl Stevens said: “Bruce Kessler served as department head for an interim year and two full four-year terms. He will not be offered another term after July 1. He was not fired or dismissed. Times have changed. The academy has changed. It is time for a math department leadership change. Leaders get to refresh their teams with new people. Presidents do it. Provosts do it. Deans do it. I changed out eight out of nine department heads while I was dean. It’s not retaliation. It’s not for cause. It’s not about academic freedom. It’s not a violation of policy.”
Stevens declined to answer follow-up questions, WKU spokesman Bob Skipper said in a email to the Daily News. Stevens will respond to the Faculty Senate’s statement “in due course,” Skipper told the Daily News.
The decision not to renew Kessler as department head stoked a fiery debate during Thursday’s senate meeting, eliciting criticism from several faculty members.
During that meeting, and after the Faculty Senate voted to send the statement to all faculty campuswide via email, Stevens worried it would send the wrong message about the decision.
“The decision that was made here is a personnel action, and the implication in this letter is that it was retaliatory,” she told the body. “It is not.”
Stevens also said that “not one single individual” had come to her or School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Greg Arbuckle to raise concerns.
Several faculty members challenged that claim, however, including mathematics professor Claus Ernst, who represents faculty on WKU’s Board of Regents.
“There was a letter written to the dean signed by the overwhelming majority of the department to precisely give the dean the chance to react,” Ernst said. “We got zero response on that.”
Religious studies professor James Barker saw an emerging pattern in the decision, citing his experience of having four department heads in five years and “not once have the faculty in the department been convened to discuss.” He said there are clearcut instances of “disregard for what the (Faculty Handbook) says or what the policies say.”
Art professor Guy Jordan worried about chilling free speech on campus.
“We all need to be free to express our viewpoints cordially and honestly,” Jordan said. “A university, of all places, needs to be a place where we can share facts and we can publish those facts without fear of reprisal.”
– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.