Studies from both the United States and Australia show that students are generally better prepared for and perform better in college when they take a gap year. DN FILE PHOTO SAMANTHA BRAMMER
SPECIAL PROJECT: A history of Ball State's transparency in presidential decisions
After former President Paul W. Ferguson unexpectedly resigned in January, many students and faculty questioned the transparency of the university.
The Faculty Council considered a no-confidence resolution on the trustees, and faculty and students have written Letters to the Editor of the Daily News complaining about the lack of transparency.
But this is not the first time this has happened. In 2011, the Muncie Star Press found interviews in Bracken Library with former President Blaine Brownell that said the university had lied about Brownell being fired in 2004.
While some students and faculty are frustrated the university won't — or likely can't, due to confidentiality agreements — say what led to Ferguson's resignation, there have been some pieces of the puzzle released. Ferguson may have been fired without cause, according to his hiring contract and severance agreement. If he were fired for any wrongdoing, he wouldn't have received any severance pay.
Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at New America, works to increase quality and transparency in higher education. She said being transparent while still keeping personnel matters confidential is a challenge across the nation.
People get fired daily, and with that comes questions.
When it’s a college president, Laitinen said, it’s a little different because people tend to care so much more, and that's where the idea of a transparency problem can come in.
“An unexpected and abrupt [departure] is not the norm,” she said. “When it is, you wouldn’t expect that the dirty laundry would be aired all over.”
Bruce Geelhoed, a Ball State historian and history professor, echoed her sentiments. He said the board and president establish terms of employment upon being hired, and if a part of that is about the president’s departure — which in Ferguson’s case, Geelhoed said, it probably was — it’s legally binding.
“It seems to me here that there was a set of agreements in place that simply say this was a mutual agreement between the board and the president and it’s going to be left at that,” Geelhoed said. “Those agreements are going to be honored, and there you have it. But it’s not the university speaking, in a sense, at that point.”
Although people have that desire to know the reasons behind Ferguson's departure, students and faculty might just have to accept the fact that they may never know, Geelhoed said.
But Laitinen said she has seen a bigger push for transparency when it comes to student and faculty input in choosing the next president, which goes hand-in-hand with a president leaving.
It’s much easier for the board to allow involvement in this process and to give that inside look into what they are doing, as long as it doesn’t violate the provisions of the closed presidential searches that have recently started.
Ball State first used a closed search to find its president when it hired President Jo Ann Gora in 2004. This led to backlash from students and faculty, who both wanted more representation in the search for the new president.
In 2004, political science professor Joe Losco told the DN other universities were able to have closed searches and still keep campus happy, because they had a good relationship between the Board of Trustees and the faculty — something he said Ball State did not have at that time.
He said unresolved questions about former President Blaine Brownell’s departure — which had occurred just a few months before — and an unwillingness of the board to meet with faculty strained relations. Losco declined to comment for this story.
But the board may be learning from its past mistakes. At the last Board of Trustees meeting on March 14, Chairman Rick Hall and Trustee Hollis Hughes met with representatives from the Faculty Council and select students to talk about concerns they may have with transparency.
While attendees had mixed responses to the meeting, they agreed it was at least a start.
The board has also said it will be hosting open forums so students and faculty could voice their opinions about what they want to see in a new president. The public still won’t be able to know the names of the presidential candidates, but the board is working to give them some say. The board also did this when looking for Gora in 2004.
Joan Todd, university spokesperson, said she thinks the university scores high when it comes to transparency because it offers multiple avenues for communication on the website.
For personnel matters, however, she said the university maintains appropriate levels of confidentiality. She said just as the university would never reveal promotion or tenure deliberations about faculty, they won’t publicly discuss personnel matters when it comes to the president either.
“We have heard the comment that somehow as taxpayers, the faculty has a right to know detailed personnel information,” Todd said. “Of course, all university employees are taxpayers, and are supported by Indiana taxpayers, and that is why certain financial information is always available, such as our employees’ salaries.”
But she said outside of laws that require the university to give information if someone is suspended, demoted or discharged, the university wouldn’t release private personnel information.
Although the university is working to increase transparency within the presidential search, there are still many questions involved when the president unexpectedly resigns.
There have been three major instances — including this year — in Ball State history where students and faculty had questions and concerns about the president’s departure, Geelhoed said. Although the situations differed, above all else, students and faculty just wanted to be kept informed on what was going on.
JERRY ANDERSON, PRESIDENT FROM JANUARY 1979 TO FEBRUARY 1981
Jerry Anderson was appointed president in 1979, and he resigned in February 1981 with a “mutual understanding” between him and the Board of Trustees.
The only reasoning the board gave for his departure from the university after only two years was there was a disagreement between Anderson and the board that resulted in his resignation related to university leadership philosophy.
Faculty and students were wary of their response and did not trust what the university was telling them, according to old Daily News articles.
Although Anderson did not have a confidentiality agreement in his contract, he also did not speak out about what factors may have led to his resignation.
Robert Bell immediately took over as president, and the board said it was to give the university some stability. Bell was vice president of business affairs before he became president. This was the university’s third president change in four years.
BLAINE BROWNELL, PRESIDENT FROM JULY 2000 TO JANUARY 2004
Blaine Brownell's time as president was also one of the shorter terms, and his resignation lead to rumors.
Brownell and the trustees told the public he was taking another job to become the CEO of u21pedagogica. However, during the time after his resignation, rumor had it that the board was unhappy with Brownell’s performance, according to previous Daily News articles.
Seven years later, in 2011, the rumors were proven. An interview Brownell did shortly after his resignation showed the board hadn't told the truth about Brownell's departure. The interview, done by Warren Vander Hill, a professor emeritus and former provost and vice president for academic affairs, had to remain sealed for five years.
The board had lost confidence in Brownell, unbeknownst to him.
In the interview, Brownell said it was important his departure appeared like a normal transition process so the board and Brownell could support each other and save face.
“It is fairly straightforward, basically a very simple process where you negotiate, you come to a mutual agreement, both parties then agree to abide by the same script and then both adhere to their agreement and, also, try to reassure the whole campus community that I developed a sudden passion for teaching or whatever,” Brownell said in the interview.
Vander Hill did not do an interview similar to this with Ferguson after he resigned because he stopped doing the oral history of Ball State a few years ago. Vander Hill also said because Brownell was a personal friend and fellow historian, the situations were different.
Brownell also did not have a confidentiality clause in his severance agreement.
PAUL W. FERGUSON, PRESIDENT FROM AUGUST 2014 TO JANUARY 2016
Paul W. Ferguson resigned unexpectedly and without any warning on Jan. 25, and the board offered no explanation other than it was a mutual agreement between it and Ferguson.
Ferguson’s severance agreement had a confidentiality clause in it, and because of that, the university and the public have not been offered any explanation for why he left the university mid-semester and only 18 months into his five-year contract.
Students and faculty have been pushing the administration for more information, but to no avail.
One student staged a peaceful sit-in at the Board of Trustees meeting after Ferguson announced his resignation. Chairman Hall did recognize there were more students than normal at the meeting, and he took some time to speak about Ferguson’s resignation.
“[There is] no scandal, no other shoe going to drop, no financial crisis, no emergency going to be revealed next week,” Hall said.
Even now, two months after Ferguson's resignation, it looks like the university has hit a wall in what it will, or can, reveal.
It may be a matter of time before the truth comes out, like it did with Brownell, or the case could be more similar to Anderson and the public could never really know what truly went on.