The Search for Transparency at Eastern University

The Nuances of Transparency

Asking for greater transparency from college administrators is a millennial thing, or so the senior editors of the Waltonian have been told. “I don’t know if your generation is going to trust anyone in authority,” says Ben Howard, Associate Dean of Students. Howard adds, “you could put Jesus himself in an administrative position and I’m not sure that you’d like him.”

Dr. Jackie Irving, Interim Vice Provost, when asked about the desire for transparency among Eastern University’s student body, said: “this generation: we wanna know why, we wanna know why about the why, we wanna know when the why is happening, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Irving adds that Administration needs to “readjust” to this generation. She says, “We taught you to ask those critical questions, so now we have to answer your ‘whys.’”

As the Editor-and-Chief and Managing Editor of The Waltonian, we had a lot of “why” questions to ask: Why is Dr. Bettie Ann Brigham no longer at Eastern University? Why did former Dean of Students Daryl Hawkins resign? Why wasn’t the Eastern student body informed of these departures? Why was the Student Government Association (SGA) not kept more informed? What are the university policies governing communication of personnel changes? What is the vision for transparency from the perspective of Eastern’s leadership?

In an effort to find answers to these questions, we interviewed Assistant Dean Ben Howard, President Bob Duffett, Provost Kenton Sparks, and Interim Vice Provost Jackie Irving, and what follows is our reportage on the responses that we received. But before we summarize these interviews,please note that in a joint decision between Dr. Irving, Waltonian newspaper advisor Kat Hayes, and the Human Resources department, a statement received by the Waltonian from Dr. Bettie Ann Brigham is not being published at this time.

Although the Waltonian is completely student-run, it is still school-sponsored and we must abide by the decisions made by Eastern University as our publisher. It is important to note that Dr. Irving said, “I don’t believe in censorship: as long as it’s fair, respectful, and you’ve done all your research.” We must recognize the decision to utilize best practices in regard to publishing a statement from an ex-employee, an occurrence for which there is no precedent. Dr. Irving, Hayes, and HR must attempt to navigate the potential future issues that could arise from setting a new precedent in this way, and thus they have decided it is not fit for the Waltonian to publish any sort of statement at this time.

We acknowledge that this Center Spread may appear to focus heavily on the administrative perspective regarding recent personnel changes and resignations, however we can only function within the limits deemed appropriate by our publishers. Nevertheless, we can only hope that this Center Spread can provide some much needed insight in response to the questions and concerns that the Eastern community has raised regarding recent changes in the university.

The Current State of the Union

One of our primary goals in these interviews was to establish a public timeline surrounding the recent transitions and departures of two key personnel, Bettie Ann Brigham, Vice Provost of Student Development, and Daryl Hawkins, Dean of Students, and to get a sense of how Student Development has been faring in light of these departures.

We asked Ben Howard, Associate Dean of Students, about Hawkins’ departure because Howard is currently covering Hawkins’ responsibilities until the position is filled. As an aside, Howard confirmed that the search for a new Dean of Students is ongoing and that there are “lots of qualified candidates.”

In regard to a timeline, Howard told us that he found out that Hawkins was leaving after speaking with Dr. Irving, who approached him about filling Hawkins’ position as an interim. This conversation happened a week or so before Hawkins left. Howard told us that he met with Hawkins after being approached by Dr. Irving about the replacement position.

In addition, while Howard provided no definitive date for this conversation, he did tell us that the conversation occurred after Dr. Irving was promoted to her position as Vice Provost, which means that, at the very least, Howard did not know about Hawkins’ plan to resign until after Brigham had left her position as Vice Provost.

When asked about the current status of the Student Development office, Howard had this to say: “Honestly, I think that at this point in the semester we are all just so busy…I’ve been given enough information to do my job and do it well… why people make decisions is between them and the people who the decisions impact…I don’t need to know the inner workings of it. I am equipped to do my job and do the best that I can to serve the student body.”

Dr. Irving confirmed that she first heard Brigham was leaving the Vice Provost position when she “was offered the position,” which happened sometime in the late summer. Dr. Irving also told us that her response was “Why me? And what’s going on with Bettie Ann?” She added that “It was confidential, so certain information couldn’t even be shared with me.”

We also asked Dr. Irving what her thoughts were on the current emotional climate of the Student Development office. She said, “everyone has to process everything in their own time and in their own way.” We asked specifically if she thought that Student Development as a whole and individual members affected by the transition seemed to be on the same page, as well as if she thought that there were lots of people who were surprised by the administrative changes. Dr. Irving responded: “If I’m honest, I don’t think that everyone is on the same page. Because when you’re not allowed to discuss certain things and you can’t get into detail, it makes people uneasy, it makes them nervous, it makes them question everything. So I don’t think so.”

She added that, “I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that’s part of life in any aspect.” Dr. Irving used the analogy of a church getting a new pastor to further describe the dynamic: “all of a sudden [losing] someone who you’ve been connected to and who you’ve grown to love…that can be a hard thing. But I respect that.”

When asked if she feels that Student Development is getting back into a rhythm, Dr. Irving said, “I can only speak for me. I think that it’s definitely an adjustment for some. For others, they’re easing right into it. I think we are getting to a place where things are kind of settling down.”

Dr. Irving continued by saying, “If I’m honest, people are waiting to see what I’m going to do and say and if I’m going to change anything.” When asked what exactly she is planning to do and say, she responded: “I think that there was a great foundation and framework set: I feel like going forward the goal is to make sure that students in the areas that I am responsible for are considered in every aspect of the decision-making process that is possible without putting an undue burden on students, staff, and administration. We need to work collaboratively to make sure that students are served holistically in terms of spiritual formation, academic and scholarly excellence, all areas of development and leadership, health and wellbeing.”

We continued by asking Dr. Irving how long she expects to be in the position and if there was a search committee actively seeking a full-time Vice Provost. Dr. Irving confirmed that there is no active search committee as of now, saying: “How long I’m in this position will be up to the leadership and students and myself, in partnership to decide if this is a good fit, if this is where I land, or if going forward, a search committee will happen.”

She also noted that if a search committee did happen, it would not upset her: “the University has the responsibility to do what’s best for its students.” Thus, in clarification, she said she would be open to filling the position full time, “but it has to be a good fit.”

SGA says “Our status as students was disrespected…”

A key aspect of this exploration of transparency was a direct collaboration with SGA Executive President Gianna D’afflisio and Executive Secretary Christopher Kuz, who were both present and active in our joint interview with Drs. Duffett and Sparks.

President D’afflisio described being troubled by the fact that the students were not informed of the departures of Brigham and Hawkins. “I think it felt like our status as students was disrespected, as if we weren’t important enough to be made aware of these situations. And it’s sad because our community is one that’s made of love, of relationships, and it felt like that was being completely undermined by the fact that we were not told these things. There are students who still don’t know that BettieAnn is gone, and that’s unacceptable,” she said.

Both Dr. Duffett and Dr. Sparks acknowledged this oversight. Dr. Sparks said, “I don’t think the staff handbook actually outlines communication, [or] who is told what, when a person exits.” He then recommended writing up a policy to add to the handbook that would theoretically create a procedure of informing the SGA Executive President when an Eastern University employee resigns, a goal that D’afflisio agreed was worthwhile.

In addition to their concerns about communication, both D’afflisio and Kuz asked Drs. Duffett and Sparks what they are planning on doing to honor Dr. Brigham for her 42 years of service.

Dr. Sparks responded by saying, “I think it’s worth remembering that when someone resigns a position that’s a very different situation than when someone says ‘hey, I’m retiring, I’m going away.’ It’s not the same context. I can’t say we discussed whether we would do something, and I think that she didn’t really want that. Resignations are a particular kind of exit. There’s not really much to say.”

Kuz noted that BettieAnn was with the university for longer than almost any other current employees, and in light of that, he thinks she deserves some recognition. Kuz asked if there was currently any sort of plan to commemorate her service. Dr. Duffett responded, “I don’t know,” however Dr. Sparks did confirm that there was unofficial event in appreciation for Dr. Brigham, although he did not provide any additional details.

Furthermore, SGA has begun advocating for the SGA President to be appointed as a non-voting member of the board of trustees and thus given access to all board meetings. Kuz explained that “this could help with transparency” and could also be “beneficial to both parties, because the board can make informed decisions.”

Dr. Duffett emphasized their efforts to connect the student body with the board of trustees: “We’ve had several conversations about how to get students in [the meetings], and we had several students in this last time.” Dr. Sparks added that “It’s not my decision, it’s the board’s decision. But I am on record as saying that I think that SGA should be represented. I’m 100% on board and will push for it.”

For further consideration, when we asked Dr. Irving about this SGA effort to instate a student onto the board, she was supportive, but she had this to say: “I think it’s a good opportunity, but when you undertake a role of that magnitude, you have to be careful of how you relay information. I think it’s a great opportunity but would add that where much is given, much is required. That’s a great responsibility to have: you have to be ready for the weight that comes with that.”

In conveying the SGA’s perspective. it is worth mentioning one of Kuz’s statements during the interview with Drs. Duffett and Sparks. Kuz reiterated that the present issue is “students feel like there is some secrecy, whether or not that’s your [the administration’s] intention.” Kuz then noted that there are, “two ways we would hope to do something about that,” meaning instating the SGA President as a non-voting member of the board, and helping coordinate a consistent procedure for sending out of information to the student body regarding the resignations of employees who are closely involved with students.


What We Mean When We Say “Policy”

There have been many allegations made regarding the policies that applied to Dr. Brigham’s transfer and resignation. Furthermore, the student body felt kept in the dark regarding these changes and other administrative changes that have occurred, due to the fact that they were never notified by Student Development. When we met with Dr. Duffett, Dr. Sparks, and Dr. Irving, we addressed these allegations, as well as the fact that the student body was never officially informed about Dr. Brigham’s departure.

Firstly, we asked if the lack of an email announcement to students was a conscious decision tied to policy. Dr. Duffett responded by saying, “Since I made the announcement, that was on me. The issue is usually we don’t announce those things to students. It’s not that we want to exclude students. We just don’t do it, or haven’t done it. There’s a lot of resignations that we don’t announce at all. It’s not that we have anything to hide. We just don’t announce it.”

When informed that some in the student body suspected the lack of email reflected unethical actions by administration, Dr. Duffett explained that he was honestly surprised that some in the student body came to that conclusion. He followed this up by apologizing for this misunderstanding, and acknowledged that in the future Student Development should inform the students about that type of administrative change.

Dr. Irving seemed to agree with Dr. Duffett’s sentiments. She said, “Hindsight being 20/20, yes, an announcement should have been sent out. I take full responsibility for that.” She ascribed this oversight may have been a result of the fact that the various resignations resulted in a surplus of work for Student Development. “At the time, I was moving into two positions, so I had to keep these balls afloat. I assumed at the time that when the email went out, students got it. I honestly did not look to see who received it. I thought it was a university-wide email. I literally just found out this week that you weren’t included: so in my role, that would have been my responsibility to make sure that students knew. When you know better, you do better. So I take full responsibility for that.”

To prepare for these interviews, we attempted to become well-versed in Eastern University’s policies; however, we quickly deduced that, unlike the Student Handbook which is easily accessible through Eastern’s website, the Faculty and Administrative Handbooks are not available to the public.

We were perplexed by this lack of transparency, especially when compared to the ubiquitous presence of the Student Handbook. When interviewing Dr. Sparks, we asked why the public does not have access to the Faculty and Administrative Handbooks. Dr. Sparks answered by saying, “I can’t say that there’s a particular reason. Some schools have those kinds of things available and some don’t. I don’t think we are trying to hide those policy manuals, but we just don’t post them.” Dr. Sparks then added, “There is a competitive issue here, because when you compete for employees, you don’t necessarily want other institutions to know what you do and how you handle your internal policies and procedures. There’s stuff in there about salary, promotion, and tenure. Some schools still do it [release handbooks] especially state universities.”

Dr. Sparks and Dr. Duffett requested to be interviewed together, so Dr. Duffett gave his perspective as well, saying, “Frankly, I’ve been in higher education for a long time and I have never even heard a student ask that question. I have a copy of the bylaws…I don’t see any reason why they [the students present: Anthony Barr, SaraGrace Stefan, Gianna D’Afflisio, and Christopher Kuz] couldn’t read a section if they wanted to see it. I don’t know. Maybe we ought to think about that.”

The Waltonian editors and SGA representatives affirmed that the student body would certainly appreciate the administration publicizing what policies are being followed when making choices that affect the student body. It is important to note that during these interviews Dr. Duffett, Dr. Sparks, and Dr. Irving all stated that Eastern University policy was followed during these recent changes, and these claims were reaffirmed by Human Resources employees; however, no specific policy was identified as being the impetus for Dr. Brigham’s relocation, resignation, or the administration’s decision to not inform the student body about these occurrences.

The Questions that Received No Answers

We knew when going into these interviews that a lot of our questions regarding procedure and policy would not be answered. While Dr. Sparks was adamant that they “followed every policy and procedure” pertaining to Dr. Brigham’s movement from Vice Provost to the alumni fundraising position, we were not provided with any reasons, general or specific, for this transition.

We asked Dr. Sparks specifically if he could confirm that there were, in fact, reasons for Dr. Brigham’s transition. We noted that we understood he could not give us those specific reasons, but we asked him if he could confirm that, from his vantage point, there were legitimate reasons for this administrative change. Dr. Sparks responded by saying “I’m not gonna comment on that question. We followed the procedures of the staff handbook at every level,” however no specific procedures or policies were referenced at any time during these interviews.

We also asked Dr. Irving whether all the policies were followed when handling Dr. Brigham’s transition and resignation. We noted that we had heard allegations that policies were not followed, that the employee handbook was violated, and that there was not due process.

Dr. Irving answered these allegations by saying, “I can’t imagine that Human Resources would let that happen. The HR Executive Director is very on the ball. So I can’t speak to that, but I can not imagine that that happened.”

Unsurprisingly, there was a plethora of questions that we addressed to both Dr. Duffett and Dr. Sparks that were pointedly not answered. We asked about the allegations that Dr. Brigham was demoted and ultimately fired from her Vice Provost position, as well as the claim that Dr. Brigham’s movement was part of an ultimatum that required her to take the new position or leave the university, but they neither confirmed nor denied this claim.

The editors of the Waltonian also asked if we could receive a timeline of the proceedings surrounding the various administrative changes, based off of claims that there were decisions made as early as May 2017 and that the decision regarding Dr. Brigham’s change in position was made prior to Freshmen Convocation 2017, but Drs. Duffett and Sparks chose not to address any of these claims. Ultimately, the Waltonian was not given any statements regarding the decisions surrounding Dr. Brigham’s position, or what the process looked like from any logistical angle.

In response to all of these questions, Dr. Duffett said, “First of all, those are all really great questions. And if the roles were reversed, those would be the questions that I would ask.” However, he then added that these questions were “outside the bounds.”

Duffett stated plainly that, “there’s certain issues of the university that, very frankly, we’re not going to be transparent about, personnel changes being one of them.” Duffett further elaborated by saying, “We’re not going there because we want to be sensitive to people, because of best personnel practices, because it’s not our role to do that. It’s not an issue of being transparent, it’s an issue of being sensitive, of being effective, an issue of following best practices. And I know that gets frustrating but that’s reality.”

We responded to this statement made by the Eastern University President to ask if the unwillingness to “go there” was the result of a gag-order or any sort of legal constraints. Dr. Duffett answered, “No.This is just generally the way…[pauses]…if any of you were to ask me, say, why Jonathan Yonan [the previous dean of the Templeton Honors College] moved on or someone else, I just wouldn’t say, I wouldn’t get into that. That’s just my rule: just like I wouldn’t do it to you if you flunked out… I just don’t talk [about people] to other people. I think there’s a Christian value on this.”

Dr. Duffett then said that there “certainly are things based on best practices, morals, and legal codes.” This alleged combination of Christian morality, professional ethics, HR best practices, Eastern University policy, and legal constraints quickly morphed into an indivisible conglomeration that would not be further explained.

We attempted to clarify by asking if there were legal policies prohibiting Dr. Duffett from answering these questions or if it was just university policy. Dr. Duffett explained that “University policy is tied to legal. Some of this is university policy because we’re Christians, some of it is just best practices, some of its grounded in legal, and some of it’s grounded in just being kind for goodness sake. And you can’t peel this off like a banana.”

We countered by saying that we were skeptical of lumping all of these reasons together, noting that it seemed plausible for the Drs. Duffett and Sparks to correlate a specific policy or reason to their inability to answer some of our questions.

To this skepticism, Dr. Duffett reiterated that “In any employment situation, what obligates morally, ethically, legally, policy, all of them are linked together.” From administration’s standpoint, this sort of guarded communication is a way of safeguarding trust. Dr. Duffett explained that “We hold things close [to the chest] for the sake of the community. Them, us, and we,” adding that they “can’t and won’t tell you certain things and hopefully we’re a better community because of that.” Dr. Duffett pointed out that this safeguarding trust is of benefit to students too. When parents call to ask for information about their children, such as grades or disciplinary standing, the university holds that in confidence.

Dr. Sparks advised us to remember that he and Dr. Duffett ultimately report to the board of directors, and thus they are not completely free to act. Dr. Sparks added, “If you wanted to go beyond us, you could go to the board chair and talk to him. We aren’t authorized to say anything, literally.” We asked if this meant they were not authorized by the board to say anything regarding the administrative changes, to which Dr. Sparks said, “by the board, by policy, by everything…”

Dr. Sparks noted how sad it makes him that the student body has not felt like recent events were handled in a loving, ethical manner. But he wanted to reassure students that, “I feel that in the way I operate as a leader that I have done it with integrity and with a love of employees and especially students.”

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