New dean of College announced, ending contentious hiring process

Lena Hill was selected through “target of opportunity hiring,” just one of several methods that has been used to appoint Washington and Lee administrators, according to Provost Marc Conner

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Justin Torner - Staff Photographer - The University of Iowa

John Tompkins, News Writer

Lena Hill, the interim chief diversity officer and associate vice president of the University of Iowa, has accepted an offer to become Washington and Lee University’s next dean of the College, effective July 1. Provost Marc Conner made the announcement in an email to students and faculty on April 6.

But the process Conner used to identify, recruit and vet Hill has caused controversy on campus over the last few months.

His efforts sparked a series of critical articles written by Ben Whedon, ’18, in The W&L Spectator. Whedon accused the provost of playing a “kingmaker” in the hiring process and placing his desire to expand the administration’s ethnic diversity over his duty to select the most qualified candidate possible, regardless of race.

But several members of the interview committee Conner formed to review Hill’s application disputed Whedon’s characterizations. One committee member said Conner needed to take a less conventional approach to Hill’s hiring because the university is at a critical juncture in its history.

“I am more afraid of us becoming the lonely campus with no perspectives of the world around us,” associate professor of journalism and mass communications and interview committee member Dayo Abah said. “We’re talking to each other. We need to be talking to the rest of the world. We are going to continually become marginalized if we don’t change directions.”

Instead of conducting a nationwide search for the College’s next dean, Conner employed a method known as “target of opportunity hiring.” In this approach, employers hone in on a single applicant who they feel is uniquely suited for a position.

Conner said he wanted to find a qualified candidate who would also bring diversity to the W&L faculty. He encouraged Hill to apply.

This process exposed tensions between faculty members and the administration, and it proved the reasons behind the controversy surrounding Conner’s approach are far from black and white.

No precedent

Conner’s search for a new dean of the College began days before last Christmas, when current dean Suzanne Keen announced she had accepted a position as vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Hamilton College.

In a Feb. 12 email to the faculty shared with the Ring-tum Phi, Conner said he saw two options before him: begin a national search in January or hire an interim dean and complete a national search in the summer and fall of 2018.

He said he ruled out the first option because all of the top candidates available in a national search would have been hired by other institutions by the winter. Conner also discarded the alternative method because he said past experience suggests such a plan would not achieve his main goal of hiring “an excellent dean who will also enhance our diversity efforts.”

“Doing both in a senior administration search is extremely challenging—not because they aren’t out there, but because they’ve all been hired by Yale, Northwestern, and Brown,” Conner said in the faculty email.

“Hiring a search firm, organizing a search committee, and charging them with that task does not yield the desired result… A personal recruitment outreach is almost always essential… Furthermore, there is not time to delay if we identify such a top candidate:  they won’t be there if a school delays.”

Instead, he opted for a third solution: target of opportunity hiring.

This is one of the most effective methods for hiring top minority talent, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Conner said inviting a single, external candidate to apply for the position was an unconventional step. But he said there is no established precedent for how administrators are hired at Washington and Lee.

He said the university has employed at least five different processes for the last 10 members of the administration who have been hired.

“We have done large-scale national searches with multiple candidates and a large search committee; we have made direct appointments without considering any other candidates; we have hired internal candidates after a national search,” Conner said in an email to the Phi. “So considering a single candidate is not unusual for us.”

Abah said over the course of her more than 15 years as a member of the Washington and Lee faculty, she knows of at least one faculty member who was brought to campus as a target of opportunity hire.

This method has also been used at several of W&L’s peer institutions, including Williams College, Bowdoin College, Colgate University and Sewanee: The University of the South.

“I see this as just another way to do things,” interview committee member Mason Grist, ’18, said in an email to the Phi. “The merits are that we could be the first school to take a look at a potentially highly qualified candidate before the fall hiring cycle opens up.”

Abah said the use of target of opportunity hiring does not equate to a “hand out” to minority candidates because they still must be vetted by members of the faculty and administration.

Conner appointed an interview committee comprised of 11 faculty members and two students to meet with Hill and examine her credentials.

Committee members voted individually on whether to offer the position to Hill, and the group made its final decision during Washington Break. Conner did not have a vote in the matter.

The candidate in question

Washington and Lee’s dean of the college is charged with several key responsibilities, including guiding associate professors through the tenure promotion process, overseeing the budgets and leadership of 21 departments and providing a vision for the future of the college.

Hill currently serves as senior associate to the president of the University of Iowa, as well as an associate professor of English and African American studies, in addition to her aforementioned titles. She has received tenure.

In her current role, Hill oversees 30 staff members and $3 million, which Conner said is roughly 10 times the annual capital budget of the College.

Hill also holds a PhD in English from Yale University, and she has published three books on African American history and culture.

“Personally, I would emphasize her leadership experience at a major national university; her exceptional interpersonal skills of listening and respectful attentiveness, which I think are essential to good leadership; and her commitment to the liberal arts educational ideal that is intrinsic to Washington and Lee,” Conner said in the Phi email.

In addition to reviewing Hill’s CV, the committee brought Hill to Lexington where members conducted a 90-minute interview with the candidate.

Hill also held a meeting in Hillel House attended by more than 60 members of faculty and staff to discuss her qualifications and answer questions. Abah said some committee members went as far as to “plant” questions they did not have time to ask Hill in her interview.

Abah disagreed with the criticism by some that the committee was illegitimate because it only seriously considered one candidate for the position.

She said the committee deliberated without Conner present for over four hours before deciding to offer the job to Hill. Abah said committee members were not pressured by the provost to vote in Hill’s favor, and a “plan B” was in place should Hill have been voted down.

“I have never seen a more rigorous process,” Abah said. “I would not waste so much of my time on a sham. We all gave so much…All, even those who disagreed with [Hill’s] answers, agreed that she held her own.”

Causes for faculty concern

Criticism of Conner’s approach from faculty members began almost immediately after the provost announced his plans. But the reasons for their concerns were and, in some cases, remain multifaceted.

Some took issue with Conner’s use of target of opportunity hiring, as Whedon articulated in his Spectator article, arguing it undermines meritocracy.

Abah disagreed, saying that as a person of color herself, she believes this approach has the potential to welcome and attract qualified minority candidates who might not otherwise consider Washington and Lee given its heavily white student and faculty demographics.

“I think it’s actually an insult to our own administration that we’re looking for incompetent people to hold a job simply because of the color of their skin,” Abah said. “They don’t want to bring people here who are destined to fail. That is the argument of people who have no understanding of how leadership works.”

Conner also disputed the criticism.

“I will never advocate for diversity at the cost of excellence,” he said. “My position is that excellence and diversity are inseparable components of one another.”

Further controversy emerged after Whedon alleged in a March 27 Spectator article that Hill’s husband had been offered a tenure-track position in the history department in an attempt to sway Hill into accepting the job.

Conner called this an “odd rumor” but confirmed Michael Hill has been offered a job as a professor of Africana Studies at W&L. Conner said the offer is pending both tenure and full professor review.

Michael Hill is currently chair of the African American Studies program at the University of Iowa and has published numerous books and essays on African American history and culture.

“It is common in senior-level administrative hires to also seek meaningful opportunities for a partner or spouse,” Conner said.  “We have done this many times in other administrative hires.”

But several individuals either on the interview committee or familiar with Lena Hill’s hiring process said it wasn’t the merits of target of opportunity or spousal hiring that perturbed most faculty members. Instead, they said many of their colleagues were primarily concerned, at least initially, with the way in which Conner communicated his unilateral decision to hone in on Hill.

Abah said at the outset, the process felt rushed, and Conner “alienated” faculty members by failing to make clear whether they would play a meaningful role in selecting the next dean.

Another member of the interview committee expressed similar sentiments.

Abah said Conner’s moves likely wouldn’t have created controversy if they had come during any other school year. But this hasn’t been a typical semester for the Washington and Lee faculty.

Professors have had to juggle changing class block times, a sudden increase in their students’ credit hour requirements and worries over the university’s reaccreditation.

Abah said all of these changes were made without faculty input or an adequate explanation from the administration of how the university dug itself into its accreditation problems.

“I think we as a faculty have had a tough year and [the hiring process] was just one more thing that had been put upon us—the last straw,” Abah said. “I think some of the transparency and trust was taken for granted.”

Professor Toni Locy, who has had to address class scheduling and accreditation challenges in her role as journalism and mass communications department head, echoed Abah’s words.

“Marc [Conner] is bearing the brunt of the frustration that people feel over those issues,” Locy said.

In an effort to assuage tensions, Conner sent several emails to the faculty early on in the hiring process to explain his rationale for target of opportunity hiring and clarify the faculty’s role in selecting the next dean.

Conner originally intended for the interview committee to serve only in an advisory capacity. But responding to faculty concerns, he decided to grant members voting power and the final say in whether to offer the job to Hill.

Washington and Lee’s faculty handbook empowers the provost to appoint deans after consultation with the president. But Conner said he realized he was asking for a great deal of trust from the faculty in bringing only one candidate to interview.

“I felt it was important to return that trust and leave the decision in the hands of the committee,” Conner said in the Phi email.

“As I stated to the faculty in an open forum on this matter, I definitely could have communicated the rationale, justification, and warrant for this process more effectively,” he continued. “This process was my responsibility and if there was confusion, anxiety, or concern, that’s on me.”

Abah said Conner’s corrective efforts did restore some confidence in his approach. But she said they also created a number of other issues.

Committee members, for instance, did not know they would be personally responsible for approving or denying Hill’s application when they initially signed on. Abah said questions were also raised as to whether the committee should be more representative of the university’s many departments and whether faculty who are not members of the College should be given the opportunity to vote.

The variety of issues faculty members have taken with abrupt administrative changes on campus this year has prompted a group of professors to explore opportunities for the faculty to take on a greater role in governing Washington and Lee.

The group is currently discussing a motion drafted by three of its members to create a Faculty Affairs Committee. Its functions would include advocating for increased faculty participation in the managing of university business and bringing faculty concerns directly to the administration, according to an email from the governance discussion group released to the Phi.

“Speaking only for myself, I can say that the faculty governance discussion group I have been part of has been involved in trying to support and enhance communication and cooperation between faculty and those who work with us to fulfill W&L’s educational mission,” Professor Melina Bell said in an email to the Phi. “That we cooperate effectively and trust each other is essential to W&L’s bright future, and I am confident that we are all up to the task.”

History department head Professor Molly Michelmore, who is also part of the group, said its members are not seeking to undermine the administration.

“Speaking only for myself, I think that the faculty is one of W&L’s best resources,” Michelmore said in an email to the Phi, “and it just makes sense to work with the administration to figure out how to engage constructively in issues regarding the university’s future.”

Diversity and direction

College Factual ranks Washington and Lee number 2,235 in ethnic diversity out of 2,718 universities nationwide. Over 80 percent of the university’s students and faculty identify as white, according to the site.

Washington and Lee falls far behind many of its peer institutions in student ethnic diversity. Roughly 68 percent of students at Davidson College are white, while at Williams College, just over half of students identify as white.

W&L President William Dudley recognized this deficiency in his inaugural address last September.

“Among the best liberal arts institutions, we remain the least racially diverse,” he said. “We are missing out on talent and missing out on an opportunity to make a larger contribution to the future.”

Both Dudley and his predecessor have said they are committed to addressing the issue.

Former Washington and Lee President Kenneth Ruscio launched the University Committee on Inclusiveness and Campus Climate in 2008, which releases annual reports on diversity and campus life.

Last year, Dudley created the Commission on Institutional History and Community. The group is expected to release a report next month with recommendations on how the university might better represent its complex history and increase diversity among the student body.

But Abah said unless these efforts lead to successful action, Washington and Lee may find it difficult to maintain the respect of the higher education community in years to come.

“The fact that the university is trying to increase diversity is not enough…unless it yields results,” Abah said. “Cultures don’t develop by shutting themselves off from other perspectives. You gradually die off…and we are getting more and more left behind by our peers.”

She said Conner’s use of target of opportunity hiring could certainly have been explained better. But she said this kind of change in approach could be a necessary part of the solution to Washington and Lee’s serious challenges with ethnic diversity.

“We keep doing the same things we’ve been doing and hope we get a different result. That’s madness. It’s not going to happen,” Abah said. “The message is [people of color] don’t belong…that’s what we need to overcome.”

Lily Horsley contributed to this story.

Photo in featured image courtesy of Jessica Willet. Photo by Justin Torner, University of Iowa.