By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune
“Interim Texas A&M University president sets new tone for reforms planned under his predecessor” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Texas A&M University’s Interim President Mark Welsh III told faculty and staff in College Station on Wednesday that the university will largely stay the course on many unpopular organizational changes initiated by his predecessor.
But he said that he and his administration will closely monitor the changes and continue to gather feedback from faculty and staff to make sure the new policies work as they’re intended to and assess if they need to be tweaked or abandoned in the future.
“Changing out of something is as chaotic as changing into it, and it’s not any easier,” Welsh said about his decision not to reverse course on many of the changes already underway.
Welsh held a meeting with more than 600 faculty and staff Wednesday morning after his staff conducted a two-month review of former President M. Katherine Banks’ major organizational overhaul, known as The Path Forward. The plan, initiated in 2021, included 41 changes like reorganizing administrative offices, merging certain colleges, centralizing services and adding new academic programs.
Faculty and staff largely criticized the changes as poorly conceived and hastily executed, causing confusion among students and employees, and negatively affecting morale.
When Welsh was named interim president in late July, he immediately charged a team to analyze the impact of Banks’ changes. The team included Joe Pettibon, vice president for planning, assessment and strategy; Matt Fry, associate vice president for research; Deborah Wright, associate vice president for budget and planning; and Tim Scott, vice provost for student success. They set off on a listening tour across campus, which included more than 100 sessions with faculty and staff. The team then compiled their findings and recommendations into a report.
According to that report published a few weeks ago, Banks’ changes were largely panned by faculty and staff as a disaster that created unnecessary confusion and were extremely disruptive for students and faculty.
“The speed and scope of changes in structures and systems, as well as the lack of communication and transparency, placed our employees in difficult situations and limited their success, creating numerous occasions where processes were slowed or stopped, and where points of contact were unknown,” the report summary stated.
Nearly all respondents raised concerns with how the reorganization made it harder to access teaching space and staff offices — some faculty members were relocated across campus to different departments or lost spaces where they used to gather with colleagues.
Some departments, including the university library, were especially affected by the changes. About 25% of librarians chose to leave the university rather than following new rules that eliminated their tenure, the report stated.
Welsh walked faculty and staff through each of the recommendations made by his team, his final decisions based on those recommendations and his rationale behind the choices.
Welsh said he asked for broader feedback on the report. He told the crowd his office received more than 2,500 comments in response, which he used to make his final decisions.
Some of his decisions included moving forward with the creation of a school of visual and performing arts and of a journalism program, which was in question after the failed hiring of journalism professor Kathleen McElroy.
Welsh also shifted some administrative responsibilities back to department heads and faculty. In addition, he told faculty that the university would conduct a space allocation survey and that the university would reinstate a bachelors of science degree back in the veterinary medicine school, rather than place it in the college of arts and sciences, which he said was a major concern for students.
The most notable changes that Welsh announced were to reelevate the provost position to “make it clear the provost is number two [position] at Texas A&M” and to reinstate some offices under the provost’s purview.
Banks had restructured the provost’s office and created a new position, the vice president of faculty affairs. The move separated Texas A&M from how the vast majority of universities, where provosts are typically considered the chief academic officer. Many faculty felt they lost advocacy with the restructuring.
Welsh said that the vice president for faculty affairs would now be considered the vice provost for faculty affairs and would report to the provost.
Welsh also said the university would conduct a capacity study to determine how to best respond to and plan for the university’s continued growth. Over the past decade, the flagship university grew from 49,861 students in 2011 to 77,496 this fall.
“So many stressors have to do with growth,” he said.
Welsh’s decision to stay the course on many initially unpopular changes has been met with a mostly positive response, largely because of the way he included faculty in discussions and the transparent communication with which he outlined his decisions.
“He provided a rationale for all decisions so that even when you disagreed with a decision, you could understand why the decision was made,” Faculty Senate President Tracy Hammond said in a statement after the meeting. “I, myself, disagreed with at least one of the recommendations, but I was comfortable with the decision made.”
At one point, Welsh said he would rather hear from faculty about how to move forward rather than an external consulting company, a comment that was met with cheers from the crowd.
Banks was largely criticized by faculty and staff for not involving them in the decision-making process and failing to communicate why certain changes were made.
Banks resigned in July amid internal turmoil after The Texas Tribune reported on the failed negotiations to bring McElroy to Texas A&M. An internal review revealed Banks was intimately involved with the renegotiation of McElroy’s job offer, which was watered down amid concerns from university regents over McElroy’s diversity work in newsrooms and her perceived liberal leanings. Banks had previously told faculty she was unaware of the conversations happening behind the scenes.
But long before the summer scandal, Banks and the Path Forward faced resistance from faculty and students who consistently raised concerns with the direction she was taking the university in and the way in which her administration was communicating its vision.
Banks served as the dean of Texas A&M’s engineering school before Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp tapped her in 2021 to become president of the College Station-based university, which has 12 colleges and two branch campuses in Galveston and Qatar.
Soon after, she hired MGT Consulting to review Texas A&M’s organizational structure and provide recommendations for change. She later announced 41 recommendations that she began to enact last year.
Changes included combining Texas A&M’s College of Liberal Arts, College of Science and College of Geosciences to create the College of Arts and Sciences. The university also launched a new School of Performance, Visualization and Fine Arts to house performance studies, dance and visualization programs under one roof. Other changes faced more criticism, including the restructuring of the university’s libraries.
Welsh said Wednesday that despite the anger over the changes to the university libraries, the vast majority of librarians said they wanted to stay the course with the current system because “they’re pretty traumatized by the changes” and didn’t want new ones.
Welsh announced that while they would continue implementing the overhaul to the libraries, the university would add $3.3 million to the library system’s operating budget, including $2.4 million that was previously removed from the library budget, and add $990,000 for salary adjustments.
Banks had also approved a restructuring of Texas A&M’s Qatar branch, including changes to which faculty can conduct research, faculty contract terms and reorganizing school leadership under one dean. Critics argued these changes will make it harder to recruit and retain talented faculty at the Middle East campus.
Welsh told faculty Wednesday they are still working on a report of recommendations related to the external campuses. They will also publish the recommendations and ask for feedback before making final decisions.
“The conversation can’t end,” Welsh told faculty and staff. “The difference is we’ll be looking through the windshield, not the rearview mirror, because it’s time to start looking forward, to continue the conversation and make it part of our normal routine. That’s the way the university has to work.”
Professors long argued that Banks did not seek enough faculty input before approving those changes.
At the start of the 2022 academic year, the Faculty Senate approved a resolution that said “shared governance is no longer functioning as envisioned by faculty at Texas A&M University.”
Eight months later, a well-respected faculty group on campus said researchers at the flagship university had “serious concerns” with the Banks’ leadership, based on survey results from a poll the group conducted.
The group organized the poll in December after a well-respected chemist at Texas A&M, Karen Wooley, wrote a letter to Banks warning that many of the changes she had made since starting as president in 2021 were “causing substantial disruptions and threatening the integrity of this prestigious and precious institution.”
Hammond said that Welsh’s presentation Wednesday was a marked difference from how the prior administration interacted with professors and staff.
“The faculty are starting to feel that they can stop acting like they are walking on eggshells and take a deep breath,” she said. “In all appearances, it seems that we are finally moving forward together as one as we should have been doing all along.”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University and Texas A&M University System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/10/04/texas-am-mark-welsh-kathy-banks-path-forward/.
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