The Tuesday meeting was called in a hurry, and faculty in the College of Education seemingly had no idea why. Kathryn Chval had been removed as dean of the college effective immediately, said Provost Latha Ramchand and UM System President and Interim MU Chancellor Mun Choi, over “management issues” and a “cultural divide.”

Faculty pushed back, not only on Chval’s removal but on what they described as larger trends: the treatment of faculty, staff and students of color on campus, a lack of transparency and long-standing personnel issues within the college. So heated was the exchange that two days later, Choi scheduled a mandatory follow-up meeting for Monday. The Missourian obtained an audio recording of the Zoom meeting and a transcript of comments in the text chat.

Some at the meeting were upset with the decision in part because Chval had been a supporter of faculty of color. 

The decision to remove Chval was final and would not be reconsidered, Ramchand said during the meeting, during which she and Choi announced Erica Lembke, chair of the Department of Special Education, as interim dean. The two administrators repeatedly defended Chval’s removal in the face of faculty opposition and declined to provide further details on the process, citing the privacy of Chval as a priority and assuring faculty input in the search for the next permanent dean.

“The position of dean is an at will, administrative role, in which an individual reports to and serves at the discretion of the provost,” Ramchand said in a statement emailed to the Missourian. “I have authority to hire and remove deans based on judgment of their performance, management and leadership.”

Many faculty who spoke both on the call and in the chat said they were not aware of the decision prior to the meeting.

Some called Choi and Ramchand’s language regarding the decision “racially coded” and “genderized,” which Choi and Ramchand denied. Several pointed out what they believed to be “consensus support” among faculty, especially faculty of color, for Chval as dean.

Chval issued a statement Wednesday, praising faculty, staff and students at the college for their role in 2015 and beyond and thanking them for their work and dedication. She did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

A change.org petition to have Chval, who served as permanent dean since 2016, reinstated has garnered almost 300 signatures as of Friday. Now, College of Education faculty and staff await Monday’s mandatory follow-up meeting.

“I was very disappointed in the tone and actions of a few faculty and staff that attended our meeting on Tuesday,” Choi said in the email. “I look forward to seeing you then.”

The Monday meeting will be a “follow up to that discussion” Tuesday, MU spokesperson Christian Basi said.

‘Best interest’ and issues of race

Criticism surrounding the language Choi and Ramchand used to describe Chval’s removal stemmed from the term “best interest,” which the two repeatedly cited as one of the explanations for the decision.

A faculty member criticized the use of the phrase, saying it had been used to justify other recent campus decisions that they believed “aligned with racialized concerns that students have articulated, as well as many faculty and staff have articulated.”

They asked Choi to define what he meant by the term.

He outlined three aspects of MU’s “best interest,” including student success, research and scholarship, and engagement, and he denied that term had any racial connotation.

“I don’t see this through the same lens you do,” Choi said.

Choi and Ramchand said the decision “had nothing to do with race,” a statement that led to a tense exchange between Choi and a faculty member.

“It is impossible to say it has nothing to do with race, particularly when it seems like this decision is falling along a sort of racial fault,” the faculty member said. “How can we keep saying this to you in different verbiage and you can keep denying that back to us? It always —”

“Because it’s true,” Choi said.

“— overlaps with race,” the faculty member finished.

“Sorry,” Choi said. “Because it’s true.”

“I’m telling you that it’s impossible to be true,” the faculty member said. “It always intersects with race.”

That stance was affirmed by another faculty member, who said “it’s not by chance that it’s in the College of Education that we’re having these conversations,” given so many faculty members’ areas of study interact with race.

Choi addressed the topic again later in the meeting.

“When the question was asked, is this decision racially motivated, my answer was no,” Choi said. “If you are saying that it does have an impact on race, I don’t discount that. I don’t discount how people are perceiving it. But the question was, was this racially motivated? And the answer to that is no.”

A different faculty member asked if the fact that Chval had wide support from faculty of color within the college raised a flag or concern for the administrators.

“No,” Choi said. “You will be part of the decision to hire the next dean.”

The committee that will be formed to search for the next permanent dean will be representative of the college as a whole, Ramchand and Choi said during the meeting, and faculty will have the opportunity to provide input during that process.

One member voiced concerns about the college’s faculty of color being impacted by the decision, as well as their speaking out in the meeting.

“I’m worried that they are simultaneously making these vocal arguments, taking a real risk in doing so and updating their CV to send out those applications, and I wouldn’t blame them,” they said.

In response, Choi questioned whether that faculty member would make efforts to keep those faculty at MU. He was quickly rebuked by another faculty member, who said “the sense of belonging (in the college) is eroding” because of the “attacks” on Chval and lack of concern about faculty of color.

Several faculty also took issue with Choi and Ramchand’s description of a “cultural divide” and “cultural issues” within the college, calling it racially coded language. Choi and Ramchand repeatedly rejected those definitions during the meeting, saying that the cultural issues in question were not related to race, but were college-specific.

The two were urged by one faculty member to consider the decision within the context of the university as a whole.

“I do find it kind of ironic that such a situation is happening when we have a petition that’s led by a black male student in the College of Education that is outwardly opposing some of the decisions that the system is making,” the faculty member said. “I find it ironic that when we have a woman of color student in the College of Education that is leading a Twitter campaign that specifically talks about the systemic issues of racism taking place on the University of Missouri’s campus.”

The petition mentioned is likely a reference to the student-led efforts to remove a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson from campus. Choi and the UM System Board of Curators ruled that the statue would stay, and have said the decision is final. The Twitter campaign referenced is the hashtag #BlackAtMizzou.

Choi responded by asking if the faculty member was equating the Jefferson statue petition to the reason for Chval’s removal, which the member denied. They affirmed their sentiment that Choi and Ramchand’s phrasing was coded. Choi followed up by asking if that faculty member was assuming that Interim Dean Lembke would not be concerned about these issues, to which the member responded, “that never came out of my mouth.”

“I hope you will reflect on this and rethink about how the black and brown faculty in particular are voicing our concerns,” another faculty member said. “And it feels like we’re not exactly being heard exactly yet, so I encourage you both to reflect on this and see how you can engage us in any kind of meaningful way.”

MU is holding a virtual public forum Thursday that will address the university’s efforts in inclusion since 2015, areas for improvement and action steps.

Transparency and governance

Choi’s appeal to faculty — involving them in the search process for the next permanent dean — was unsatisfactory for many, who objected to the lack of transparency leading to and involving Chval’s removal.

“How can we trust a future process when it feels like the current process has not happened in a way, that especially people of color, are telling you they don’t get?” asked one faculty member.

Faculty repeatedly requested, both vocally and in the meeting’s text chat, for Choi and Ramchand to cite specific metrics by which they evaluated Chval’s performance, as well as who was consulted. One faculty member, in a chat message, said that student enrollment, national rankings, donations and grants — common metrics for evaluating the success of a dean and a college — have all increased in recent years. Other messages and contributions to the discussion by faculty emphasized recruitment and retention of faculty and students of color at the college.

Again citing Chval’s privacy, Ramchand declined to provide specific metrics but said that there were challenges that she believed “were not addressed effectively” by Chval. Ramchand said she believed that these challenges were “going to hurt the dean in the long run,” and that she had seen issues within the college come directly to her office rather than be dealt with by the dean.

Choi affirmed that sentiment, saying that some of those challenges and decisions may be those that faculty don’t know about, but exist. Choi and Ramchand said that there were multiple factors that led to Chval’s removal.

MU did not provide further comment on these inquiries Friday, citing that they related to a personnel matter.

The process and the lack of communication with faculty were described as the most recent in a series of events that lacked transparency, one faculty member said.

“It’s difficult for me to hear you say that this is in the best interest of the college, or in the best interest of students or faculty, when we’re not being consulted,” the faculty member said. “And I don’t understand how or why we’ve gotten to this point, and it’s frustrating to continue to hear justifications for what I think we recognize as not good behavior. This is not shared governance.”

Another faculty member criticized the provost and interim chancellor for “perpetuating a culture of intransparency” while urging the college’s dean to be more transparent.

“This is not who we are, and this is not who the dean is and how we experienced her,” that faculty member said. “I’m at a loss. You can make decisions whenever you want, but then don’t expect us to not call you out for the hypocrisy that it is.”

Transparency is not a new issue for the College of Education, one faculty member said in the meeting. Leadership prior to Chval did not make faculty aware of important financial decisions, the faculty member said, and spent “a fraction of the time” that the recently removed dean spent pursuing funding and grants for the college.

In her statement Friday, Ramchand affirmed her priority of privacy for those involved in hiring and firing.

“I also give due regard to the privacy of personnel matters and generally do not discuss the factors leading to those decisions publicly when the affected individuals have not done so,” she said.

Management and dysfunction

Choi and Ramchand cited “management issues” as one of the reasons for Chval’s removal as dean, but initially declined to provide further details or examples.

When later pressed by a faculty member to do so, Ramchand cited Chval’s handling of tensions between faculty, particularly within the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology, which was called “dysfunctional” several times throughout the call by faculty. She said she had not seen solutions materialize within the last year, and said those faculty needed to sit down and iron out any issues, which she felt it fell to the dean to facilitate.

“I’m not suggesting these are easy problems to solve,” Ramchand said, “but unless we tackle these head on — all I saw was people reading from emails. This is what you sent me on this date, on this date I responded. That’s not going anywhere. For god’s sake, those people are psychologists. You guys teach leadership.”

David Bergin, chair of the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology, resigned Wednesday effective immediately, citing “recent events” in both the department and college.

Faculty disagreed with Ramchand and Choi’s remarks regarding Chval’s management and leadership as dean. One member said Chval, upon her start as dean, stepped into “a department culture” that existed long before her term, a culture they said campus administration did not address.

“She’s being called out for not resolving this dysfunctionality in half a department that long predated her being a dean,” the faculty member said. “Where was the provost then? Where was the chancellor’s office then?

“This predates the dean. So somebody at the university didn’t do their job. But she’s being punished? Interesting.”

Ramchand said in her statement Friday that in her role as provost, she is transparent with deans about their performance.

“I communicate my expectations about performance throughout the year so any decisions, both positive and negative, are not a surprise to the individual in the position,” she said.

Some faculty cited previous events within the college during Chval’s tenure as dean. In 2018, when Chval was a candidate for the vacant provost position, some faculty from the college submitted what one faculty member called in the meeting a “letter of no confidence” against Chval. “Hundreds of people” signed a counter-petition that stated “this is not the dean (they) experienced,” another faculty member said in the meeting. Ramchand, who formerly served as dean of the University of Houston’s business school, won the provost position over Chval.

While Choi said that “each one of us is multi-faceted,” remarking that there had been “some serious management issues,” he also described Chval’s strengths, calling her “a very caring person.” Faculty objected to Choi’s comments, and one member said they made the removal into a “genderized issue.”

“She was sweet and nice, she was caring and she really deeply supported people yes,” the faculty member said. “But let’s not discount a really savvy, tough leader who also stood up to stuff that she believed in and called out bullies when bullies had to be called out.”

Choi disagreed with that interpretation of his comments, saying “that is an adjective that I would like all of our administrators to have. ... So no, it wasn’t genderizing.”

The hourlong meeting drew to a close as Ramchand affirmed that Chval’s removal would not be reversed and said it was time to “find a path forward to address some of these challenges.”

In its final minutes, one faculty member called the conversation a “leadership failure.” Choi and Ramchand were also asked to “leave today’s meeting open to the possibility that you made a mistake.”

Another message suggested “maybe there are other positions of leadership we should reconsider instead.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Missourian did not identify the names of faculty members quoted in the audio or Zoom chat messages. The substance of the recording was verified by a university spokesperson who attended the private meeting. The Missourian is not releasing the audio recording, which was received from an anonymous faculty source.

  • Galen Bacharier is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. He has reported on higher education, state government and breaking news. Reach him at galenbacharier@gmail.com or on Twitter @galenbacharier.

  • Executive editor and Missouri Community Newspaper Management Chair

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