A groundswell of students, faculty and alumni seeks to oust the St. Peter college's president.
ST. PETER, Minn. - High school students and parents touring the hilltop campus of Gustavus Adolphus College last week likely noticed the many banners celebrating its big anniversary: "150 Years and Counting."
But small signs on cafeteria tables reveal unrest. "A Petition to End the Presidency of Jack Ohle," they say, linking to a website.
A growing group of professors, students and alumni say it's time for Ohle to go.
"We have reached a point where lack of trust and confidence in your leadership over the span of four years precludes the college from moving forward," said a letter from the Faculty Senate.
The same request has been made in online petitions and impassioned "letters" on YouTube, fueled partly by GustieLeaks.com, a whistleblower website.
Results of a faculty survey posted on the site show that many faculty members question Ohle's priorities: investing in new buildings and public relations while cutting departments' budgets. Responses describe Ohle as a "dictator" whose "top-down leadership style drips with contempt and arrogance."
The board of trustees is "reviewing closely the concerns of those students and faculty and will respond appropriately," board chairman Mark Bernhardson said in a statement. "Institutions of higher education are in an ever more rapidly changing environment and such changes have caused concerns with those accustomed to its more traditional structures."
The case illustrates a growing and "unfortunate lack of trust between professors and presidents" across the country, said Prof. John Thelin, a higher education historian at the University of Kentucky.
The Gustavus trustees pledged in a Jan. 29 memo to "undertake a comprehensive review of the president" this spring semester. "The process will include input from representatives of all key college constituencies," the board said in the note to students.
Some said they are cautiously optimistic about that process. Eric Dugdale, an associate professor in the Department of Classics, said he "very much hopes" that the review includes everyone from administrators to alumni and safeguards confidentiality.
But Eric Halvorson, a senior studying political science, called the trustees' response "unacceptable."
"This is a crisis," he said. "Although it might appear unreasonable to expect Ohle to resign or be removed by the end of the year, students and faculty have tried being reasonable for over four years."
"I feel aggravated and dis-empowered by an institution that has otherwise done everything it can to empower me," Halvorson said.
Ohle came to Gustavus from Wartburg College in Iowa in 2008. The trouble started in 2009, when Provost Mary Morton resigned, citing a reduction of her duties under Ohle, according to an Inside Higher Ed article at the time.
"From that moment on, things have never been the same," said Leila Brammer, a communications studies professor. "The situation ... was never resolved and was followed by a torrent of similar situations that have never been resolved."
Some professors cite Ohle's interference in a faculty search as one example of his contempt for the kind of faculty-administrator collaboration that often marks liberal arts colleges. In an article in the college's student newspaper, Ohle said that he has "properly consulted the faculty."
The president's view
Ohle, whose contract ends in June 2014, received $478,732 in total compensation in 2010, according to the college's tax filing. That makes him the fourth highest-paid president of a nonprofit, private college in Minnesota, behind Macalester College, Carleton College and Hamline University leaders.
In his statement, Bernhardson said that under Ohle, "there has been a substantial increase in giving to the college." The college has raised more than $100 million toward a $150 million capital campaign, he said.
The college has "an impeccable reputation of financial responsibility," Ohle said in a statement, which has been further improved by the campaign. Money raised will bolster the college's endowment and academics, he said.
"The college's financial health is also strengthened by recent trends in student recruiting," the statement continued, "which have resulted in the two largest incoming classes in the college's history."
Moody's Investors Services affirmed in July 2010 the college's A3 bond rating, saying that its "rating outlook remains stable."
But some faculty members say Ohle spends too much on trips and ceremonies and too little on student learning.
The college's resources "are being squandered by a president who positions himself as the sole decision maker, all the while failing to heed the knowledgeable persons around him," said Steven Mellema, a longtime physics professor and Gustavus alumnus.
Since Ohle took charge, faculty salaries have fallen in comparison with similar schools. Full professors made an average of $76,200 in 2011-12, according to data collected by the American Association of University Professors, just below the median nationally for baccalaureate colleges.
'An open rebellion'
In an October report, Faculty Senate chairman Prof. John Cha told trustees that these concerns come not from the "perpetually dissatisfied." Rather, he said "they come from those who have been the backbone of this college."
Many instructors are reluctantly readying their résumés, Cha said.
Richard Hilbert, a sociology and anthropology professor, said he has never in his 35 years at the college seen such "an open rebellion."
Hilbert himself disagrees with "most of the faculty ... who think the crisis will go away if the president goes away," he said. "I think there's a crisis in higher education everywhere in the country. Some of that is being blamed on him."
Hanging in a little lounge near the college's theater Thursday, Mackenzie McCann admitted she did not know the details of the controversy, but fears that some of her favorite professors are on the brink of leaving.
"That would be terrible," the sophomore said. "They're such a huge part of this community and one of the main reasons we come here."
McCann first met Ohle on a tour of campus. Now, as a tour guide herself, she knows that if Ohle spots her group he'll introduce himself. "I'm sure he's a genuinely nice guy," she mused, "but he's just not good for here."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna