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Students and faculty fight to keep MBA dean

Nancy Thornborrow, dean of the Lokey Graduate School of Business, is currently engaged in discussions with the Mills College President and Provost after they told her she would be replaced as dean. Economics faculty members and students are fighting the decision.

“The President has communicated to us that her decision is irreversible, but the faculty are nevertheless objecting strongly and asking for a reversal. This is a confrontation that’s worth having. It’s the right thing to do,” economics professor Roger Sparks said.

Thornborrow was informed Nov. 5 that her contract as dean would not be renewed after June 30, 2009, according to Sparks. Thornborrow has worked at Mills since 1980, and would continue as a professor.

He said Economics professors were “all in a tremendous state of shock at that time, and feeling I think a mixture of anger and disheartenment. We felt like we had all worked very hard to create a successful program that had a lot of value to the College and that this dismissal was part of a hostile takeover by the President.”

He said the department does not want to see Thornborrow step down. Other business faculty substantiated Sparks’ arguments but he was willing to go on record.

Faculty members from the department have met with Provost Sandra Greer numerous times to discuss the decision.

They also drafted a memorandum to Greer outlining three reasons why Thornborrow should be retained as dean. The first, they said, are the expenses involved. The department estimated it would cost the College $180,000 in replacement salary plus the cost of a search.

Greer said that issue was not factored into the decision. “I don’t know that you can do that kind of calculation,” she said.

The College recently placed a freeze on staff hiring, and its endowment is currently sinking.

Sparks also said it “would be very demoralizing for the business school to have the leadership changed unilaterally without any consultation from those who teach [there].”

“It almost seems like the more successful we are, the more likely it is that the President will try to impose her own designs on this program,” which he said could lead to “adverse incentive effects for other innovative programs.”

The third point was that it would be unfair to replace Thornborrow before the opening of the new MBA building in Fall 2009, which she has worked tirelessly on for the last three to four years.

He said it was important to show Thornborrow gratitude and respect for “the great job that she’s done.”

Thornborrow was only planning on remaining in the deanship for another year or two, according to Sparks. “But we’d like that to be a smooth transition, rather than an abrupt, forced transition,” he said.

At the Dec. 1 campus-wide faculty meeting, Sparks spoke on behalf of business faculty. In a written statement provided to The Campanil, the business faculty also expressed concern over “plans to debase our standards and reputation by offering weekend, summer, and online courses, and to dilute our focus on women by aggressively recruiting men.”

Faculty present passed three motions as part of that meeting.

The motion to extend Thornborrow’s contract to June 30, 2010 passed 68 to three.

The faculty voted 70 to one to recommend President Janet Holmgren consult with the faculty of academic programs in making personnel decisions that directly affect those programs, and 70 to two to seat faculty representatives on the Board to report on academics and faculty participation in College governance.

As of Dec. 4, administrators had not released a public statement of Thornborrow’s removal, nor did Thornborrow wish to comment.

“We offered her a private conversation over several weeks,” Greer said, “for her to contemplate the issues and think things through.” Their last scheduled meeting was Dec. 5.

Yet Sparks said privacy provisions are designed to protect employees, and in this case Thornborrow has decided to go public with what she was told.

“Often, however, the boss who fires someone unfairly wants to shield that behavior from public scrutiny and so invokes the privacy argument,” he said. “Certainly the President’s personnel management style is to push through personnel changes quickly and then hope that students, faculty and others get over it and the shock of not being asked their opinion.”

“On most campuses, such decisions area not made in consultation with the community,” Greer said.

Sparks said while Holmgren is within her authority to make personnel decisions, “she has an obligation to the College to make these decisions wisely on the basis of accurate information and following standard personnel practices, like giving warnings if job performance isn’t satisfactory.”

Greer agreed that professors should be given “regular personnel evaluations.” Sparks said Thornborrow’s performance reviews did not indicate any deficiencies.

Sparks said Greer told them enrollment in the MBA program not growing fast enough was the reason for Thornborrow’s dismissal as dean. “There’s also a vague comment about wanting to move the program to the next level,” Sparks said.

There are currently 72 students in the graduate program. Last spring saw the largest graduation of MBA students to date, and this fall ushered in the largest incoming class.

“There’s something a little disingenuous about the administration’s position,” Sparks said, “because we have gone to them requesting approval for new recruitment strategies-which we are required to do-and they have been dragging their feet, not letting us do many of the things that would boost enrollment substantially.”

Sparks said he had spoken recently with a trustee, but the department wants to keep the trustee’s name confidential.

According to Sparks, Holmgren told trustees Thornborrow micromanaged the building project, “hoarded” advisees, and resisted offering differential amounts of financial aid to MBA students, a fact Sparks denied.

He also defended Thornborrow’s leadership as a hands-on leader. “She is able to do that, work on the details sometimes, but also keep command of the big picture and the vision of the program.”

The trustees give final approval of personnel decisions, but according to Sparks usually just rubberstamps Holmgren’s recommendations.

While Greer said she could not legally speak about details, she implicated the decision was final. She said a search committee had not “yet” been set up to find a replacement dean. “In this case the President and I will talk it over after the search committee’s been concluded,” she said.”Now that this is a public issue, we will proceed to set up a search committee.”

Thornborrow is popular with many students, and her possible demotion has galvanized some to organize.

MBA student Chavon Rosenthal said she sent out an e-mail to her fellow students Nov. 20 on behalf of the Committee for Change 2008, a group of current MBA and economics students working to reverse the administration’s likely decision.

The e-mail read in part, “This is not the first time the President has attempted to gain power over a division of the College by firing a cornerstone of the department behind closed doors. It also directly contradicts promises made by senior administration to move forward with transparency and accountability to all Mills College stakeholders.”

Rosenthal said in the e-mail the committee was “seeking to increase transparency, effective communication and accountability on the part of Senior Administrators in accordance with the College’s Mission Statement.” To do this, they advocate creating a panel composed of an undergraduate student, graduate student, alum, faculty, and administrator that would regularly communicate with the trustees.

Sparks said he thought it was a “great idea.” But, he added, “I think our President will resist the idea, because it undermines a structure that she’s carefully put in place.”

The committee spread the word on campus upon learning the news mid-November, but said it was cautious in giving out information so that their source could not be singled out. Since the faculty meeting, the group said it would be giving out more detailed information.

The committee has taken their message to Facebook, where they created a profile “Change Mills,” which had 234 members as of Dec. 4. Their Facebook group Committee for Change 2008 has links to three separate petitions they created.

A junior economics student who wished to remain anonymous, said as a major decision maker on campus, the board should hear information that isn’t filtered through the President, which may be biased.

The student also said the attention Thornborrow gives to students is “amazing” given how busy she is. “Her door is essentially always open to students,” she said. “She’s very welcoming and comforting.”

She said she thought the removal of Thornborrow before the opening of the building “might be a power grab.”

“The President wants more publicity for herself,” she said.

Neither Thornborrow nor Greer knew anything about the committee when asked about it.

Committee members are working to develop a packet to send to Greer and Holmgren, with proposed plans for reform. They said they want to gather as many petition signatures as possible, and will include video footage of the President and Executive Vice President Ramon Torrecilha on tape promising more transparency, as a result of the controversy surrounding former Dean of Student Life Joanna Iwata’s departure.