February 8, 2000
by Edmund Tsang
Controversy continues at the University of South Alabama regarding the hiring of top officials of the 36-year-old institution in Mobile. In December, 1998, the Board of Trustees dissolved the Search Committee before it held a first meeting, and appointed former vice president for planning Gordon V. Moulton president of USA without conducting a national search. Between August, 1998 and December, 1998, Mr. Moulton was the interim president after USA's first and only president, Frederick P. Whiddon, Ph.D., was forced to resign by the Board of Trustees. This time, the controversy involves the hiring of the vice president for academic affairs.
A memorandum written by Elise Labbe, Ph.D., Chair of the Faculty Senate, and sent last November to the search committee for vice president for academic affairs and to USA faculty via e-mail, asked for reorganization of the committee because of a potential conflict of interest regarding the committee's make-up. That memo has now been characterized as "inflammatory" by Mr. Moulton and acting vice president Pat C. Covey, who is also the Dean of the College of Allied Health Professions and whose application for the position triggered Dr. Labbe's memorandum last November.
In a Faculty Senate News memorandum dated January 28, Dr. Labbe wrote, "[S]ince the last senate meeting the College of Allied Health Caucus and the Computer Science expressed their displeasure at the memo I presented to the Search Committee. Both caucuses expressed the belief that they had no concerns with the Search Committee. On the other hand faculty from Arts and Sciences, Business and Education reported that they approve of the memo."
In an interview last week, Dr. Labbe said she received fifty phone calls and e-mails from faculty members expressing their concern and distress in the two weeks last November when it became known that Dr. Covey has applied for the position, even though she had formerly indicated that she would not apply. Dr. Labbe added that there were only four phone calls and e- mails from faculty members who indicate they are satisfied with the make-up of the search committee.
Dr. Labbe also told The Harbinger last week that Dr. Covey, before she applied for the position of academic vice-president, said if she (Dr. Covey) were to apply for the academic vice-president position, two search-committee members should recuse themselves because of potential conflict of interest. "While theoretically we all work under Dr. Covey's authority," Dr. Labbe said, "we are more removed."
In her November e-mail, Dr. Labbe stated that "some members of the search committee for VP may have nominated Dr. Covey. This is a particular concern, since Dr. Covey is the direct supervisor of some search-committee members. While no one's integrity and good faith are being questioned, there will always be the appearance that the search committee's recommendations may have been influenced in a manner favorable to Dr. Covey merely by the continued presence of these members on the committee."
The memo also described a situation that might arise in the minds of external candidates about the fairness of the search process in recommending reorganization of the search committee: "When on-campus visits occur, any good external candidate would ask to meet with Dr. Covey in her role as the current acting VP. They will certainly discover that she is competing against them, and they may doubt their chances of competing fairly. Thus they may not pursue the application process as vigorously as they might have otherwise."
Dr. Labbe told The Harbinger that she forwarded the recommendation to re- organize the search committee to the president of USA, but Mr. Moulton is satisfied with the search committee that he has appointed, and has asked the search committee to move forward in evaluating the candidates and to recommend four candidates for campus interview.
The search committee for vice president for academic affairs announced last month the names of the candidates who will be invited for campus interview; Dr. Covey is among the four candidates selected. Dr. Labbe said in last week's interview that one of the four candidates has since withdrawn his application, citing personal reasons.
According to sources familiar with the search for the academic vice president, search- committee members spent considerable time evaluating each of twenty candidates after they had been narrowed from the original pool of about fifty candidates, discussing at length their scholarship, teaching, administrative experience, and vision. When one search-committee member raised the issue of Dr. Covey's weak record on scholarship, another search-committee member said the number of Dr. Covey's journal publications would have been comparable to others, had she not been involved in administrative duties early on in her career. According to this search-committee member, the discussion of Dr. Covey's academic records was brief, lasting less than five minutes, which was much less than the time spent discussing the merits of the other candidates. Another search-committee member said several committee members have the opinion that Dr. Covey would not be on the "short list" were academic achievements the sole criterion in selecting the candidates for campus interview.
Dr. Labbe said in an interview with The Harbinger last week two members of the Search Committee were "upset" with her November memorandum, because they believe the memorandum threatens their integrity, and they indicated that they could be objective in evaluating the candidates.
Daniel Sellers, Ph.D., Associate Dean of the College of Allied Health Professions and a member of the Search Committee for Vice President for Academic Affairs, told The Harbinger last week when the issue of potential conflict of interest came up during committee deliberation, "I tried my best to assure the committee members that I look at all the candidates fairly and have the best interest of the university in mind." "I pride myself on integrity and honesty," Dr. Sellers said in the interview with The Harbinger. "I don't see the necessity to recuse myself. If others told me to recuse myself, I would have done so." Dr. Sellers said he indicated to the chair of the search committee that if Mr. Moulton felt the need to replace him, he would be happy to let someone else take his place on the search committee. Dr. Sellers told The Harbinger he had already done considerable work reading the applicants' files prior to Dr. Covey's submitting her application, and he has served in two other such search committees. Furthermore, Dr. Sellers said the replacement committee member would not be privy to all the early discussions among committee members. Dr. Sellers dismissed the notion of appearance of potential conflict of interest because of his position as associate dean of a college whose dean is Dr. Covey. "It could be in the mind of the individual. I didn't see it that way," he said.
While Dr. Sellers agrees with the possibility of conflict of interest with the search committee member who nominated Dr. Covey, he discounts its significance. "If you nominate that individual, that person may not accept," Dr. Sellers said. "There are eleven members on the search committee, if the rest of the committee did not support that person, that's one vote out of eleven."
Dr. Sellers lamented that the current search for academic vice president has polarized the university community. "I have real concern whether we have reached the point where there is so much animosity within the university" from the current search and the last search for university president. "I wish we could all work together, trust and be supportive of each other, and work for the good of the university," Dr. Sellers said. "I support Mr. Moulton. I would be supportive of another person selected to be USA's president."
Dr. Labbe told The Harbinger last week that Mr. Moulton and Dr. Covey told her the views expressed in her November memo represented only a small group of faculty members. As President of the USA Faculty Senate, Dr. Labbe said it is her responsibility to represent the various opinions of the faculty who communicate to her and to the executive committee their concerns. However, she is dismayed about the responses of the university administration. "The faculty senate executive committee has tried to no avail to express our concerns, our words fall on deaf ears," Dr. Labbe said.
In response to The Harbinger’s request for an interview, Mr. Moulton released the following statement: “I am aware of Dr. Labbe’s widely distributed concerns expressed in the memo to the faculty, and consequently I asked the search committee to deal with these issues as it saw fit. I have complete trust in the integrity and judgement of our University colleagues who have agreed to serve on this committee. I commend the committee for an excellent job in what is often a difficult and challenging process.”
Dr. Covey also declined a request from The Harbinger for comments. Dr. Covey said, “I am a candidate, and in the middle of the search, I believe it would be improper for me to make any comments. I believe all people involved act with principle and trust in carrying out their charge.”