UPDATE: West Georgia faculty passes no confidence vote against new president

A man walks the campus at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. AJC FILE PHOTO.

The University of West Georgia’s faculty senate on Friday passed a rare no confidence vote in the leadership of its new president, Brenda B. Kelly.

The vote was 32 in favor of the measure with 14 against it. There were five abstentions.

The entire faculty will vote on the measure next week. The vote would not result in Kelly’s termination. Part of the faculty’s goals are to get the University System of Georgia, which oversees operations at UWG, to mediate.

Critics say Kelly violated university bylaws by not sharing detailed information about the budget and didn’t adequately include them in the reorganization plans. They say the reorganization has resulted in confusion among many students about where to seek campus services, such as advising, and that faculty are now handling more tasks that have taken away from student instruction.

Brendan B. Kelly began his presidency at the University of West Georgia in March 2020. PHOTO CREDIT: University of West Georgia.

Kelly, who arrived in March after leading the University of South Carolina Upstate for about three years, denied he’s violated any bylaws. He said during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the changes were needed to address state-mandated budget cuts, the coronavirus pandemic and complaints he’s heard from students about various services. The prior president, Kyle Marrero, left last year to become president of Georgia Southern University.

Kelly and the faculty critics also disagree over how responsive he’s been to them. Critics say he hasn’t responded to requests for meetings and has been opaque about various issues when they have met. Kelly said he’s been accessible and willing to answer any questions. The university’s student government association posted a message on social media late Thursday supporting Kelly.

UWG has three campuses, in Carrollton, Douglasville and Newnan. Its enrollment last year was about 13,200 students, a decline of about 500 students from the prior year.

Here are some of the issues in the dispute:

The finances

UWG faced financial challenges before Kelly arrived, including a $3 million budget gap caused by the enrollment decline. School leaders faced criticism in November from faculty and students when administrators sent notices to an undisclosed number of faculty members that their teaching contracts were in jeopardy of not being renewed at the end of the school year to help balance the budget.

The university’s total funds budget for the current fiscal year is $234.5 million, about $13 million less than the prior fiscal year, according to University System of Georgia data. It cut spending in several ways, according to a document Kelly gave the AJC, that included $2.1 million through employee furloughs, $1 million by freezing travel and $1 million through an early retirement program.

Faculty senate chairman Daniel Williams, who said he’s tried to act as a mediator through these disputes, said Kelly has not provided a line-item breakdown of spending by department.

“In my experience, that’s never happened before,” said Williams, a history professor who joined the faculty in 2005.

Kelly pointed to a weblink he said was posted in July that includes the initial budget for the current fiscal year, including a budget by department.

Williams said that document was based on some departments that no longer exist, so it is outdated.

The reorganization

Kelly has used three themes to describe his vision for the university: relevance, competitiveness, and placemaking. The title of the process “Becoming UWG” has rankled some longtime faculty who say in a list of complaints, it “is deeply offensive to faculty who have dedicated their careers to this university, and have seen it thrive and grow.”

Kelly said the reorganization was in the works before he arrived. The changes have included moving some academic programs into different departments. Implementing such changes during a pandemic has been daunting, Kelly said.

“It creates uncertainty,” he said. “It creates anxiety.”

One contentious change is how the university’s diversity and inclusion operations are managed. Critics say Kelly has dissolved UWG’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion and moved employees involved in those efforts to other parts of the university.

“To a lot of faculty, it looks like (diversity and inclusion efforts) won’t be as effective,” said English and writing professor Matt Franks, the university’s American Association of University Professors chapter president.

Kelly said the office is still there, but he said the focus is on addressing student concerns, such as the lack of non-white faculty at UWG. Nearly half of its students were non-white last year, but about 80% of its 688 faculty members are white.

"When I hear that kind of feedback, I feel, ‘Well, how can we do it differently,’ " Kelly said.

The communication gap

Franks said Kelly hasn’t responded to several recent requests for meetings. Kelly countered that he’s been accessible.

Williams, though, said other administrators have done more talking at meetings and some faculty feel like they don’t get all of their questions answered.

“There’s clearly a disconnect,” Kelly said. “We don’t get to a moment like this in the university community without some form of disconnect. My hope is we’re going to find our way to resolving that.”

Kelly spoke for about 30 minutes during Friday’s meeting. Senate members said they wanted more communication from Kelly about matters such as teaching in-person classes.

What’s next

The entire faculty will have the chance to vote by secret ballot, starting Monday and concluding on Oct. 26.

Differing viewpoints

Here is a document from UWG faculty explaining why they are considering a no confidence vote against President Brendan B. Kelly. Also, here are written responses from Kelly to the AJC before a telephone interview. Kelly’s team asked the AJC for a list of questions before the interview. The AJC sent him general concerns from faculty.

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