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A new report commissioned by the Tennessee Board of Regents is critical of how Nashville State Community College is administered.
Adam Tamburin / The Tennessean

Dozens of faculty interviews and survey responses found “dramatically negative” perceptions of top college leaders. Nashville State’s president defended his record but vowed to work with faculty to improve.

Professors at Nashville State Community College work in a “climate of fear and oppressiveness” fostered by top administrators, according to a blistering internal report commissioned by the college’s governing board.

Faculty described a senior leadership team at the state’s second-largest community college that relied on “hostility, intimidation, and retaliation” to maintain order, according to the report. Among the evidence, the report’s authors cited multiple attempts by top administrators to tamper with the ongoing assessment.

The report, conducted by consultants at Middle Tennessee State University, includes an analysis of more than 50 interviews with current and former administrators and professors. A subsequent survey of 88 full-time faculty members exposed “dramatically negative” perceptions of the college’s top leaders, particularly Nashville State President George Van Allen.

“Trust is low and fear is high,” the report said. “Most view the trend for this negative climate as continuing to spiral downward.”

The Tennessean obtained a copy of the final report, commissioned by the Tennessee Board of Regents and shared with Nashville State faculty last week.

Van Allen forcefully defended his record in an interview, during which he said years of criticism had been led by “a strong minority” of professors. He said changes requiring faculty to spend more time on campus, criticized by professors in the report, represented an attempt to better serve the more than 9,500 students enrolled there.

He noted that Nashville State’s retention and graduation rates have jumped since a slate of controversial policy changes were introduced in 2013.

“I’m here to serve the students, and I would do everything I did again,” Van Allen said. “I regret the report, but I do not regret the results. Our primary obligation is to educate the students, not to keep a particular group in a position of maximum comfort.”

The previous chancellor of the Board of Regents, the governing body that oversees the state’s community and technical colleges, asked for the report in response to multiple faculty complaints. It was conducted last year by MTSU’s Center for Organizational and Human Resource Effectiveness.

►Related: Tuition-free community college to become the norm in Tennessee as bill heads to Haslam

The conditions at Nashville State represent one of the first major challenges for Flora Tydings, the new Board of Regents chancellor. It comes at a time when Gov. Bill Haslam says the success of the state’s economy hinges on colleges effectively doing their jobs.

Tensions flared after trusted administrator departed

The report exposes a litany of problems faculty members have with college administrators. Many professors said policies are changed with little or no explanation, and some said they feared speaking out might cost them their jobs or subject them to bullying from senior leadership.

During interviews with the report’s authors, professors said that tensions flared in recent years following the departure of a trusted administrator who led Nashville State’s academic affairs office. As Van Allen took more control over academics, professors said, working conditions worsened.

“The president repeatedly dismissed such descriptions, insisting they only come from ‘a small number of employees,'” the report said. “He characterized them as vocal, antagonistic outliers.”

The report said the survey contradicts that explanation with the lowest possible rating being the most common response.

The authors gave added credibility to the professors’ claims, saying they saw senior leaders act in a way that reflected the “serious concerns” of faculty.

“Various forms of overt hostility and intimidation efforts were observed throughout this project, which reinforced many of the (professors’) descriptions,” the report said.

The authors said senior administrators also tried to tamper with the results of the interviews and survey. For instance, the authors said, Nashville State executives made “various attempts to surreptitiously identify” professors who talked to the authors.

When the faculty survey rolled out last fall, multiple administrators, including Van Allen, tried to access the faculty-only survey, according to the authors. Then, after the authors warned them that efforts to interfere with the survey would be “serious violations,” the administrators “ignored the survey protocols and made their own attempts to control the survey distribution.”

► Related: Read more about Tennessee Promise, the state’s free community college program

► Related: Success of TN Promise hinges on student retention

In the interview, Van Allen said he was concerned about the security of the survey and had attempted to access it to see if non-faculty members would be able to augment the results. He said he communicated with the lead researcher to express his concerns, but that he had not intended to manipulate the survey.

“I was trying to protect the integrity of the survey,” he said. “As far as I know, no administrators, including me, wanted to be associated with the survey or tried to influence the survey.”

The authors said added security measures prevented the administrators from altering the results.

Nashville State has ‘exploded into a battleground,’ according to one professor

In a letter to Nashville State faculty last week, Tristan Denley, another Board of Regents leader, said Tydings had asked Van Allen to make changes quickly to “address this situation.”

Of the 151 full-time faculty eligible to participate, 88 took the survey. Of those, 81 percent said the climate at Nashville State was negative. Nearly every professor who had been at the college for a number of years said it had gotten worse after supportive administrators had left.

Negative reactions were strongest at the main campus on White Bridge Road. While full-time faculty at satellite campuses – like the ones in Clarksville, Dickson and Antioch – also signaled their dissatisfaction with the campus climate, they generally did so at lower rates.

For instance, 84 percent of faculty at the main campus responded negatively to a question about the current climate on campus as opposed to 67 percent of faculty at satellite campuses.

The report highlights selected comments from survey takers. One professor, responding to a survey question, said “the environment has (now) exploded into a battleground of each side wanting to hurt each other, rather than actually working together towards a common good.”

Interview and survey participants pointed toward several issues that had contributed to an adversarial relationship with the administration, including abrupt policy changes and an intimidating tenure process.

Many professors described a “gotcha” leadership style that focused on catching professors breaking rules that hadn’t been publicized or discussed. 

“There is widespread recognition of open tensions between the administration and faculty,” the report said. “Interviews, supplementary materials … and our observations revealed many examples of hostilities, ranging from overt attacks to sarcastic disparagements.

” … The President and some (of) his administrators frequently engaged in these hostilities.”

Following his interview with The Tennessean, Van Allen transferred the call with a reporter to former faculty leader Flora Setayesh, who has been promoted into the administration, for an alternative perspective

She said that, while she was chair of the faculty senate, it was difficult to get professors to engage. After policy changes required professors to spend more time on campus, Setayesh said, a flood of negative feedback began.

“It was immediate,” she said. “We went from great morale. Within two, three months, morale was low.”

Sixty-five percent of respondents said they were unsatisfied or extremely unsatisfied with Van Allen. The response was more negative when it focused on his communication.

Fiscal management was recognized as Van Allen’s strength, with a majority responding positively to his leadership in that arena.

But the report’s authors suggested Van Allen’s poor communication chipped away from the success of his positive efforts.

“While even good decisions may sometimes be unpopular, the broader pattern of support across issues is a relevant indicator of leadership effectiveness,” the report said. “Even those who endorsed a decision often said that poor executive communication and an escalating climate of distrust undermined broader support.”

Denley, the Board of Regents administrator, said the changes Van Allen made at Nashville State were in line with the college system’s broader goals and his authority. But, Denley acknowledged, the way that policies were changing “has played a role in eroding the campus climate.”

Tydings, the Board of Regents chancellor, has asked Van Allen to “make definitive plans to address this situation and rebuild a relationship of trust with faculty and staff on campus,” Denley said in his letter to Nashville State faculty.

A spokesman for the Board of Regents added that Tydings wants Van Allen and Nashville State’s faculty to “work collaboratively to create and maintain a positive campus climate and to address shared campus governance, tenure and transparency in campus policy.

“That work is ongoing, and the (Board of Regents) system office will continue to play a role in producing these positive outcomes,” the spokesman said.

Van Allen said he had established working groups to establish those goals. He said morale had already begun to improve.

“I absolutely need the faculty and I need a faculty that is unencumbered by constant debate and friction,” he said. “In spite of that report, I believe the majority of faculty want what I want.”

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and atamburin@tennessean.com or on Twitter @tamburintweets.

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