by Sarah Handyside, March 19th, 2021
Klamath Falls, Ore.—Oregon Tech’s Faculty Senate voted on Tuesday to call for university President Nagi Naganathan’s resignation.
During Naganathan’s nearly four years as President of Oregon Tech, Faculty Senate say he has disregarded university policy, changed policies without faculty input, excluded Faculty Senate from decision-making processes and irresponsibly managed Oregon Tech’s resources. These grievances, outlined in a Faculty Senate Executive Committee report, have led to historically low faculty morale and culminated in a loss of confidence in the President’s leadership.
Addressing Faculty Senate Tuesday, President Naganathan called the resolution a “smear campaign” and said it put the name and reputation of Oregon Tech at stake.
“What’s happening is a classic tragedy, a solution looking for a problem,” the President said. “And it is my nature that I will not and cannot stand by quietly just to watch a handful of people inject so much unrest and angst and jeopardize the reputation of the university.”
If President Naganathan chooses not to resign, Faculty Senate will conduct a vote of No Confidence among all full-time faculty at Oregon Tech and the results will go to the Oregon Tech Board of Trustees, who have the power to remove Naganathan.
The Straw the Broke the Camel’s Back
President Naganathan intends to move his office from Snell Hall into an 1,800 square foot space in the new Center for Excellence in Engineering & Technology (CEET) building under construction on the Klamath Falls Campus. Faculty Senate members condemn the move, saying the space should be devoted to students.
According to the 2018 CEET Visioning Report, that space was intended as an entrepreneurial lab for student collaboration. It was to be named “The Garage: The Centre for Entrepreneurship & Innovation” as an homage to the many Silicon Valley success stories that began in garages.
“The idea was that the space would be open to all students from all majors and they could use it to work together on projects like the Catalyze Klamath competition,” said Sandra Bailey, Professor of Business Management and Accounting.
Faculty Senate President Don McDonnell said classroom and lab space are commodities on the Klamath Falls campus, which makes the loss of space deeply concerning.
In a 2018 press release about the CEET building, President Naganathan said, that helping students become high-caliber professionals “requires that we invest in state-of-the art laboratory equipment, in modernizing classrooms, and in thoughtfully created collaborative spaces.”
The March 16 Senate Executive report calls the office move a clear departure from the vision and defined purpose of the CEET building, and a February 21 Senate resolution said if Naganathan follows through with the plan, “he is not fit to continue to serve as our President.”
But according to McDonnell, Naganathan’s decision to move his office into the CEET building was not the sole catalyst behind the call for his resignation. Rather, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Senate Executive report cited Naganathan’s plan to move to the CEET building as just one instance of his disregard for shared governance.
The 1,800 square foot space “was re-appropriated without the input of faculty or the Facilities Planning Commission,” the Senate report says.
President Naganathan told Faculty Senate his move to the CEET building would be good for fundraising because the building would impress potential donors. Naganathan also said the coming renovation of Boivin Hall, a $20 million project slated to begin in June, would cause “a lot of musical chairs” and that his move to the CEET building would save money by preventing him having to rent office space in town.
Disregard for University Policy
Disregard for shared governance is just one category of grievances listed in the Senate Executive Committee report. Another is President Naganathan’s “disregard of existing Oregon Tech policies and the editing of policies without Senate approval.”
Oregon Tech’s policy on Academic Rank and Tenure for Unclassified Administrators, which applies to the university president, states that “OIT does no grant tenure to non-teaching administrators.” Despite this policy, and despite never having taught at Oregon tech, President Naganathan was granted tenure immediately upon hire.
“The process of getting tenure usually takes about 5 years, during which you demonstrate that you’re a good fit for the university,” said Kari Lundgren, Associate Professor of Communication. “Tenure shouldn’t just be a perk that’s given to recruit someone.”
In addition to disregarding university policies, the Senate Executive report says President Naganathan has changed them without faculty input.
An unfair labor practices complaint made August 10, 2020, by Oregon Tech’s Faculty Union, OT-AAUP, said Oregon Tech made unlawful unilateral changes to workload guidelines and attempted to eliminate the stipend/release program that compensates program directors for non-instructional work.
Oregon Tech faculty unionized in 2018, forming OT-AAUP, the Oregon Tech branch of the American Association of University Professors. Since OT-AAUP was the exclusive bargaining representative of Oregon Tech faculty and instructors at the time, changes to workload and stipend/release policies should have been negotiated through them.
On October 28th, 2020, Oregon’s Employment Relations Board ruled in favor of OT-AAUP, ordering Oregon Tech to cease and desist making unilateral changes, reinstate the status quo on stipend and release, and pay back stipends including 9% interest.
Irresponsible Fiscal Management
The Senate Executive Committee Report also listed irresponsible management of Oregon Tech’s fiscal resources as motivation for demanding Naganathan’s resignation.
Oregon Tech’s Faculty Compensation Policy says faculty should receive an annual 2% wage increase called a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). Oregon Tech salary data shows faculty received a 2% COLA in February of 2019 but have not received one for two years since. However, between 2018 and 2020, administrator salaries increased from $8.1 million to $9.6 million, an increase of 18.7%.
During contract negotiations, OT-AAUP proposed retroactive COLAs as well as a $2.5 million salary increase in 2021, and similar increases in 2022 and 2023. The total for all 3 years would add up to about $9 million.
Sean St. Clair, President of OT-AAUP, said in a March 12 press release, “To put it simply, our faculty have been underpaid for years. Our compensation proposal is simply closing the gap between what our faculty earn and what our faculty peers earn at other institutions.”
According to the Senate report, faculty salaries at Oregon Tech are below 87.5% of market salary rate.
On March 10th, Oregon Tech’s bargaining team declared an impasse in negotiations, calling the faculty union’s compensation proposal “unrealistic” and “out of bounds.” They said retroactive COLAs and salary increases would result in a budget deficit for the university and a tuition increase for students.
Oregon Tech receives about 40% of its funding from the state of Oregon. According to the Senate report, state funding increased $1.37 million and overall revenue increased $4.94 million between 2019 and 2020. Oregon Tech’s 2020 Financial Report says that although COVID-19 has significantly impacted Oregon’s budget, the state has so far avoided significant reductions in funding for higher education, including for Oregon Tech. However, the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 are yet unknown and reductions to the state’s budget are predicted for 2021-23.
The other 60% of Oregon Tech’s funding comes from student tuition and donors. According to the university’s 2020 Financial Report, the freshman class of fall 2019 was the largest since the 1980s and freshman enrollment for 2020 was on track to near double-digit growth despite COVID-19. The report says tuition rates increased 5% for the 2020-2021 academic year.
“When our own sister universities are struggling, we are doing well,” President Naganathan said. “This is not by accident. This is because of the positive, bold and confident leadership at Oregon Tech.”
However, Oregon Tech’s 2018-2019 Budget Recommendation shows a deficit of $2,185,968. According to the Senate report, increases in administrative positions and salaries during that period amounted to roughly $2,000,000.
“Compensation is not the biggest issue,” Lundgren said. “But I think it’s important that they should at least be transparent and fair rather than giving a lot of messaging that says faculty should stop complaining and be grateful… and then turning around and giving 12 administrators as much money as we’re asking for 158 faculty. That seems very disingenuous to me. I think if we’re tightening belts, we should be tightening belts.”
In February 2021, Oregon Tech’s Faculty Senate Executive Committee launched a survey to gauge faculty’s confidence and satisfaction with university leadership. More than 50% of those polled reported extreme dissatisfaction with President Naganathan’s leadership, with 47% saying they’re not at all confident in senior administration’s ability to make the right decisions for Oregon Tech. The survey also showed 49% of respondents were dissatisfied with Oregon Tech as a place of work. Of those polled, 86% reported feeling burnt out at work “sometimes, half the time or most of the time.”
“And I hear people saying things like they’re sleeping two hours a night because of the stress,” Lundgren said. “Ultimately, an employer is not responsible for people’s sleep habits, but I wish that they would demonstrate leadership. It’s more than just sending out an email that says ‘It’s self-care month.’ It should really be, ‘And here are the concrete things we’re doing to make it so that you don’t have to worry as much. We are going to assure you of health insurance of this kind, and you’re not going to have annual performance evaluations this year…’ They’re not doing any of those things, and I wish they would make concrete gestures towards morale.”
Addressing Faculty Senate, President Naganathan implied that his leadership is not the real problem, that faculty unionization and the resulting change in Faculty Senate’s role are significant contributors to low morale.
“There appears to be a lot of misunderstanding about the role of the faculty Senate even among the senators,” Naganathan said Tuesday. “Ever since I came here, some of you have asked me, ‘How do you interpret shared governance?’ And I have been very consistent. It’s about engaging faculty, staff and students. Our academic mission is going to need more attention than ever with the changing landscape. To remain competitive, faculty roles have to shift, administrator roles have to shift, staff roles have to shift.”
“What I would use as a measuring stick on this,” McDonnell said, “is that it was pre-COVID that the faculty, as much as we didn’t want to unionize, started the unionization process. So that is indicative of low morale and dissatisfaction with leadership.”
The numbers from February’s survey echo those from an April 2020 Faculty Welfare survey that revealed 77% of faculty “always, often or sometimes” feel pressured to teach extra courses and that 84% of faculty “always, often or sometimes” experience burnout at work.
McDonnell said, “Just last week, in three days, I had six faculty that I crossed paths with—and I did not solicit anything—and six faculty said, ‘I’ve got a bailout plan or I’ve got a plan B.’ And I’m talking about faculty that have been here anywhere from seven years to nearly 30 years. And this shows the professional nature of our faculty in that most students aren’t aware. I tell my students just about every lecture, ‘This is my favorite part of my day. The reason I come here is for you.’ And it’s very disheartening to not want to come to work anymore.”
“I had a Vietnamese student come to me one day,” McDonnell continued, “and we were talking about the differences in our cultures, and he says, ‘Why is it, Don, that people in America, they criticize teachers? In Vietnam, I looked at my teachers like they were my uncles and I treated them with the highest respect. And that’s the way our culture is.’ And I said, I wish I could answer that for you.”
President Naganathan declined to be interviewed for this story.