Goodbye, Columbus 

Gee's aggressive pursuit of top minority official ruffles feathers

Gee's aggressive pursuit of top minority official ruffles feathers

Last week, Chancellor-elect E. Gordon Gee proudly announced the hiring of David Williams as Vanderbilt’s new vice chancellor, general counsel, and secretary. Previously dean of student affairs at Ohio State University, the well-regarded Williams not only has impressive credentials as an administrator, he also happens to be black. For a private Southern school with a historically erratic commitment to diversity, that’s no small point. In fact, Williams’ new post makes him the highest-ranking African American official in the long history of the university.

But while few people have criticized the hiring of Williams, some faculty members question what it took to bring him here. Gee worked with Williams when Gee was president of Ohio State. And this spring when Gee was recruiting Williams for Vanderbilt, he sought a tenured position at the university’s prestigious law school for his former colleague as an added inducement.

As a tenured law professor, Williams gains status and job security—should he lose his administrative job, the university still would have to pay him as a law professor.

Williams did hold a similar position with Ohio State’s less-esteemed law program. But a few Vandy law professors expressed concern that Williams, a graduate of the University of Detroit School of Law, was simply not qualified to be considered for a tenured position at Vanderbilt.

The chancellor thought otherwise. In April, he sent Kent Syverud, the well-liked dean of the law school, a surprisingly direct e-mail requesting a tenured appointment for Williams.

Gee didn’t mention Williams’ record as a law professor, but praised his reputation as an administrator and noted that ”it would take nothing less than a tenured position“ to lure him to Vanderbilt. The chancellor added that he has a ”personal commitment to diversity,“ and as such, Williams would make an ”excellent appointment.“

In the e-mail, Gee acknowledged that he was asking a lot of the dean. ”You have explained to me how seriously the law faculty takes both the process and standards for tenured appointments, and that this is an unusual case given the practice in the university,“ he wrote. ”I thought hard before asking for your support, because I believe this kind of request should be made only in rare instances.... Do know that I will be deeply grateful for your faculty’s consideration and am hopeful that its decision will be a positive one.“

But the law school’s five-member Faculty Selection Committee, which reviews all tenured appointments, didn’t take Gee’s request seriously. Normally, faculty members conduct a rigorous evaluation before awarding tenure. They meet with the candidates, review their teaching record, research their published work, and submit it to peer review. The committee didn’t do that with Williams, however. They simply referred the nomination back to the dean.

”They made a statement. They said, ‘Williams is not our candidate,’ “ one professor says. ”The committee felt this was purely political,“ added another faculty member. ”They did not want to dirty themselves.“

As a result, Dean Syverud was placed in a rather uncomfortable position. He had to ask the school’s 24 tenured law professors to vote on whether to grant tenure to Williams—without the recommendation of the selection committee. And the faculty had to make this decision without ever meeting the candidate or studying his published work. According to one longtime law professor, that has never happened since he’s been at Vanderbilt.

Much like the smaller selection committee, Vanderbilt’s tenured law faculty wouldn’t vote to grant Williams tenure. Instead, in a deft maneuver worthy of the politics of the situation, the professors voted to allow the dean ”the discretion to offer Williams any position up to and including tenure in order to recruit him to Vanderbilt.“

While some might see that vote as passing the buck, others say the faculty didn’t want to explicitly deny Williams tenure and risk damaging their dean politically.

”We had the very real sense of just how much Vanderbilt wanted this guy,“ one faculty member says.

Shortly afterward, the dean gave Williams tenure. While some suggest he was uncomfortable doing so, he seems to have no second thoughts.

”This was a good appointment. There was principled discussion of this and for good reason. People talked about their concerns, and they honestly expressed their views,“ Syverud says. ”The consensus of the faculty as best I can say was that this was an important appointment not just for the law school, but the university and the new chancellor.“

Of course, the dean’s implicit admission that the law school granted Williams tenure, in part at least, to help the chancellor, is bothering some faculty members. ”You don’t fill up tenured posts by granting tenure to administrators,“ one professor says. ”The award of academic tenure is serious. It is an academic process based exclusively on academic standards.“

Williams’ hiring may provoke concern for other reasons. Although the chancellor assured faculty members in an e-mail that he would conduct a nationwide search for the vacant vice chancellor’s position, Williams was the only candidate interviewed, according to school spokesman Mike Schoenfeld. Ironically, even though Williams is black, Gee’s narrow search would at the very least seem to violate the spirit of the school’s affirmative-action policy, which emphasizes interviewing a diverse range of candidates for upper-level positions.

In addition, while Williams will serve as the university’s chief legal officer, his record as a practicing lawyer is rather thin. His only stint as a working attorney was 16 years ago when he briefly served as a supervising tax specialist for an accounting firm. Also, while he worked at Ohio State for the last 14 years, he’s not a member of the bar association in that state.

Schoenfeld, however, says Williams will serve more as a senior adviser than a courtroom attorney. ”Being a practicing lawyer is not necessarily a prerequisite to being a general counsel,“ he says. ”What’s more important is that he understands how the legal work gets done.“

That may well be true, but considering the controversy that accompanied Williams’ recruitment, his every shortcoming, perceived or otherwise, may well draw scrutiny.

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