Questions persist among college community over rationale for removing School of Business dean

Some faculty and students have objected to Denise Rotondo’s removal as dean of the School of Business. As more information arises,  there has been discussion of further mediation through the SUNY Faculty Senate or a vote of no confidence. (Annalee Bainnson/Photo Editor)

The decision in early January to remove Denise Rotondo as the dean of the School of Business has continued to raise concerns among faculty and students. 

President Denise Battles has expressed an unwillingness to speak about the reasoning for Rotondo’s removal, as she states an interest in maintaining Rotondo’s privacy. 

“I don’t know that there’s a mandated policy [on keeping personnel matters confidential] but it’s certainly been my practice and, to my mind, it’s showing deference and respect to the colleague,” Battles said. “Dr. Rotondo is not going to be serving as dean anymore, but she has moved back and is a valued member of our faculty, and so this is a continuing colleague. If I were in her position, I would have a reasonable expectation that the situation would be dealt with privately and confidentially, and so that’s the perspective I bring to that.” 

Faculty and students in the School of Business have expressed dismay at the decision. Some faculty members felt that Battles has not successively communicated why Rotondo was removed from the position or where the School of Business is heading in the future, according to associate professor of accounting Richard Gifford. 

“In a situation where you’ve got about 1,000 students and some pretty active professors, I think they deserve some information, because we were working along a strategic plan with a vision and a mission,” Gifford said. “My perception—and everything I say is my opinion—is that the management did something really stupid. They didn’t do anything about it, they let it ride and fester … when you don’t communicate, rumors fester.”

One rumor that has persisted since Rotondo’s firing is that Vice President for College Advancement K. Johnson Bowles participated in the decision to remove Rotondo, according to a Jan. 25 article from The Lamron.  Although she alleges that the college threatened her employment, Rotondo indicated in an e-mail to The Lamron on the record that Bowles was present in the meeting when she was removed.

“I will confirm that Provost Robertson asked me to meet with her on January 3. When I walked into her office, I saw the President and Johnson Bowles in the room. I did not report to Johnson Bowles. I reported to the Provost,” Rotondo said in the e-mail. 

“During the meeting, Bowles made statements that were material to the topic of discussion, but inaccurate, in my judgment … I want to emphasize that my dismissal as dean was not the result of any illegal, unethical, or immoral act on my part … The college has, in no uncertain terms, threatened my employment if I speak out,” Rotondo continued in the email. 

Battles met with faculty from the School of Business on Monday Feb. 12 for the first time since she made the decision to talk about their concerns, according to Gifford. The meeting was not scheduled earlier because of the confusion over the leadership in the School of Business, Battles said. 

The original plan that the Office of the Provost set out would result in a permanent replacement for Rotondo by the 2019-20 academic year, according to a Jan. 25 article from The Lamron. While that plan is subject to change, Interim Associate Provost for Personnel and Diversity Kenneth Kallio indicated that the search for a new dean of the School of Business has not yet begun.  

In the meeting with School of Business faculty, Battles said that the search would not commence until it was guaranteed the faculty would not try to reinstate Rotondo, according to Kallio.

“I believe that is her position,” Kallio said. “It’s a sensible position because if you’re going to invest significantly in doing a search, you don’t want that search to fail because it’s being undermined by people who are not ready to accept the idea that there’ll be a new dean.” 

Beyond the continued discussion since Rotondo’s removal as dean, there has been increased conversation about why she was dismissed. 

A letter sent from professor of accounting in the School of Business Harry Howe to Battles on Sep. 11, 2017 alleges that Battles accused the dean of “engineering” a vote of no confidence and that Battles then considered removing Rotondo. The letter was signed by eight School of Business faculty members. 

Four of the signatories also serve on committees in the college governance structure. The senior faculty who signed the letter confirmed that they had not heard any communication from Rotondo regarding a “collective displeasure in [Battles’] leadership.” 

“We believe that a decision to remove this Dean would cause serious and material harm to the College, to the School of Business and to the students we serve,” the letter said. “We respectfully ask that you disavow any intent to remove our Dean.” 

When asked for comment on the existence of the letter, Media Relations Director David Irwin responded via email confirming the letter and the conversation between Rotondo and Battles, but alleged that the faculty misunderstood the situation. 

“That conversation included multiple topics, and the letter sought to follow-up on that meeting,” Irwin said. “However, none of the faculty who authored the letter were present at that meeting and, evidently, received inaccurate information about its content. President [Battles] has consistently indicated her desire to maintain confidentiality around this personnel matter and will continue that practice by not disclosing the details of her private conversation with Dr. Rotondo.” 

Although Howe admitted that he was not in the September meeting between Battles and Rotondo, he felt that the letter’s interpretation of the conversation was correct since Rotondo provided an account of it. 

“[Rotondo] told us [about the conversation] and I believe her,” Howe said. “If you have a situation where one person says X and one person says Y, you have to go on the knowledge you have about how truthful, forthcoming and believable the individuals are. In a heartbeat, I’d believe Denise Rotondo.” 

Gifford feels that Battles merely postponed her decision to dismiss Rotondo until it was harder for people to respond. 

“People disagree a lot, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that she was canned the first week of January,” Gifford said. “The second time it happened, it happened over [winter] break, so there could be no response. I think it’s like the Friday afternoon announcements in Washington D.C. that just come out without people to respond.” 

There was some discussion about drafting a vote of no confidence regarding Battles for the college community to participate in at the Jan. 30 meeting of the College Senate Executive Committee, according to Chair of the College Senate Executive Committee and associate professor of biology Duane McPherson. The Executive Committee decided against holding a vote of no confidence in the College Senate due to a lack of clarity on the situation, McPherson said. 

“If people don’t know what the issue is about, then having a vote about it isn’t very productive,” McPherson said. “This doesn’t preclude that from happening in the future, but we judged that this was a time that wouldn’t be appropriate.”

The process behind staging a vote of no confidence is not entirely straightforward, according to McPherson. Since the SUNY Board of Trustees appoints the president of each college, a College Senate vote is not binding, McPherson said. Although the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry faculty voted that they did not have confidence in their president in 2016, he has not been removed yet, according to McPherson. 

The SUNY University Faculty Senate Governance Handbook recommends a series of procedures that colleges should initiate if a significant conflict between the campus governing structures and the administration occurs. The first step that the handbook recommends is consultation, wherein two or three consultants appointed by the college’s president work with the SUNY Faculty Senate and represent the college’s stakeholders there. 

If consultation fails or if the situation is deemed too severe to wait, the handbook recommends visitation, wherein the SUNY Faculty Senate will create a committee to visit the campus and speak to stakeholders pursuant to a resolution. 

McPherson expressed interest in following these recommended actions before proceeding to a vote of no confidence. 

“I’d much rather not go to the vote of no confidence,” McPherson said. “We’re fortunate to have a system that can help us out a bit, if there’s a lot of conflict. I’d prefer to not go to the most extreme position until everything else has been exhausted.” 

Gifford emphasized that the decision to remove Rotondo has caused him to be warier toward the administration. 

“We may be able to move ahead, but the issue is that there’s a lot of distrust there,” Gifford said. “I learned that the only thing that matters when you distrust someone is what they do, so that’s what we have to watch going forward.”