The leadership of SEAS Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora was brought under intense scrutiny in an article in The New York Times today. The story notes the numerous resignations of department heads since his arrival, citing frustration with his direction. This semester, two letters of no confidence in the Dean—signed by the majority of tenured faculty in SEAS—have been sent to University administrators. The most recent, circulated in October, asserted that “the morale of the faculty and their trust in Dean Peña-Mora are reaching an all-time low,” and that “a quick change in leadership” was needed. The entire letter, while sent to administrators in October, was uploaded to the Times website today. The primary source of dissatisfaction is Peña-Mora’s rapid expansion of the school, whose student body has swelled in size without providing any more space for research, or appropriate increases in faculty. According to the Times:
He arrived at a time when Columbia was determined to raise the profile of its engineering school, which includes bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs. The school had fewer than 1,400 graduate students in 2005, more than 1,900 when the new dean took over, and 2,400 now. The faculty has also grown, but not as fast… Professors say that an effort to reshuffle the available space ignored their input and made matters worse.
More than anything, Peña-Mora was criticized for being unwilling to listen to criticism.
Among professors interviewed, nearly all of whom insisted on anonymity for fear of angering the administration, the most persistent criticism was that Dr. Peña-Mora simply did not listen.
“He’s a control freak, in my opinion,” said Van C. Mow, who said he stepped down as chairman of biomedical engineering because “I got tired of banging my head against the wall.”
Faculty have further suggested that the Dean’s hiring practices favor profits over academic interests. The faculty letter claimed that “candidates with impressive academic records and outstanding recommendations are discounted if their fields do not promise major funding for the school.”
Peña-Mora did not provide much comment, except to say that the culture at Columbia “takes some getting used to.” Interim Provost John Coatsworth conceded that the faculty had “perfectly legitimate concerns” and admitted that Peña-Mora had broken promises he made to them. Coatsworth does not believe these problems are sufficient grounds for dismissing the Dean.
The article also reiterates the Times’ pressing (and inexplicable) need to exploit the racial undertones of the story, suggesting that the only reason PrezBo is keeping him around is because Peña-Mora, who hails from the Dominican Republic, would be the third high-profile minority administrator to step down this year.
When Dr. Peña-Mora was hired, it was the third time in quick succession that the university had filled a high-ranking post with the first minority member to hold that job. That fact drew considerable attention, especially in light of Mr. Bollinger’s national reputation as an advocate of ethnic diversity and affirmative action.
The first two of those appointees, both African-Americans, have left in the last six months: Claude M. Steele, who was provost, departed in June to become dean of Stanford University’s School of Education, and Michele M. Moody-Adams, the dean of Columbia College, quit her administrative post in frustration as school began but remains on the faculty. Some professors speculate that Mr. Bollinger is standing by Dr. Peña-Mora in part out of fear of criticism from minority communities.
Coatsworth dismissed such claims as insulting to those involved, and Peña-Mora declined to comment on the issue.