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Three SUNY ESF department chairs removed by president

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO News File Photo
Quentin Wheeler, president of SUNY ESF, address faculty, staff and students at a meeting in 2016.

The president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry has removed three department chairs from their positions. The professors say the change is part of a continuing feud between the president and faculty.

Donald Leopold, distinguished teaching professor and chair of Environmental and Forest Biology, said he and two other chairs were called into President Quentin Wheeler’s office last week and told their terms as chairs are up.

“He said that he has not been successful in four years here and that three of us in particular have undermined him," Leopold said. "He told not only us, but he told the entire forestry department later that day that we were saboteurs and backstabbers.”

Leopold said morale among the faculty is the lowest he has seen in his 33 years at the college.

"I busted my butt for our president to make sure he was successful," Leopold said. "There's no advantage to a president not being successful. We're not trying to be reinstated. We're not asking anybody to help us. We're all concerned about the future of this institution."

In 2016, a majority of the faculty voted no confidence in Wheeler. Last month, the Academic Governance body passed a resolution critical of Wheeler’s lack of consultation with faculty on decisions concerning the school’s academic mission.

Leopold said it’s the chair’s job to be critical of every student, faculty, staff and administrator.

“This is actually going to be very interesting because now the three of us our gone and based on what he’s told us, everything is going to get good again so we’re looking forward to that happening,” Leopold said.

Wheeler will address students during a town-hall style meeting on Thursday. He declined WRVO's request for an interview, but sent the following statement through a spokesperson:

"I understand that some concerns and many questions have arisen regarding changes announced last week in the academic and administrative leadership at ESF.
"I’d like to offer the members of the College community some explanation of the process that led to those changes and the reasons they occurred. The changes were conceptualized and put in place by members of the College leadership team in consultation with the ESF Board of Trustees.
"The most significant of those changes involve the position of chair in three academic departments. In keeping with a practice common across institutions of higher education, we are instituting a system of rotation for department chairs. The usual appointment will be for a three-year term, renewable once. This will bring new ideas to our leadership team and provide new career opportunities for our faculty. The three outgoing chairs were the ones who had been serving longest in that position.
"We are aware that many people are asking about the timing of this move. Frankly, there is no easy time to institute a new system of this sort. We made the change at the start of a semester so our faculty, staff and students would be on campus and have access to sound information. We needed the faculty on hand for consultation regarding the selection of new chairs. Had we waited until the end of the semester, many of our researchers and students would have been off campus for the summer and, perhaps, in the field and largely unreachable.
"The changes in several of our administrative departments reflect our efforts to increase enrollment, make ESF more visible and advance our mission.
"We are positioning ESF for growth and new success. Please join me as we move this great institution forward together."

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.