Almost a year after Department of Mathematics head Irena Swanson reduced professor Harold Donnelly’s pay to $0, a 32-professor majority of the math department’s 42 tenured professors approved a motion of no confidence against her.
Only four professors voted against.
This comes after multiple department members’ failed attempts to reach Swanson, according to Laszlo Lempert, a math professor familiar with the matter.
“A colleague called the case ‘a festering wound in the department’,” Lempert wrote in an email.
Donnelly had been in back-and-forth talks with Swanson over the last three years in what former Department Head Leonard Lipshitz called “a Byzantine” process, referring to the convoluted bureaucracy of the department.
However, talks between the two halted after Donnelly’s pay was reduced to $0 in May 2022 after Donnelly “failed to establish” he had done any work required of a faculty member, according to previous Exponent reporting.
Donnelly has not had any significant contact with the department head since, Lipshitz said, despite having an office in the Mathematical Sciences Building.
Instead, multiple members of the department began to advocate for Donnelly’s reinstatement, beginning with a 16-member committee forming immediately after Donnelly’s pay dock and later, a group of about 30 professors arguing for his reinstatement.
In a letter sent Nov. 11 to then-dean and now-Provost Patrick Wolfe, 33 professors argued for Donnelly’s reinstatement.
“Even if one were to agree with the Head’s assertions of shortcomings of Professor Donnelly’s teaching, they do not amount to anything near to what would have triggered such measures in the past,” the letter reads.
The professors in the letter wrote that the teaching and research demands Swanson put on Donnelly “had never been applied to any other faculty member.”
“The undersigned regard these measures as an attack on tenure,” the letter reads. “The measures have the potential to erode our long cherished climate of collegiality within the department and will have a negative impact on morale.”
The letter was sent after Swanson rejected a proposal of seven 400- to 500-level courses that Donnelly felt comfortable teaching, sent by the committee representing him.
In the past, Donnelly performed much better in upper level courses, according to previous Exponent reporting. In his 2018 MA 511 class for example, he received an average 4.1 out of 5 in the instructor-related evaluation questions.
The list included some courses that aren’t “particularly high on the wish list” for most faculty, according to the letter. Along with the list, Donnelly included a write-up on each course and his experiences and thoughts with the subject matters in each one.
However, Swanson rejected the proposal “without discussion” and reiterated the importance that Donnelly teach undergraduate courses, particularly MA 262.
MA 262, Linear Algebra and Equations, was described by Lipshitz as a “rather awkward, perhaps even ugly,” course. Many faculty members, including Donnelly, have encountered issues teaching the class.
“(Swanson) explained that it is important that Professor Donnelly be ready to teach not just upper and graduate-level courses, and that previous department heads in the subgroup would understand this,” the November letter reads.
“The previous heads did not understand this.”
Both Lipshitz and Lempert, who provided comments and documentation of the back-and-forth in the math department, are former department heads.
“I do not think Donnelly was treated fairly,” Lipshitz wrote. “Reducing his salary and benefits to zero is tantamount to dismissal.”
The professors in the letter argue that plans to double the number of teaching faculty in 2023, as well as a long standing practice of assigning faculty to courses they’re best suited to teach, made prioritization of undergraduate courses “obsolete.”
“In light of all of this,” the letter reads, “we cannot but think that (Swanson’s) new requirement is designed to reach a foregone conclusion in Professor Donnelly’s case.”
The primary concern for the 33 professors who advocated on Donnelly’s behalf is the repercussions Swanson’s actions may have on tenure.
Throughout the November letter, a meeting in December, the letter of no-confidence against Swanson and a March meeting, the issue of tenure was brought up.
Firing a tenured professor comes from the top. To be fired, a professor must have shown “proven incompetence, gross neglect of duty, moral turpitude or improper conduct injurious to the welfare of the university,” per the university guidelines.
Whatever the reason, the university president must initiate the firing process, which kicks off a chain of committee hearings to ultimately decide if the professor deserves to be fired.
Purdue’s hiring and pay policies on the other hand may vary between departments, but in the College of Science, power is concentrated with department heads.
Despite that, the yearly exercise of deciding faculty pay was quiet in the math department. This period was always referred to as “raise time,” Lempert said, because it only existed to determine whether faculty members would receive raises or not.
“I am not aware that salaries have decreased in the Department ever before,” he wrote, echoing what he said during his time as department head before his retirement in 2007.
Lowering pay is so irregular that both professors believe the department got around firing Donnelly by docking his pay.
“In Donnelly’s case, he was first removed from teaching, then his salary and benefits were cut too,” Lempert said. “This is very close to dismissal of a tenured faculty and should never be done by administrative fiat.”
Lipshitz concurred, saying the move is “tantamount to dismissal.”
In a University Senate meeting in February, Purdue responded to an administrative question regarding pay reductions.
“In an exceedingly rare case where a faculty member is unwilling to engage in any research, teaching or service activities, Purdue may choose to pursue attempts at corrective and remedial action to allow the faculty member to resume reasonable faculty duties,” Wolfe wrote in reply.
“Should such comprehensive corrective efforts fail, Purdue may consider reducing a faculty member’s salary to reflect the amount of effort they are extending.”
However, Lempert, Lipshitz and the 33 signers of the November letter agree Donnelly was set up to fail. In a meeting the following month, they made their feelings known.
In response to the November letter, Wolfe committed to attending a mathematics faculty meeting on Dec. 8.
He was not present.
Instead, associate dean for faculty affairs Lucy Flesch and associate provost Peter Hollenbeck attended the meeting in Wolfe’s stead, in which “almost nothing was achieved,” according to an email a colleague of Donnelly sent him after the meeting.
In a positive development for Donnelly, Swanson confirmed his tenure was no longer in danger.
Apparently, Swanson and Wolfe had rescinded a threat to his tenure made at a meeting in August. But Lempert, who attended the August meeting, said he had no recollection of this ever being decided.
“I did not remember that this was decided, nor did other participants I asked remember it,” he said. “But it sounded like a positive development, so the only question that we had was whether between August and December this new circumstance had been communicated to Donnelly.
“It was not.”
In fact, Donnelly never received any communication from the administrators, despite them promising to send it to him at the end of the meeting.
With no word from Swanson or Wolfe, the math department officially held a Zoom meeting on Jan. 30, where every tenured professor, save Donnelly and Swanson, was invited. With 40 professors in total, the group resolved they no longer had confidence in Swanson’s “ability to lead the department.”
Over 30 professors voted in favor of the resolution, with only four voting against and the rest abstaining.
“Overall, she failed to see the damage that her course of action would cause to the trust between faculty and head, to collegiality in the department, to the reputation of the department and potentially to the institution of tenure,” the letter sent to Swanson following the vote reads.
The letter goes on to read that Swanson failed to listen to staff members attempting to mediate the situation, reading she perceived their actions, “as an attempt by a few to undermine her authority.”
It didn’t take long for Swanson to reply. After acting Dean Jean Chmielewski and Flesch said they and the university have full trust in her, Swanson sent an email to voting faculty that she will continue serving as head.
“As you can imagine, morale has suffered greatly,” Lempert wrote.
Since then, only one faculty meeting has happened. In March, Swanson once again fielded questions from disgruntled professors and answered why Donnelly had never been sent the promised letter about the December meeting, where it was confirmed that his tenure was safe.
“The Head stated that Dean Wolfe vetoed the withdrawal of that sentence,” Lempert wrote. “This was so inconsistent with earlier statements that we now no longer know what to believe and whom to believe.”
Neither Wolfe, Swanson nor Donnelly responded to a request for comment.
As for the math department, Lempert claimed he was not aware of any meaningful communication still going on between Swanson and the department.
“It is an impossible situation,” Lempert wrote, “when the majority of a department concludes they can no longer trust the leadership abilities of their appointed head.”