The University of Akron has selected its next president: Gary Miller, a biologist and longtime university administrator who last worked as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“I have been deeply impressed throughout this process by the willingness of all of those involved to show their enormous pride in this institution and their commitment to it, while at the same time being very frank and direct with us about the challenges,” Miller said at a press conference on Aug. 14. “What most impressed me, really, was this deep sense of optimism, and I share this optimism.”
Miller’s selection is the result of a presidential search that took place entirely behind closed doors. Unlike previous searches, when the Board of Trustees invited several finalists to campus to meet the university community, the search committee signed pledges of confidentiality and said nothing publicly until the Board announced Miller’s name.
At the Aug. 14 press conference, board chair Joseph Gingo lauded the “outstanding” search process, which included representatives from the student body, faculty and staff in addition to the Board of Trustees.
“The group of candidates we had far exceeded our expectations,” he said.
But Gingo declined to give any details about candidates for the president’s job, including how many people were interviewed.
Miller added that he would not have participated in the search if it had not been so private.
Gary Miller starts this fall
Miller, when asked about the challenges UA is facing, reframed them as “opportunities that sometimes present themselves as problems.” Some of these, he said, are “faced by virtually everybody in higher education,” including demographic shifts, rising costs, the desire for academic offerings to match economic development needs, student mental health and serving students who are not typical full-time freshmen.
Miller will formally join UA in October.
Miller earned his Ph.D. in biological sciences from Mississippi State University and worked as a professor and chair of the biology department at the University of Mississippi. His credentials as an administrator include:
2002-2006: Dean of the College of the Pacific (the college of arts and sciences) within the University of the Pacific
2006-2011: Provost and vice president for academic affairs and research at Wichita State University
2011-2014: Chancellor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington
2014-present: Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
Miller’s wife, Georgia Nix Miller, has a long record in nonprofit management and service on boards. She has been CEO of the American Red Cross – San Joaquin Chapter and on the boards of the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts (N.C.) and UNC-Wilmington Women’s Studies Resource Center.
The Millers had “several opportunities” to visit Akron and said they were impressed by the arts community. Georgia said they are committed to nonprofit work and seeking opportunities for the university to work with “some of the needs in the community,” specifically mentioning public schools.
“Akron is a great American city, and it’s in a part of the country that is responding to virtually every challenge and opportunity in America today,” Miller said.
Asked about a lack of trust between the faculty and the administration, Miller said his office would “engage in intensive conversations” with local stakeholders and seek to understand their points of view.
Miller made one promise to the editor of The Buchtelite, too: “We never turn down a meeting with a student in the president’s office. I never have. Same with faculty.”
Academic reorganization could continue
Dr. John Green, who has been serving as Interim President for more than a year, released a proposal for reorganizing the university’s academic departments in March 2019. Green suggested creating a new College of Polymer, Chemical, and Biological Sciences; a new College of Engineering, Science, and Technology; and a new College of Innovation. The proposal would have dissolved the College of Applied Science and Technology.
About a week later, Green paused the reorganization effort.
Green explained on Wednesday that he paused the reorganization because faculty and staff told him that some of the problems administrators hoped to address with reorganization could be solved with much smaller changes. For example, he said, the problem of students struggling in engineering and dropping out could be solved by advisors meeting with each other to try to direct those students into other degree programs.
Green said that pause period ends in the next month. Reorganization efforts could continue at that time, even before Miller assumes the role of president.
Green said some of his proposals may have been made redundant by other fixes suggested by faculty and staff, but in other cases, “there may be a place where we’ve just got to put two units together because we can’t solve a big problem.”
Reorganization proposals from either Green or Miller will need to be approved by the Board of Trustees.
The university also needs to fill a number of dean’s chairs, including those in the Colleges of Business, Education, Health Professions and Arts and Sciences. Those schools would be largely unaffected by Green’s proposed reorganization.
Around the time Green released his reorganization proposal, the Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors surveyed the members of their bargaining unit about university leadership. Akron-AAUP says about 40% of those members responded; UA said those respondents comprise 15% of full- and part-time faculty.
Of the respondents, 95% rated Provost Rex Ramsier’s overall performance “poor” or “fair.” Green received “poor” or “fair” ratings from 72% of respondents.
The chapter shared the survey results with university leadership in the spring and made them public in early August.
In April, the university took the unconventional step of splitting the provost’s position in two. Ramsier moved into a new position, Chief Administrative Officer; and the university created an additional role, Chief Academic Officer, which was filled in the interim by Dr. Chand Midha, who had previously been dean of the Graduate School. UA has not had a provost since.
The Akron-AAUP demanded that UA put Green’s reorganization on hold until a new president had assumed office. Once a new president was named, they wanted UA to immediately begin searching for a new provost and “abandon the co-equal positions” the university had created in place of that office.
Green says the Board of Trustees needs to search for someone — but that could be either a Chief Academic Officer or a provost.
Green told The Devil Strip: “The Board has long been committed to a national search for a Chief Academic Officer… but we have to now consult with the new president and find out, ‘what kind of Chief Academic Officer do you want?’ [Does he want to] stick with the system that we’ve created, which is very unusual? Or does the new president want to go back to more of a traditional provost? We’ve really got to talk to him and figure out what he wants.”
“We will know soon,” Green added. “One thing that the board, Dr. Miller and I all agree on is, whatever it is we want, we need to get it started really soon.”
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Photos: Shane Wynn via Akronstock; Rosalie Murphy.