Steinmetz abruptly quits as chancellor at Arkansas

Social media photos reported, while outsider in conservative state bemoans loss of civil debate

June 21, 2021
Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus
Source: iStock

Joseph Steinmetz has abruptly resigned as chancellor of the University of Arkansas after five years leading his state’s biggest campus, following controversies centring on race and alleged inappropriate social media posts.

Dr Steinmetz, a 66-year-old former Ohio State University provost and long-time professor of psychology at Indiana University, agreed to leave after a hastily arranged emergency session of the Arkansas board of trustees.

The meeting was called shortly after a local television station said it asked the university about postings on Twitter showing photos of a person that the station said appeared to be the chancellor.

Dr Steinmetz issued a statement and spoke with media outlets to discuss his time at Arkansas and his departure, but declined to directly address the photos. A university spokesman, however, denied that Dr Steinmetz was in the photos and suggested they were computerised manipulations.

The chancellor also had been battling controversies over civil rights issues, including the fate of a statue on campus of US senator J. William Fulbright, founder of the international fellowship programme bearing his name and a staunch opponent of racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dr Steinmetz proposed relocating the statue on campus, as an attempted compromise between state lawmakers who wanted it to remain and a committee of faculty, students and alumni who wanted it gone entirely.

The suggestion upset both sides, and Dr Steinmetz expressed frustration with the apparent inability of competing factions on and around the Fayetteville campus to have civil discussions of such matters.

“I still strongly believe in the mission of higher education,” the departing chancellor said in his outgoing message to the Arkansas community. “Yet given the many challenges found trying to manage a university in today’s polarised society, I need to do what’s best for my family and I feel ready to make way for others.”

Dr Steinmetz, a native of Michigan, was the first Arkansas chancellor without previous ties to the flagship university of the politically conservative state.

He had been “considering resigning for some time in light of the difficult environment that he referred to in his resignation announcement”, said the university spokesman.

The experience he describes bears similarities to recent and ongoing cases such as F. King Alexander, who left Louisiana State University after six years of confronting what he regarded as racially problematic and anti-education attitudes; and Boise State University’s president, Marlene Tromp, who continues to negotiate persistent political antagonisms in Idaho.

Dr Steinmetz agreed to leave his $714,000 (£515,000) post after an hour-long meeting of Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas system, and the 10-member board of trustees.

The university then issued a statement crediting Dr Steinmetz with record gains in areas that included a first-year retention rate of 85 per cent, a six-year graduation rate of 68 per cent, and an average freshmen grade point average of 3.75.

The university also said it completed a fundraising campaign that amassed nearly $1.5 billion, and expects this autumn its largest enrolment ever.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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