Arts and sciences professors at the Rutgers University campus at Camden asked campus chancellor Antonio D. Tillis to a meeting Wednesday to explain the sudden firing of their dean, Howard Marchitello, last month.
Answers were in short supply, with Tillis saying he could not directly address a private personnel matter. Tillis did say that the timing of Marchitello’s departure would allow the new interim dean, a nursing professor who teaches mostly outside of the Camden College of Arts and Sciences but who is associated with its childhood studies program and serves as associate provost of undergraduate education and research, “an opportunity to adjust to the role” before the spring semester. Tillis also said he regretted the “misstep” of failing to anticipate the “unintended repercussions of that decision.”
The latter comment elicited some incredulous guffaws from those present, as it’s highly unusual to fire a dean, especially a popular one, in the middle of a semester for no clear reason.
Prior to the meeting with Tillis, multiple faculty members said they suspected Marchitello had been fired for criticizing the university’s handling of a controversial pay equity adjustment program, in which Camden professors recently got initial adjustments that were smaller than those of their counterparts on other campuses. One in five Camden professors who applied got nothing. The program was supposed to make salaries more equitable not only across gender and racial lines, but also across the three Rutgers campuses, and the payouts at Camden relative to Newark and New Brunswick added to long-simmering faculty concerns about Camden being underfunded and undervalued.
According to the Rutgers faculty union, which is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, the average pay adjustment was 25 percent for Newark professors, 13 percent for New Brunswick professors and 7 percent for Camden professors. In dollars, the average equity increase was $22,805 in Newark, $17,483 in New Brunswick and $6,554 in Camden. Median salaries for arts and sciences faculty members, meanwhile, are lowest at Camden, starting at about $77,000 for assistant professors.
Marchitello, who will return to the Camden English faculty on Nov. 15 after three years as dean, declined an interview request. But multiple faculty members say that he held a faculty forum about the pay equity program last month, during which he said he shared faculty concerns about the distribution of resources across the Rutgers campuses. Marchitello is also said to have told professors after his termination that he’d been warned by the chancellor, via Camden’s provost, not to talk about the program at all.
Marchitello did confirm in an email to professors that stepping down was not his choice. “My involuntary departure is in plain fact a removal from this office, on orders from Chancellor Tillis and delivered to me not by the chancellor himself,” but by Camden’s provost, Marchitello wrote in that email. “I would never willingly walk away from the responsibilities to all of you that I have taken on and sought to fulfill with all my energy and fortitude and conviction. I have embraced this work as seriously and with as deep a commitment as I have any in my professional life.”
Lorraine Minnite, chair of public policy and administration, told Tillis Wednesday, “I’m having a very hard time sitting here listening to this, because we invited you here to provide an explanation for what is not simply a misstep. It’s an injury.”
Minnite took issue with some of Tillis’s other comments, as well, which she and others said seemed to indirectly disapprove of Marchitello’s performance. Tillis said, for instance, that all deans undergo an annual performance review, that Camden College of Arts and Sciences tuition revenue fell 20 percent this year due to decreased enrollment, and that the college suffers from a “lack of new academic programs and concentrations” as compared to local competitor institutions.
“The bottom line is we are being outpaced in the market for new transfer and continuing students and we need to imagine new programs and new certificates that will excite students about Rutgers Camden,” Tillis said at one point. “Once a new dean is in place, we must develop a vision for the [college] that aligns with the strategic priorities and value propositions of Rutgers Camden and Rutgers writ large,” one built on “innovation” and “action.”
Minnite argued that Tillis seemed to “implicate [Marchitello], as if he’s involved in some kind of shady malfeasance, when in fact, when you talk about what your vision is, that is exactly what [Marchitello’s] vision was.” Minnite said her department offers numerous revenue-generating programs that it could easily expand, had it the faculty numbers to do so.
Other faculty members agreed that Marchitello had been a champion of faculty-backed curricular innovation during his three years as dean. Some also bristled at the idea that a dean would have to complete a formal performance review at all during a pandemic that affected the Rutgers campuses differently in terms of enrollment, due in part to where they’re located.
Bill FitzGerald, associate professor of English and president of the college’s Faculty Senate, which called the meeting, said, “You can be forgiven for thinking that [Marchitello] was doing a good, excellent job as our dean under extraordinary circumstances,” namely COVID-19 and racial and economic reckonings. Closer to home, FitzGerald said, “austerity measures have put us effectively in receivership.”
In the end, the meeting seemed only to increase tensions between the campus’s largest faculty body and the new chancellor, who started at Camden this summer. The meeting didn’t shed any more light on the university’s handling of the pay equity program, either, although Rutgers has previously said that it distributed $1.2 million in the first round of adjustments, based on a “detailed analysis of relevant work-related factors for each person who requested a review, to determine if they are being paid on an equitable basis.”
Daniel Cook, professor of childhood studies, said following the meeting that it represented an “amazing and unprecedented display of unity on the part of faculty, staff and students.” It’s “unfortunate that the occasion was prompted by the undeserved and irresponsible firing” of Marchitello, he added.
Regarding Tillis’s vision for the future of the college, Cook said the chancellor would have found a “more receptive audience to his message had he called such a meeting weeks ago, prior to fomenting a tense, skeptical and oppositional atmosphere. A vital aspect of trust has been severed before it had a chance to grow, and it will take significant effort at transparency and collaboration to begin to repair.”
Camden announced the appointment of a search committee for a new dean prior to Tillis’s meeting with the faculty. A new dean is expected to begin next academic year.