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Stephens steps down upon Ogles’ request
University investigation concluded he verbally harassed female faculty member
For the fifth time since 2001, Ohio University is searching for a new chairman of the Department of African American Studies.
University officials confirmed yesterday that department chairman Ronald Stephens has resigned after an internal investigation concluded he verbally harassed one of the department’s faculty members.
The investigation noted a history of unprofessional and uncivil interactions between Stephens and the faculty member.
Stephens took over as the department head in 2008 and earns $90,900 a year.
But in November, a female faculty member accused Stephens of calling her an “enemy” at a 2009 staff retreat and taking a number of other hostile actions toward her.
On February 1, OU’s Office of Institutional Equity concluded that Stephens’ conduct was out of line. Two weeks later, Stephens had resigned.
“I asked Ron Stephens to step down,” said Ben Ogles, dean of OU’s College of Arts and Sciences, which includes the African American Studies department, in a statement yesterday.
“There were no other disciplinary actions taken against him, and he remains a respected member of our faculty,” he said.
But, Ogles’ decision to ask for Stephens’ resignation has come under fire from educators across the state.
University records show that the dean has received letters from African American studies professors at various other universities lobbying on behalf of Stephens.
However, Ogles’ statement gave no indication that reinstating Stephens is on the table.
“The College of Arts and Sciences is in the process of identifying an interim chair and will likely have someone in place by the end of May,” Ogles said.
And although he declined to be interviewed, Stephens said he has stepped aside and looks forward to working with whoever is named interim chairman.
“It is my belief that the department must move forward and allow the soon-to-be interim chair the opportunity to lead the department into the 21st century,” Stephens said in an email to The Post yesterday.
“Verbally abusive, threatening and intimidating”
On November 3, OU’s Office of Institutional Equity and Human Resources departments received a complaint from a female faculty member regarding a clash that took place between Stephens and herself during spring 2009.
According to the complaint, Stephens shouted at her, called her his “enemy” and criticized those unsupportive of his leadership during a faculty retreat held last spring.
Bickering between the two continued throughout the remainder of the spring and into this fall, according to the investigation.
University investigators interviewed seven former and current African American Studies faculty members, and while they agreed the complainant was also at fault, they described Stephens as “disorganized,” “emotional” and “unable to respond rationally when he is angry.”
“Based on the evidence gathered, we concluded that there is sufficient evidence to support the allegation of verbal harassment,” wrote Laura Myers, executive director of the Office of Institutional Equity, and Brenda Noftz, manager of employee relations and academic liaison, in their Feb. 4 letter to Stephens disclosing the investigation’s findings.
“There is additional evidence of unprofessional and uncivil conduct and disruption that merits intervention by the Dean’s office,” they wrote.
Stephens was then asked by Ogles to step down as department chair, and on Feb. 15, he filed his letter of resignation.
“I have few regrets and I have great satisfaction of having served the Department, College and University,” Stephens wrote.
The Department has accomplished much in a short time span, despite the repeated personal attacks, oppositions, obstacles, petty bickering and disagreements I have received and encountered during department meetings along the way.”
“An unfortunate mistake”
Although there was no public announcement of Stephens’ resignation, it wasn’t long before word got out to African American Studies educators across the Midwest.
Just two days after he stepped down, Ogles began receiving letters in support of Stephens.
“This concerns me greatly,” wrote Judson Jeffries, a professor of African American and African Studies at Ohio State University.
“Dr. Stephens breathed new life into a department that for many years lay moribund in the pantheon of Africana Studies,” he said.
Jefferies credited Stephens with forging a new partnership between the African American Studies departments at OU and OSU.
Other supporters spoke of Stephens’ contributions to the National Council for Black Studies and praised his plans for new programs at OU.
“His plans to expand local history research in the Athens area would seem to have the potential to enrich contemporary dialogues about ‘multi-racialism,’” wrote James Stewart, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University’s Greater Allegheny campus and past president of the council.
“I see these ventures as exciting and will clearly be jeopardized without Dr. Stephens in the position of chair.”
In total, Ogles received at least four separate pleas from colleagues who testified Stephens should retain his position.
“I cannot believe that Dr. Stephens would do anything that could be interpreted as detrimental,” wrote H.E. Newsum, chairman of OSU’s African American studies department.
“I can only assume that his dismissal is an unfortunate mistake.”
Lack of accountability
In his resignation letter, Stephens cites a history of conflict and a clash between him and one specific faculty member as the cause of much of the tension.
“Because there is a history of conflict and dissent in the department ... and because I am somehow at the center of the current dissent … I am resigning as chair,” reads the opening of his letter.
Later in the three-page resignation letter, Stephens writes that many of the personal attacks he believes hindered his effectiveness as department chairman stem from one particular faculty member.
“The pattern of personal attacks from one particular faculty member with absolutely no academic training in the discipline have made it very difficult for me to carry forward my academic agenda for the department …” he wrote.
Despite this, the two annual evaluations of Stephens completed by Ogles were overwhelmingly positive.
In 2009, Ogles praised his contributions to the department’s 40-year anniversary celebration. Last year, the dean praised Stephens’ dedication and commitment.
“I am pleased with your service as chair during the past year, and thank you for your dedication and commitment while facing significant challenges. (i.e., budget cuts, transition to semesters, etc.),” Ogles wrote in July 2010.
“I appreciate your persistence on these projects in spite of the internal difficulties that are evident in the department.”
But, this year’s faculty evaluations of Stephens’ leadership show discontent fairly wide spread among the relatively small department.
Five of the eight evaluations specifically cited a lack of accountability and leadership from Stephens. The average score respondents gave Stephens for “leading, initiating, planning and motivating” was a 5.06 out of 10. The average score he received for “managing conflict” was a 3.03 out of 10.
“Sadly, I believe Dr. Stephens has caused much of the conflict in our department,” wrote one faculty member.
When an interim department chairman is named next month, he or she will be the fifth leader of the nine-professor department since 2001.
Stephens has held the post for about three years but was the second choice in OU’s most recent search for a department head.
On March 2, 2007, OU named Harvard-educated historian Thelma Wills Foote department chairwoman.
But just 12 days later, facing allegations she had lied on her resume and cover letter about co-authoring a book, Foote withdrew her application and the search was back on.
A year later, Stephens was offered the position.