Willihnganz stepping down as U of L provost

Andrew Wolfson

Shirley Willihnganz, who dramatically increased the University of Louisville's graduation rate during 13 years as provost — but was criticized for defending notorious Education school Dean Robert Felner — is stepping down as U of L's second-ranking official.

Willihnganz, who is also the university's executive vice president, told faculty and staff in an email Wednesday that she will serve until June 30, then return to teaching in 2016 after a sabbatical.

She is paid $342,694 but will return at a lesser salary that hasn't been set, said university spokesman Mark Hebert.

In her email to colleagues, Willihnganz, 62, didn't explain her departure, saying only that it is time for a change.

U of L said the move was voluntary and Hebert said it was unrelated to allegations made by former Human Resources Vice President Sam Connally, who was fired in December and whose claims against the provost were deemed unfounded by an outside investigator.

President James Ramsey said in a statement that Willihnganz's leadership had been vital to the university's academic improvement.

In a news release, the university said that she had overseen a 60 percent increase in student graduation rates and that since she was appointed in 2004, after serving three years as acting provost, the university has produced more Fulbright scholars than any other college or university.

Willihnganz said in her email that it was her "joy and honor" to be part of the transformation of U of L "from a very good urban school to a nationally recognized metropolitan research university."

U of L is tied for 161st in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of top national universities, up from 191st when Willihnganz began her tenure.

Under her watch, however, university employees have stole, misspent or mishandled at least $7.6 million in schemes at the health science campus, the law school, the business school and the athletic department's ticket office.

Willihnganz also was criticized for approving about $1 million in buyouts for former high-ranking employees, some of which included agreements not to disparage the university or its leaders.

She also was forced to apologize to faculty in 2008 for failing to act against Felner, the education dean, despite more than 30 grievances and complaints that he had intimidated, harassed, humiliated and retaliated against faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Willihnganz said at the time that she tended to dismiss the early complaints against Felner — including a no-confidence vote by faculty — because he was a "high performer" and because the complaints came from professors and staff "entrenched in their ways and resistant to change."

She later told faculty at a meeting that she was sorry. "Mostly what I think I want to say is people have been hurt and something very bad happened, and as provost I feel like I am ultimately responsible for that," she said.

Felner was sentenced in 2010 to 63 months in federal prison for taking $2.3 million from U of L and the University of Rhode Island.

E. Wayne Ross a former chair of teaching and learning in the education school who now teaches at the University of British Columbia, said in an email that Willihnganz's decision to hire Felner — despite red flags in his past — and later to defend him "says much about the lack of accountability for decision-making at U of L."

Ross also said the damage done to the university's reputation "was not merely the result of Felner's felonious activities and generally abusive treatment of staff and faculty, but can also be laid in some measure at the feet of Dr. Willihnganz and President Ramsey."

Willihnganz said in an email Wednesday that the Felner episode was her biggest regret.

"Looking back, there were signs of trouble that we missed," she said. "To this day I regret that we didn't act quickly enough to prevent some of the damage caused by his actions."

She said she is most proud of working with Ramsey to increase what were "abysmal" graduation rates when they came to the school in 2002.

The fact that we "graduate an additional 1,000 students each year during a time of repeated state budget cuts is something that all our faculty and staff should celebrate even as we push to do better," she said.

The provost manages the day-to-day and long-term operation of the university, provides leadership for the academic and business sides of the university, advises the president and acts as president when he is gone.

A tenured professor of communication, Willihnganz joined the faculty in 1985. Prior to serving as provost, she had been acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Department of Communication.

As provost, she led the university through a voluntary retirement program the school said would save $2.5 million and led the "21st Century initiative," an effort to focus on the university's strengths and implement efficiencies to position it to better serve its students in the coming decades.

She also oversaw the growth of U of L business ventures designed to raise revenue to replace money lost through state budget cuts.

"Dr. Willihnganz has contributed so much to the success we've had," Ramsey said in his statement. "Her leadership has been vital to our academic improvement, and her dedication to our students, faculty and staff is unsurpassed. I am sorry to see her leave the leadership team, but our students will benefit from her return to the classroom."

Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 582-7189