James S. Netherton, Carson-Newman College president since 1999, is under fire following a no-confidence vote of the faculty in October. Contributed photo.
JEFFERSON CITY - Is Carson-Newman College President James S. Netherton competent to continue leading the Baptist school?
That's the question looming before the college's Board of Trustees, with undertones of conservatives versus moderates, financial woes and an enrollment decline also in the mix.
The faculty in October cast a 129-71 no-confidence vote against Netherton, who was hired in 1999. One of his detractors described the vote as an effort by a beleaguered group to get the attention of the trustees.
Former Kingsport Mayor Jeanette Blazier and the Rev. Marvin Cameron, pastor of First Baptist Church on Church Circle, are among members of the 34-member Board of Trustees for Carson-Newman, which will meet this week in Jefferson City. They referred calls for comment to board Chairman C.T. Cozart of Chattanooga.
Netherton, Cozart and the two local trustees have indicated it is likely the trustees would not vote on the issue until a called meeting in February or March since public comment sessions like one held Jan. 4 in Kingsport are scheduled for Chattanooga and Nashville in weeks to come.
The board's self-imposed deadline is March 23, part of a process that included alumni meetings across the state.
"It is my feeling that will be done before then," Cozart said in a Wednesday phone interview. "The Executive Committee (of the trustees board) has not seen all the data. It will see that Thursday."
Cozart said it is premature to talk about what the board might or might not do since board members have not seen the bulk of the information gathered in the past few months.
The trustees will hold a regular meeting Friday following committee and subcommittee meetings today.
"The no-confidence vote is a concern about the future of the college. Are we on the right track? Are we doing the right thing?" Netherton said in a Tuesday phone interview.
"It's going to take us to March to do that," Netherton said. "We need to be careful, and we need to be deliberate."
On the other hand, Bill Fletcher, who retired from Carson-Newman as a psychology professor in 1994 after 25 years, said the board could but probably won't take action Friday.
"Whether or not a decision comes this week I think depends on the makeup of the board and whether the members have been convinced one way or the other," Fletcher said Monday.
"It could come this week," Fletcher said. "The odds are we're not going to have anything until March, unless there is some sort of crisis within the board."
Fletcher said his concern is about the effectiveness of the Netherton administration, namely Netherton and his top assistants.
Fletcher, who wrote an open letter to the trustees in support of the no-confidence vote, cited a lack of consistent raises, lack of full and adequate funding, no enrichment budget for conferences, and deterioration of campus buildings.
Fletcher also said the college has no meaningful planning process and hasn't been taking proposed budgets from department heads the past few years.
He also said the faculty was told not to talk directly with trustees and to funnel concerns through a faculty affairs committee chairman, concerns he said were rebuffed.
"The trustees weren't hearing anything except what the president told them. That's what caused this no-confidence vote," Fletcher said. "The people who were complaining were disciplined."
He said two division deans were demoted and two department chairs threatened, prompting younger faculty to leave the school.
"The major concern is whether the president is competent or incompetent," Fletcher said.
Netherton said concerns of the faculty are or will be addressed and that the number of applicants received for the fall of 2007 as of Jan. 5 was 2,400, about 250 more than that date last year. The fall enrollment was 1,900 at a school that once had 2,200, but Netherton said he'd like to see an enrollment of 2,500 in four to six years.
Also, Netherton said fund raising has been going "exceptionally well," with December 2006 alone drawing a record $5.4 million, double the $2.5 million from December 2005.
For the Aug. 1 to July 31 fiscal year ended in 2004, yearlong fund raising was $8 million, growing to $9 million in 2005 and $10 million in 2006, he said.
Netherton said part of the recent fund-raising success was support for the new business building on campus. Officials plan to break ground on that Friday afternoon.
The building will house the college's family business and entrepreneurship program, which he said is the second such program in the nation. The cost for the building and related site work is $9.5 million.
"There are some whose concern is strictly financial," Netherton said, although he said faith-based issues also are "a big concern."
Netherton has been quoted as saying that he feels led by God to be president of Carson-Newman. He confirmed the statement but said it was in the context of questions about why he wanted to stay as president rather than move on to another college.
"Ours is a faith-based institution," Netherton said. "This is not an attempt to say you ought to keep me because of that (statement)."
Another issue is the relationship between Carson-Newman and the Tennessee Baptist Convention, which currently is battling in court with Belmont University in Nashville over finances after Belmont took away the convention's trustee-appointing power.
"There is a big gap between perception and reality on how the institution and TBC got back together," Netherton said. "I came here as president (in 1999) halfway through that process."
The board in 1998 voted to break with tradition and choose its own members instead of having the convention choose them. The board reconsidered that decision and in 2000 reached an agreement with the convention in which the convention would recommend board members and the board would confirm them.
"We seek trustees that are acceptable to both."
However, Netherton said that the ultimate authority lies with the board, not the convention.
Netherton, a lifelong Baptist, is a mathematics professor who moved into administration in 1981 when he went to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, from Armstrong Atlantic State University, now Armstrong State College, in Savannah, Ga., according to information published in 1999 by the Baptist Press.
At Baylor, Netherton served as vice president and chief operating officer until 1996, when he accepted the provost position at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. Both schools "realigned" with their respective Baptist conventions during his times there.