It won’t matter who you talk to throughout the halls of Old Main, if you ask whether Abbey Zink is still employed at the university, the answer is, “That’s a personnel matter.”
The phrase has become the standard answer from the university’s human resources office, Communication Officer Robert King and the president’s chief of staff since April 7 – three days after her announced replacement.
While Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law does provide numerous exemptions to what is public record, state employee information including name, job title and salary is not exempt. And despite its claims that the university cannot share any information about personnel matters, the university publishes a quarterly document that lists all hirings, retirements, resignations and terminations to the Council of Trustees that is made available to everyone.
The university has yet to say why this time, talk of employee status is handled differently than before. A year ago, when a Slippery Rock University custodial worker was charged with assaulting another employee, not only did King confirm the employee was still working for the university, but that it was conducting a personnel investigation as well.
With a feeling the university is lacking transparency surrounding how Zink was replaced, along with equity concerns at SRU, some faculty are speaking up, voicing their concerns to the university’s president and Trustees in a letter sent last week.
Both SRU’s President William Behre and Council of Trustees received the letter in an email dated April 8, which was signed by Cindy LaCom, director of the Gender Studies Program.
The letter included 20 additional faculty and staff signatures and 10 other faculty who wished to remain anonymous and not sign, out of fear of retaliation, according to LaCom.
The Rocket received a copy of the letter but, only LaCom’s name is on the document provided.
While LaCom and the others explicitly cite numerous concerns about alleged institutional misogyny and imbalance with administrative appointments, it was the uncertainty of Zink’s status and “no clear communication” on the matter that became the catalyst for the letter’s creation.
“[Zink’s] literal erasure in the announcement Monday afternoon is an insult to her work at SRU and is troubling at many levels,” the letter reads. “As is the lack of transparency by our administration regarding the circumstances around her sudden removal.”
Behre notified only faculty and staff in a two-sentence afternoon email April 4. The email makes no mention of Zink while announcing Michael Zieg as interim provost.
Additionally, Behre asks those on the email to join him in “thanking Michael for lending his skills and knowledge to this vital role.” Zink’s name was never mentioned.
Responding back to the letter, Behre pointed out as he has expanded his cabinet, it has stayed diverse. Today, the president’s cabinet includes four women, two African-American men and a Persian-American man.
“I have intentionally focused on not only the expansion of the cabinet but also the inclusion of more minority and women’s voices,” Behre said in his response.
A day later, Zink released a statement to The Rocket.
“It’s been an honor and pleasure to serve the students, faculty and staff at Slippery Rock University,” Zink said. “I’ve worked daily to live my mantra of ‘Students First. Always’ and to foster an inclusive environment where all may thrive and all voices are heard.”
This week, Zink added to that statement wishing the students, staff and faculty at SRU well.
“I’ve been lifted by how many have reached out and appreciate all of the support,” Zink said.
When Zink joined SRU in December 2019, Behre cited her track record “in building and supporting partnerships” as what the university was looking for in a provost.
The April 8 letter to Behre also highlighted Zink’s successes during a challenging tenure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the creation of three-credit diversity, equity and inclusion requirement for all undergraduate students. That requirement will begin this fall.
Along with the pandemic, LaCom points out the university’s work culture can be challenging for women, no matter their position. A survey conducted by the President’s Commission on Women last fall was able to shed light on gender issues along with other studies by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF).
But the commission has not publicly released the results of that survey.
What LaCom and the other signers of the letter want to see from the administration moving forward is better transparency around how administrative hires and promotions are decided as they tend to favor white, male candidates over women and people of color.
When he arrived to SRU, zero of the university’s four colleges had women leading them, Behre said. Since then, only two dean positions have opened up during his tenure. In June, women will fill those positions.
A review of administrator and management appointments announced, through human resource documents provided to the Council of Trustees, that 10 men had been appointed to administrative appointments over almost two years. During that same period, 11 women were appointed as well.
The documents provided to the Council do not disclose racial information.
While the letter points out Zieg, who is white, was tapped to replace Zink, it specifies the observation is a critique of the process and not him personally.
Behre concedes the process for appointing people into interim or acting positions is not perfect and something he will continue to assess.
“While I believe that my administration has made significant strides in fostering diversity in management positions, there is still work to be done,” Behre told the letter writers.
Part of improving that process includes inviting ideas and conversation surrounding the search process for permanent positions.
“I am open to your ideas,” Behre said.
In talking with The Rocket last week, Zieg said he has dived right into the new role, making sure deans and faculties have what they need as registration for the upcoming summer and fall semesters are underway. He is committed to SRU, Zieg said.
Stepping into the role in the middle of the semester, Zieg would not comment on why he was asked to replace Zink, but added the university has been supportive.
“The entire administration is committed to student success first,” Zieg said.
Grant Warmbein, vice president of student and academic affairs for the Slippery Rock Student Government Association (SRSGA) had been working with Zink throughout the year on a few initiatives, including the creation of Wellness Week, an event put on around campus similar to the staycation of last year’s cancelled spring break. Despite the change up at provost, Warmbein said the proposal is still on track.