In an exclusive statement to The Rocket, former Slippery Rock University Provost Abbey Zink said she was fired in retaliation for taking multiple university concerns about President William Behre to the chief of the Council of Trustees, after months of inaction.
“To put it bluntly, I was removed as provost as retaliation for blowing the whistle and voicing serious concerns on behalf of students, faculty and staff, as was my duty,” Zink said.
Zink’s letter can be found in full at the end of this article.
Zink said she has remained mostly silent over the past month while the university worked to determine her employment status, which has been contested by the former administrator.
Now, Zink said she wants to “salvage” her reputation before more harm can be done, due to the lack of transparency surrounding her removal.
“I stayed quiet for a month in hopes better selves emerged, cooler heads prevail,” Zink told The Rocket in a phone call. “This is a very emotional overreaction from the administration.”
The events, which have taken place over the previous month, culminated on April 25 and April 26 when Zink first offered her resignation to Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Chancellor Dan Greenstein as provost, avoiding the options presented to her by Behre.
The resignation was done under duress, Zink said.
The next day, she received an email from the university’s human resources department with a one-page termination letter, authored and signed by Behre.
In that letter, provided to The Rocket by Zink, the president refused to accept Zink’s resignation, choosing instead to terminate her “service from the University (sic) effective immediately.” The letter only references her position as provost and does not address her professorship.
“This action is necessitated by my loss of confidence in your ability to lead your division,” Behre wrote. “Additionally, I have lost trust in your ability to act in a senior management role, as indicated by your recent actions of forwarding/copying (sic) an internal management communication to local union leadership.”
According to Zink, she doesn’t know what the president is referencing with regard to forwarding emails to union leaders and was given no explanation.
Behre’s reasons included the statement that Zink communicated “personnel complaints outside of appropriate channels,” and had been previously counseled to not do so.
Zink said she believes this is a reference to a request for an investigation of an amorous relationship she sent to the chair of the Council of Trustees, Matt Lautman. After that, Behre told Zink in an email to stop contacting Lautman, she said.
“Accordingly, I do not accept your letter of resignation, dated April 25, 2022,” Behre said, in the first paragraph of his letter.
‘Arbitrary and capricious’
To further complicate the matter, along with serving as provost, Zink was given a tenured professorship in the then-named English department when she signed her offer of employment in December 2019. In the fall of 2021, Zink spent a couple of weeks covering a course as an English department member.
In the resignation letter that she sent to the chancellor, Zink said she was looking forward to serving the university, faculty and staff as a professor.
According to Zink’s statement, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) has taken up her cause, filing a grievance on her behalf.
But Behre and the university contend that her tenure ended with her removal as provost, despite the university never going through the process laid out in the contract agreement with faculty.
Jason Hilton, the SRU-APSCUF president, said he could not discuss any specific incident but would talk about how the collective bargaining agreement affects tenured professors and the process for termination.
While that process varies depending on the circumstances of why a professor with tenure would be removed, the professor must be given just cause, be informed of any investigation and the evidence supporting the administration’s claims, be afforded representation from APSCUF and be able to defend themselves.
Hilton added that there is no mechanism that would allow the university to remove a professor’s tenure, whether earned during their time as faculty or a part of their administrative employment offer.
For Zink, the issue of her tenure should be viewed as a warning to others with similar arrangements with PASSHE universities.
“This issue is bigger than I and should concern every externally hired provost and dean in PASSHE,” Zink wrote. “If the tenure that I clearly was granted at hire isn’t recognized, then theirs likely won’t either.
“In fact, if tenure can be removed in an arbitrary and capricious manner, then all tenured faculty who rely on it for their job security should be concerned.”
‘A matter of dispute’
The situation surrounding Zink’s employment began on April 4. That afternoon, Zink was meeting with a PASSHE investigator as a witness when she was asked by Chief Human Resources Officer Lynne Motyl to stop by her office afterward. Zink said she could not disclose the nature of her meeting with the investigator.
SRU officials, including both Zink and Amir Mohammadi, vice president for administration, global engagement and economic development, previously met with members of CliftonLarsenAllen. They were the audit firm contracted by PASSHE looking into Mohammadi’s allegations of budgetary misstatements in the Comprehensive Planning Process (CPP) document submitted to PASSHE, as well as the estimates with the engineering program.
“There was a lack of integrity in presenting numbers and lack of plans for educating students,” Mohammadi said.
Zink echoed similar concerns as Mohammadi, first to Behre, then later, Lautman in early March, she said.
“I elevated concerns related to whether we were doing our best – not the bare minimum or temporary patches – to serve students and to solve these issues,” Zink said.
‘The bare minimum and temporary patches’
When it came to the engineering department, Zink said she was concerned that temporary labs, which were to be completed by this past fall, had yet to be fully up and running by the spring semester.
Last week, the university presented its plan for the next set of more permanent engineering labs that will be established in the Advanced Technology and Science Hall (ATS) and Vincent Science Center by fall 2023. This year, the university has spent nearly $1 million on lab equipment for the engineering department as well.
Right now, all four of the department’s programs – mechanical, civil, industrial and petroleum and gas engineering – will be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
While Zink was concerned with the extra fees paid by students for their engineering courses and not having the proper labs and support, Mohammadi raised his concerns about how the university represented funding the department and projections related to the programs’ potential success.
So far, the university has confirmed 18 students will be a part of the freshman civil engineering class, while 22 will account for mechanical engineering this upcoming fall. Petroleum and gas will have four freshmen and industrial will only add two this year.
Behre was asked by the Trustees if the latter programs would possibly see a teach out – freezing new admissions to those programs while it is phased out – which he stated would not be happening now, but left open the possibility of having that conversation in the future.
‘Students First. Always.’
After her meeting, around 3:30 p.m. on April 4, Zink went up to Motyl’s office on the second floor of Old Main. Inside, Motyl, Behre and two envelopes were waiting for her. Behre then told Zink she was being removed as provost and given two options – be terminated for cause or agree to a special settlement where she would stay on as Special Assistant to the President before resigning at the end of June.
The agreement, drafted by the university and PASSHE without input from Zink, also asked her to waive her right to any future claims against the university and state system.
Zink asked for union representation since she also held a tenured professor position and was denied. Wanting time for her attorney to review the documents, she refused to sign anything, asking to be placed in a faculty position in the languages, literatures, cultures and writing department, formerly the English department. The university refused, telling Zink she was not a tenured faculty member anymore, she said.
Her removal as provost and vice president of academic affairs came as a shock to Zink. Just months prior, Behre was praising her hard work.
“I received a stellar annual review in February 2022 and had no indication that my removal was coming,” Zink wrote in her statement.
The Rocket was provided a copy of that review that was dated Feb. 1. In it, Behre wrote that the past year for Zink was a “success,” while highlighting numerous achievements. He also showed concern for Zink’s health, due to limited staffing at the provost’s and dean’s offices, asking that she aim to hire and fill positions “as quickly as practical.”
“I believe that you have a bright future in higher education and would hate to see you burn out due to short staffing,” Behre wrote.
The day after being told about her removal, Motyl emailed Zink telling her she had until the end of the day on April 6 to confirm that she was going to accept Behre’s offer of “temporary assignment with resignation,” even though the settlement paperwork and federal Age Discrimination and Employment Act afforded her 21 days to respond.
It was at this point that Zink’s Pittsburgh-based lawyer, James Lieber, of Lieber, Hammer, Huber and Paul, reached out, challenging the university’s demand that Zink respond right away through such a “coercive separation email.” An attorney representing PASSHE and the university conceded that day Zink would have 21 days to respond.
While Zink was supposed to be given work to do remotely during this time, as she weighed the options before her, nothing was assigned to her, she said. Days later, on April 12, the university placed her on unpaid administrative leave, Zink said.
While Zink and her lawyer were trying to negotiate with PASSHE, the state system and SRU were getting the final results of the investigation that was kicked off by Mohammadi’s allegations.
On April 18, SRU was notified that the investigation was complete, according to Behre. Two days later, at 8 a.m., Behre sent out an email notifying staff and faculty that Mohammadi’s position was terminated. Fifteen minutes later, Behre visited him in his office and told Mohammadi the news.
Through a public records request, The Rocket obtained a copy of Mohammadi’s termination letter. Besides the first line announcing his termination and final paragraph asking Mohammadi to vacate his office and that his benefits will end that day, the rest of the body text is redacted.
The Rocket has appealed the exemption that the university cited but no further action has been taken.
On April 22, two days after Mohammadi claimed he was fired for being a whistleblower, Lieber reached back out to PASSHE’s attorney to see if the university would reconsider its position that if Zink were to settle with the university, she would have to give up her tenure. This would keep Zink at SRU as a member of the languages, literatures, cultures and writing department.
“It is difficult to deal with your separation offer to Dr. Zink because it is in my view illegal,” Lieber wrote. “As it stands, your offer is certainly a lose-lose for both parties.
“I ask that your client move back from its unjustified, vindictive position and look to the well-being of the university, the system and of all of its academic personnel as well as my client.”
SRU and PASSHE never responded to the letter from April 22, as the events of April 25 and 26 played out, Zink said.
Since their removals, both Zink and Mohammadi have taken slightly different approaches to telling the public their story and demanding answers from the university.
Mohammadi is still waiting to learn the results of PASSHE’s investigation and wants to see the report made public.
“With patience, mulberry leaves become silk,” Mohammadi said. “The truth will be revealed and I will have a lot to say rather shortly.
“And all those misleading [statements] and lack of integrity will be revealed in numbers.”
For Zink, she fell into this limbo regarding her removal and faculty status because of how she approached her work and asked the tough questions, she said.
“I was removed as provost because I did my job and lived my mantra [of] students first, always,” Zink said in her statement.
While she is just trying to minimize the damage to her reputation, she is not trying to cause additional harm, Zink said.
“I have no interest in harming the university,” Zink said. “I don’t want to do anything to harm the students, staff and faculty.”
The Rocket reached out to Behre, Motyl and Robb King, chief communication and public affairs officer at SRU, along with Kevin Hensil, director of media relations at PASSHE. Both institutions said they do not comment on personnel matters, “as explained in previous inquiries.”
The Rocket also reached out to Lautman. He did not respond prior to publication.
Editor’s note: We are republishing this letter in its entirety, with no edits made to the statement.
ZINK’S FULL STATEMENT:
Like so many in this region, I was raised in a culture of integrity, service, and accountability. Many have asked why I haven’t said more about this situation over the last month. Regretfully and reluctantly, we’ve reached a point where I now must provide context to try to minimize the damage to my professional reputation, which I’ve worked hard to build over decades.
Whether I am a Slippery Rock University employee is, unfortunately, a matter of dispute, although it shouldn’t be. I am grateful that APSCUF has filed a grievance on my behalf. When hired as provost, I was also hired with tenure as a Professor of English after a tenure vote was taken by the English Department. I also covered a course in Fall 2021 for a couple weeks as an English Department member.
In accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, when removed as provost, I should have assumed my tenured position in the English Department, where there are several open positions. The SRU administration, for whatever reason, has a different perspective. This issue is bigger than I and should concern every externally hired provost and dean in PASSHE. If the tenure that I clearly was granted at hire isn’t recognized, then theirs likely won’t be either. That’s scary for folks who have uprooted their lives and given up tenure at their previous institutions to join PASSHE and serve as administrators (with tenure granted at the time of hire). In fact, if tenure can be removed in an arbitrary and capricious manner, then all tenured faculty who rely on it for job security should be concerned.
I was removed as provost because I did my job and lived my mantra: “Students first. Always.” I value transparency, integrity, and accountability above all else. I also value input from students, faculty, staff, and community members. I was—and continue to be—concerned about the lack of transparency and of true, meaningful involvement of key campus and community stakeholders.
After many attempts to address serious issues in cabinet and/or in private conversations with the president and other cabinet members, I did my duty as provost and vice president for academic affairs. I elevated concerns related to whether we were doing our best—not the bare minimum or temporary patches—to serve students and to solve these issues. Some of my concerns include whether mechanical and civil engineering students, who pay an extra fee for engineering courses, will get the labs and other support that they need to compete effectively in the workplace. Additionally, I voiced concerns about the accuracy of critical numbers presented to PASSHE and the Council of Trustees used for decision-making and planning. I also urged a full investigation of persistent and pervasive rumors about a potential violation of the PASSHE amorous relationship policy at a high level of the university. None of these concerns were well received.
I take my responsibilities very seriously. To put it bluntly, I was removed as provost as retaliation for blowing the whistle and voicing serious concerns on behalf of students, faculty, and staff, as was my duty. I asked the kinds of questions and raised the kinds of issues expected of provosts. These questions and concerns may be uncomfortable for some, but they are expected of high-level cabinet members.
As public servants and university administrators, we are stewards of public funds and of public trust. As a first-generation student, I know how hard families work to pay tuition. I also know how hard it is for an institution to earn and maintain trust over time. We have an ethical responsibility to give students and their families our best every day. Campuses like SRU are integral partners in helping students and their families achieve the American Dream. There is no higher calling.
I received a stellar annual review in February 2022 and had no indication that my removal was coming. The way that the SRU administration and PASSHE have handled this situation may affect my career prospects. I only can speculate that harming the professional reputation that I’ve built over decades was the intended goal. Unfortunately, the actions taken against me may also serve to silence others in the university community.
I want to thank the many students, faculty, and staff for their encouragement over the past several weeks. I’ve been lifted by their calls and messages and humbled by their expressions of support. I also want to thank the community of Slippery Rock, where we live, for being so welcoming. It truly is a wonderful place to live.