Oakland U Campus Revolt as Board Creates High-Pay Executive Job for Crony

November 11, 2015, 8:36 AM

Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years, earning numerous awards. He is a contributor to Deadline Detroit.

By Chad Selweski

In a move that reflects their controversial penchant for secrecy, the Oakland University Board of Trustees has created a $325,000-a-year executive position at OU, without any public input, and instantly awarded the job to one of their own without considering other candidates for the post.

The new position of chief operating officer is filled by Scott Kunselman, who resigned from OU's board Oct. 26 and is retiring from his senior vice president position at Fiat Chrysler – at age 52 -- in order to free himself up for the job created by his colleagues.  He has no experience in academia other than four years as an OU trustee, yet he apparently has the No. 2 position of authority on campus.

Oakland professors appear nearly ready to revolt over the move, though they have no power to reverse the decision. The national president of the professors’ labor union called the sudden developments at OU “outrageous” and a crass violation of professional standards.

Detroit News editorial Wednesday says: "The timing of the appointment is suspect. . . . The university should have followed standard procedure and launched a national search for candidates to fill the position." 

The mood on the Rochester Hills campus regarding this embrace of favoritism by the eight-member board is one of suspicion and anger. Critics say it appears that the trustees may want to marginalize OU administrators and the university president, George Hynd -- who just took over in 2014 -- and further reduce the faculty’s role in managing OU academic departments.

“This was out of the blue. . . . From my vantage point, this is such cronyism,” says Karen Miller, a longtime history professor. “We’re suddenly told that we need this position. Some of the faculty are very angry. . . . They’re dumbfounded.”

OU's board met Tuesday and Hynd is scheduled to deliver a presidential address Wednesday.

Yet, Hynd’s embrace of the board’s unprecedented shift toward another layer of OU bureaucracy – with a rearrangement of “duties and tasks” -- causes some professors facing high anxiety to wonder if  the president is transitioning toward the status of a traveling salesman, seeking contributions from OU alumni and additional funding from Washington and Lansing.

“The establishment of this position represents a further step forward toward empowering the creative energies that helped form our strategic plan and achieving what we expect from a preeminent university,” Hynd said in an email message.

Years of Skepticism

With turmoil brewing on campus and concerns that Oakland has dented its reputation, the OU trustees have already faced years of skepticism as they serve as standoffish political appointees of the governor who enjoy considerable corporate and political connections.

The move toward this expensive, radically different structure in OU management comes after students were hit with the largest tuition hike in Michigan, an 8.9 percent increase earlier this year -- about 13 percent for those in certain fields of study. At the same time, the university in recent years has dramatically upped its number of administrative vice presidents to eight.

Yet, the new bureaucratic layer created by the COO position, including support staff, was originated and filled before the board had specifically outlined Kunselman’s specific duties and responsibilities. Some professors say the college has created an unaccountable “golden parachute” system for key authorities in the OU family.

In any event, OU has created a substantially clean slate for its COO and one that fits neatly into the corporate mentality of the board majority.

Oakland has engaged in a building boom with six construction projects recently completed while the bidding competition was dampened in a closed-door process until final approval.

One $77-million project calls for a 750-bed student housing facility in an on-campus dormitory that might be run by a private company, despite warnings by a university vice president against such a public-private partnership, which he said might add millions of dollars to OU expenses over the next three decades. OU could become the first college in Michigan to engage in such an unusual arrangement.

Other proposals under consideration by the Oakland board feature an expanded student center run by a private company and senior housing constructed on-campus that would be privately operated and would cater to retired OU alumni.

Information Blackout

The 20,700 students and the faculty at Oakland remain largely in the dark about this entire progression toward potential company-run facilities on campus. The Oakland administration and the board, especially board Chairman Mark Schlussel, remain tight-lipped about future plans.

What’s more, the strict top-down, hierarchical private-sector approach toward managing the university stands in stark contrast to the modern horizontal, flexible approach toward corporate management that is taught at the OU School of Business.

In addition, some faculty insist that the hiring of Kunselman as COO represents a direct violation of the university’s conflict of interest policy, established last year. OU rules require a broad, diverse search when filling employment positions -- from administrators to faculty to clerical workers.

One other aspect of this story that remains shrouded in darkness: Did the OU trustees consider Kunselman’s last acts under Fiat Chrysler before they handed him this lucrative job?

After spending his entire career in the auto industry at Chrysler, Kunselman rose to a new corporate position, vice president of safety  and regulatory affairs, and quickly found himself embroiled in  controversies regarding Chrysler’s handling of two dozen vehicle recalls.

In the end, Kunselman negotiated a settlement with the federal government in July – a massive, $105 million corporate fine for wrongdoing.

Leave a Comment:

Photo Of The Day