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Hope keeps music probe private

Critics asked for more transparency

By Sarah Leach

Sentinel Staff 616-546-4278

HOLLAND — Despite heavy criticism for a lack of transparency in its handling of a controversial personnel matter late last year, Hope College said it will not disclose any information regarding an independent review it ordered into its own processes.

In January, the college announced that nearly 20 music educators were affected after a widesweeping, nine- month investigation into the department resulted in multiple departures and dismissals.

The investigation sparked several demands from faculty, community members and students asking for more information and better communication from the college — prompting a student protest in November.

Hope spokesperson Jennifer Fellinger confirmed to The Sentinel on Feb. 1 that the board of trustees, during its January meeting, approved an outside review by an independent party.

“ There is optimism from the college leadership that this review will be a productive exercise,” Fellinger wrote in an email.“ The administrative council and the board of trustees share confidence that Provost Cady Short-Thompson and other academic administrators acted with fairness and integrity and that the investigations into Dr. Richmond and Dr. Hodson followed the policies and procedures of Hope College and the faculty handbook.”

President Dennis Voskuil, in a letter to The Sentinel, said the review will be coordinated through the Office of the President and the Academic Committee of the Board of Trustees, and will be conducted “by an independent third party that has experience in higher education employment and handbook matters, and has no affiliation with the college.”

When asked who was conducting the external review, Fellinger said “ the board of trustees will not be publicly sharing the name of the independent third party that they engage to conduct the review.”

The groups most critical of the college’s handling of

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the personnel matter cited Hope’s lack of transparency as their greatest concern.

“As it stands now, Hope College is being cast in a very unfavorable light and is perceived by many as overly secretive and uncaring, putting political matters ahead of academic excellence and fairness,” one group of community members wrote to Voskuil over the summer. The letter, penned by David Walter, David and Barbara Schmitt, and Ron and Pam Brown, was signed by 33 signatories — many of them alumni.

After learning the college was not disclosing details, the group submitted a response via email to The Sentinel.

“ We do not understand the secrecy about the investigators. What is the point of hiding who it is?” David Walter wrote on behalf of the group. “ How can they expect to regain any trust if they continue to do their best to keep the community in the dark?

“Hope College may have its own campus, but they are here only because of the goodwill of the community and are, like all citizens, part of thewhole and must expect to act as responsible citizens. If almost any other company or institution had acted this way, the uproar would have been deafening.”

One prominent voice calling for “ a thorough, impartial and independent investigation” was former Professor Brad Richmond, one of the affected music faculty.

“ I continue to believe that trust in Hope College cannot be rebuilt without a thorough and independent review. Anything less — i.e., an investigation that looks at process but not facts — is simply window dressing,” he said Friday, after learning of the college’s statements.

Students also have demanded answers.

“ Despite attempts to convey our concerns to her from both alumni and current students, the provost has not heard our concerns nor answered our questions honestly,” several music students wrote in an open letter published in The Sentinel on Jan. 7, saying the college “has been disingenuous with their responses to our concerns.”

Fellinger did not respond directly when asked if the college intended to disclose any information regarding the review’s findings, only saying “( the board) will determine next steps after receiving the findings.”

The target date for completion of the review is early May, when the board of trustees convenes for its spring meeting. Classes end for students May 3. “ While the scope of the external review is still in development, the primary goals of the review will be to help the campus community build trust and to help the college strengthen processes,” Voskuil wrote. “ It will not be a review of evidence or a revisiting of decisions already made.”

Several current and former faculty told The Sentinel they were not seeking a reversal of findings, but wanted better processes in place that ensured fairness for college employees.

“ For me to feel good to move forward, I would either need to be convinced that the investigation was handled mostly fine and there was significant wrongdoing — and that report has to be done by someone I trust — or an investigation finds ( the administration) acted incorrectly,” one faculty member previously said under condition of anonymity. “And then there needs to be disciplinary action against people in the investigative team.“ This might be the academic in me: I believe in openness and promoting fairness and justice. Being able to tell a more complete story ends up being better for the institution in the long run,” they said. — Contact Editor Sarah Leach at sarah. leach@hollandsentinel. com. Follow her on Twitter @SentinelLeach.

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