Hesston College faculty members on Sept. 5 voted to express no confidence in President Joseph A. Manickam. The motion cited “failure to lead effectively, lack of taking responsibility, [and] inappropriate or unprofessional behavior.”
The vote was 24 to 2, or 92.3%, with six abstaining. Eight voting-eligible faculty did not attend the meeting. The motion stated that “a letter outlining the reasons drafted by the Faculty Council” was forthcoming.
On Sept. 8, Manickam sent a response to Anabaptist World via the college’s communications department: “I want to acknowledge there are significant concerns present on our campus today. I am appreciative that our faculty take their role seriously, and as stated by the board chair, the Hesston College board will conduct a thorough and fair assessment of the situation. I am fully committed to cooperating with the process the board sets forth.”
In a Sept. 7 email to college employees, Ken G. Kabira, chair of the board of directors, acknowledged the no confidence vote and stated that the board takes the faculty’s concerns seriously and values their input.
“The board is committed to a thorough and fair assessment of the situation,” he wrote. “We will engage in a transparent process to understand the issues raised and work collaboratively to find a path forward that serves the best interests of the college, our mission and all members of our community.”
Manickam is a Hesston graduate who began as president July 1, 2017, after being director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University in Thailand. The board voted unanimously in October 2020 to appoint him to a second four-year term.
In an announcement of the second term, Kabira said, “The board’s unanimous vote to reappoint Dr. Manickam to his second term is not just an affirmation of the work he has done for Hesston College in the past four years, but a vote of confidence and endorsement of the strategic direction for the next four years.”
The board last met in May. During a portion of the meeting open to the public via Zoom on May 19, Kabira said the board was aware of challenging times and high frustration. He noted the college’s shortcomings addressing reports of sexual harassment and abuse, financial challenges and low enrollment.
On Dec. 2, about 60 Hesston students walked out of a campus chapel service to protest what student leaders described as an unsafe campus where college staff minimized or ignored reports of sexual assault.
Enrollment dropped from 440 students in 2017 to 325 students last year.
“This is the time the board reviews not just the college but the president’s performance, and we know no one’s satisfied,” Kabira said at the May 19 meeting. “The board is accountable, and we hold the president to account. He knows the buck stops with him.”
The board approved a 2023-24 budget with a $960,000 deficit.
“While not good to have a deficit, I guess the good news is that it’s not any worse and we’re going to need to fund it from endowment draw and donor support, so obviously we still have work to do,” said outgoing board treasurer Steve Ropp during the same meeting. “. . . The good news is there continues to be significant donor support. The bad news is we need to get to right-sizing operational expenses.”
The college’s administrative council, which includes Manickam and the vice presidents, has been overhauled. Only Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, vice president of advancement, remains from the five vice presidents who were part of the council in the 2022-23 academic year.
Current faculty members directed questions about the vote to the college. Former employees who spoke to AW asked not to be identified.
One former faculty member said that there had been talk about having a vote of no confidence for a year and a half and that there had been a “mass exodus” of employees. The former faculty member cited an incident of Manickam losing his temper at a staff meeting, refusing to meet with people who disagreed with him and not being present when needed.
“When the sexual assault walkout happened, he was outside the U.S. and refused to fly home early,” the former faculty member said. “He made the vice presidents handle it, which was not their job. He was not on campus, first and foremost.”
A former employee familiar with the situation said board transparency had been a struggle. The October 2020 board decision to appoint Manickam for another term was not announced by the college until December 2020.
“In 2019 there were already people trying to talk to the board to say things are not going well with letters and emails, and it was the same thing,” the former employee said. “The board chair would say the same thing he’s saying now, ‘We will assess the situation.’ ”
Another former faculty member said faculty detailed concerns in a survey for board members prior to the second term’s approval, but opportunities to engage with the board have been few and far between. After several years of asking for a faculty representative to be present at board meetings outside the public plenary portion, the board allowed it this spring.
“This is the result of years of faculty expressing deep concerns about the integrity of the president’s leadership falling on the ears of a board who seem apathetic to faculty’s lived experience,” the former faculty member said.