For the first time since his unexplained and sudden departure last April, former University of Dallas President Thomas Keefe is speaking out about the reasons behind his resignation.
In an interview with The University News, Keefe claimed that he asked the university’s Board of Trustees to buy out his contract after clashing with faculty and members of the board about the university’s vision and financial future.
Last spring, the board kept details regarding Keefe’s departure confidential. Keefe said that his silence at that time was due to a separation component of his buyout contract in which the Board prohibited him from speaking about the separation.
The administration is unable to discuss the specifics of his departure because of university policy, according to Interim President Dr. John Plotts.
Now that the buyout time period has come to a close and the university is searching for a new president, Keefe decided to speak out. In a broad interview, and in a letter to The University News, he cast dire warnings about UD’s future and offered his version of how he came to leave.
“I think whomever they get deserves the opportunity to know what happened to the previous [president],” Keefe said.
Keefe said that a series of heated arguments he had with faculty members resulted in a complaint to the Board of Trustees. The board asked him to be “nicer,” to which he said he responded: “What I expect the faculty to do is to treat me as well as I treat them. That’s all I ask. And if I don’t have the support of the board, buy me out, and they did.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Keefe said. “I had a disagreement … over what the future should be.”
This disagreement arose from controversial ideas that Keefe proposed to secure future financial stability.
“While I was President, we conducted an evaluation of the future financial challenges facing the University,” Keefe wrote in an undated letter he gave to The University News recently. “It became painfully apparent to me and members of the Board, that within three to five years, without a significant additional source of revenue, the University will find itself unable to operate in the black.”
Keefe proposed several ideas to help the university attain this additional source of revenue before increased costs could create financial strain. Among these ideas was the highly-debated degree completion program, which would have allowed students to complete degrees at UD without taking the entire Core. However, Keefe stressed that these ideas were merely concepts and that he had never drawn up blueprints to enact them.
In addition to the degree completion program, Keefe suggested technological advances such as proactively incorporating internet resources into course structures and providing more online graduate classes. Keefe also wanted to accept more transfer credits as “opposed to categorically rejecting credits,” he said.
Although Keefe proposed these plans because he was concerned that, eventually, UD’s revenue wouldn’t meet the costs of running the university, Plotts says there isn’t a need to worry.
“I think it’s a bit alarmist,” Plotts said. “We are a tuition-driven institution … minus major disruptions in enrollment, the university will be here in three to five years.”
Plotts confirmed that the evaluation Keefe referred to was conducted three to four years ago and predicted that UD’s expenses would increase at a higher rate than its revenue. However, the evaluation didn’t take into account innovations administration has made to increase revenue, according to Plotts. Several years later, the university is still meeting its budget.
In addition to tuition, UD’s endowment is $82 million, and 5.5 percent of the endowment supports the university’s revenue each year, according to Plotts. UD also has $25 million worth of land and a $4 million savings account that can act as safety nets in the event of a catastrophe.
“I do think the future is bright and optimistic for us,” Plotts said. “We are in one of the fastest growing economic areas of the country.”
Plotts said that although there isn’t a need to worry about UD’s financial stability, he offered assurances this stability is still a priority.
“We continue to try to find organic growth, instead of going crazy and doing something totally outside of our wheelhouse,” Plotts said.
Plotts outlined ways in which the university is creating this organic growth, such as developing the computer science, music and nursing programs to attract a wider range of students, thereby increasing tuition and revenue.
Plotts also mentioned recent changes in internal processes to welcome more transfer students, such as hiring a transfer counselor and evaluating transcripts before transfer students are accepted to expedite the process.
Still, the university can only house so many students, and revenue from tuition will remain fixed.
“If the amount of money we bring in is fixed, and our costs go up, what do we do?” Keefe asked.
Plotts said that in order to combat this issue, the university can lower discount rates, citing this year’s freshman class as proof that a smaller class size with lower discount rates can still provide a higher net revenue.
Ultimately, Plotts believes that UD can continue to combat rising prices through smaller, organic changes, rather than large-scale change.
According to Keefe, the fundamental differences that instigated his resignation came down to a different attitude toward such change.
“Reluctance to change is so profoundly ingrained in some people at the university that any change is bad,” Keefe said. “Dragging our feet is something we’ve developed to a high art.”
Keefe is still disappointed in the way the board handled his departure.
“There was anger and vindictiveness on their part, and I think it’s unworthy of them,” Keefe said. “My style was effective; my style saved the university. We were on the verge of bankruptcy when I took over the university. And my style served the university very well. I was treated very poorly and certainly not in a very Christian way at the end.”
“At the end, they wanted… an obedient, fearful leader,” Keefe wrote. “That I could not be.”