McNish fired from Residential Life

Students upset; Mehwald to serve as acting director

Hanna Miller

Deborah McNish, associate dean of Residential Life and Services, was fired from her position on June 15. According to Dean of Student Life and Services Charlene Cole-Newkirk, Assistant Dean Barbara Mehwald will serve as acting director of residential life until a permanent replacement can be found.

The firing drew protest from a number of students and faculty.

"It looked to me like the kind of thing I'd hoped we'd left behind in the S. Fred Starr era," Professor of mathematics Michael Henle said. "I was upset by it."

According to an administrative source, Cole-Newkirk and Director of Human Resources Ruth Spencer asked to meet with McNish on the morning of June 15. At the meeting, Cole-Newkirk informed McNish that she felt she could no longer work with her. McNish was invited to work throughout the summer and to be paid through the end of the year. Cole-Newkirk would not comment on the meeting.

According to administrative sources, McNish did not anticipate the departure.

Associate professor of politics Chris Howell, a former co-chair of the Student Life Committee, returned from a semester in London to a barrage of complaints concerning McNish's departure.

"I heard from three faculty in the space of 48 hours that Deb McNish had been fired in a precipitous manner, and that she had not expected this to happen," Howell said. "I called Deb McNish and she confirmed that she'd been called in, she'd been fired effective very soon, and she was told this was not related to her job performance. I think that causes a certain amount of concern. It doesn't make sense to lose your job because you don't get on with your boss."

According to Residential Coordinator senior Kirti Baranwal, McNish announced her departure to her staff on June 15 at 4 p.m. Baranwal said, "Deb came out and she said, 'I've been let go because of philosophical differences. I've been told it had nothing to do with my job. I don't know what is going on." Cole said she did not recall making any formal announcement to the department's staff.

One week later, McNish met with President Nancy Dye twice to discuss the departure. Dye offered to place McNish on a one-year sabbatical, to which McNish agreed.

According to Cole-Newkirk, Assistant Dean of Students Yeworkwha Belachew went on leave during the summer. "I hope Y.B. comes back soon," Cole-Newkirk said. Sources close to the administration said Belachew experienced great emotional distress following McNish's departure, causing her to take a medical leave of absence.

Belachew could not be reached for comment.

"Y.B. was just great," Resident Coordinator senior Carolina Penalava-Arana said.."She had breakfasts for student staff on Sunday mornings. Y.B. is someone who cares."

"Deb was awesome," Penalava-Arana said. "Charlene Cole is not approachable. She was always there if you had a problem. It's not fair to take away the two women who care."

A delegation of students including Baranwal met with Dye in June. According to Baranwal, Dye said she did not know what was going on and was more than willing to listen to the students' concerns. Dye told the students that it would be very difficult for her to do her job if Assistant to the President Diana Roose challenged her decisions. When questioned, Dye denied the scenario was directly analogous to the situation between Cole-Newkirk and McNish.

Many students, like Penalava-Arana, first heard of the firing through letters written by Residential Life staff who spent their summers in Oberlin.

"Whenever administration wants to do anything that might be unpopular with students, they always wait until the students are gone," Howell said.

Early in the summer, Howell and three other faculty members arranged a meeting with Dye and Roose to discuss both McNish's departure and student life issues in general.

"It concerned me for two reasons," Howell said. "Many of us had had contact with Deb McNish and are fairly impressed with the work she does. The case was made to me that this was part of a pattern and there was a climate of fear."

According to faculty members present at the meeting with Dye, Dye said she had understood that McNish had expected the firing.

Sources close to the administration report that McNish had never been written up for any reason.

"Normally when you fire someone, there's a paper trail," said Howell. "There's nothing illegal about it. The question is, was it handled in the most humane possible way?"

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Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 1, September 5, 1997

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