Joseph Steinmetz, who resigned suddenly as University of Arkansas chancellor Friday, gave an interview to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
He insisted his departure wasn’t rash. He said he had tired of being a “crisis manager.”
He did not want to talk about the reports of embarrassing social media photos. Their circulation in media and the legislature (I have not seen them) and his departure scant hours after a TV station inquired about “provocative photos” strongly suggest the issue was at least a catalyst. Hours after a closed UA Board meeting Thursday, Steinmetz said he’d be gone the next day. He promised to vacate his university home with his wife as quickly as possible. He claimed nothing more than pay for up to six weeks of accumulated leave time.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Steinmetz said he’d rather not talk about the photos, adding that “anybody can post anything on social media, and the world believes it.” [Through a University spokesman while still employed, Steinmetz insisted the photos were a hoax and photo-shopped. The spokesman now emphasizes that it is Steinmetz, not him, insisting the photos were fake.]
His announcement regarding his decision to step down, he said, “may seem rash, but it isn’t rash for me at all.” He described the difficulties of this past year in navigating a large, public research university through the Covid-19 pandemic and also in coping with recent campus controversies that attracted strong opinions. His role, he said, has become less of a conversational facilitator than of a “crisis manager.” It’s a role he’s no longer interested in.
“What I always thought was the greatest feature of higher education was the ability to come to consensus, and for people to sit out and have this kind of a civil conversation about any issue,” Steinmetz said. “It didn’t matter what it was. And so what I have observed in the five and a half years I’ve served as the chancellor is we’ve moved further and further and further away” from that ideal. The environment, right now, is “very very different” than when he started the job, in January of 2016.
The article mentions the Fulbright statue controversy. His compromise proposal — keep the former senator’s name on the college of arts and sciences and move his statue — was denounced by many legislators and detractors of Fulbright.
In this case, there seemed to be “two extremes” on either side of the issue, Steinmetz told The Chronicle. Polarization, in general, has worn him down. This past session, the legislature has passed bills that are frequently “at odds” with the views of the university community, he said. Meanwhile, “I have received more petitions and more letters with the word ‘demand’ in them in the last, probably, year than I had in my entire academic career before that.”
He often tells students that when they’re considering what to do with their lives, make sure they choose careers or futures that they have a lot of passion for, and not to settle for anything less. “And I just really don’t have that passion anymore.”
If he’s been careful Steinmetz, 66, should be secure financially.
He’s accumulated more than $1.25 million in deferred compensation in more than five years at UA along with a salary of $464,000 annually. He can likely expect additional benefits from the retirement plan offered at UA and the other major universities he’s served in an administrative job. Under the TIAA-CREF plan, the UA will match an employee’s contribution up to 10 percent of pay, or 20 percent of salary. In Steinmetz’s case, if he made the maximum contribution (which is typically advised because it is tax-deferred) that could have meant $90,000 a year.