Was nepotism behind unseating?

Looking into termination of Mills’ Civil Engineering chairmanship

“My appointment as chair of the CE [Civil Engineering] Department has been terminated.”

With that terse statement in a memo Aug. 19, Russell Mills informed his 14 faculty members of a highly unusual development just days before autumn classes began. Mills immediately returned to the roll of a full-time professor after five effective years as chairman.

“I pride myself on the quality of my work,” he told the CN&R in a phone interview.

Asked if his termination related to the fact that his wife, Leslie Anderson-Mills, would begin the term as a new full-time civil-engineering instructor and thus pose a nepotism question, Mills replied, “I can neither confirm nor deny that’s the case.”

Anderson-Mills joined the civil-engineering faculty several years ago as a part-time instructor, teaching four semesters over a three-year period. During that time, she reported directly to Ken Derucher—dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Construction Management—rather than to her husband. Clearly, Derucher believed this re-routing of the line of reporting would steer clear of violating the chancellor’s system-wide nepotism guidelines.

The nepotism policy—distributed to the faculty by President Paul Zingg as Executive Memorandum 05-16 on Oct. 19, 2005—states that in a situation such as that involving Anderson-Mills, “special written provisions must be prepared for review and approved by the head of the organizational unit (e.g., dean or director) before an individual may be appointed if the individual is to be assigned to work for the same immediate supervisor as another close relative.”

Under Derucher, both husband and wife reported to the dean.

Asked about the wording of the policy, Leslie Nix-Baker, vice-provost for human resources, said, “The intent of the policy is that there must be an objective third party in the line of reporting between the husband and wife.”

Nix-Baker was the only one who would speak directly to the situation. Everyone else contacted by the CN&R sidestepped any specifics as relating to a personnel case and thus confidential in all respects.

Anderson-Mills received her full-time appointment last spring under Derucher, but Derucher stepped down as dean on June 30. Mike Ward, associate dean of the college, then took over as acting dean. He acknowledged that Anderson-Mills had reported to Derucher but said she did not report to him as dean.

Asked what happened, Derucher said he thought Ward, not Provost Sandra Flake, terminated Mills as chairman, adding, of course, that he did not know why.

Potential professors often come with equally qualified spouses, which makes the nepotism issue tricky. But, as the guidelines state in no uncertain terms, “If a nepotic situation occurs and is not otherwise resolved, the appropriate administrator shall take prompt and reasonable measures to rectify the circumstances.” That’s apparently what acting Dean Ward did.

When asked, Flake said she had signed off on the full-time appointment of Anderson-Mills, who, she affirmed, had gone forward with the clearance of the department recruitment committee.

The campus records office said Anderson-Mills earned a baccalaureate degree in civil engineering from Chico State in May 1986 and a minor in mathematics the following December.

According to her resume, she worked as a civil engineer from 1986 to ‘89, first for a Kern County flood-plain-management company and next for a San Diego group. She then returned to Chico State to earn a teaching credential and taught mathematics at the high school in Hamilton City from 1992 until “the present.” The resume is not dated.

Tom Ferrara, a former chairman of the department who was hired out of retirement to head the unit for one year so a new chair could be found, said Anderson-Mills’ appointment is for one year and thus not on a tenure track.

Ferrara said enrollment in civil engineering is robust and growing, which in turn has meant increased workload demands on the faculty. He added that three new full-time, tenure-track professors, each with a Ph.D. in civil engineering, have been hired in the past two years.