Petitions, protests, and Twitter: The Heller tenure


Heller, shown at a basketball game in 2017, was subject to a no confidence vote in December 2019. DONS ATHLETICS/FLICKR

Kalan K. Birnie

Staff Writer

During his short tenure on campus, he ruffled feathers among administrators, professors, and students alike. He scaled back under-performing programs and laid the foundations for an engineering school. He oversaw the creation of the Honors College, multiple on-campus construction projects, and the purchase of Star Route Farms.

On Monday, Feb. 3, President Paul J. Fitzgerald announced that Donald E. Heller, provost and vice president of academic affairs, would step down from his position.

Heller’s career in higher education began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981, where he was an information systems manager and became the director of Administrative Systems Development in 1987. In 1997, he became an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan. After five years in Ann Arbor, he moved onto Pennsylvania State University. In 2007, he was promoted to be the director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State.

Heller left Penn State at the end of 2011 and, in 2012, was appointed the dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Under Heller, the college was named the top graduate program for elementary and secondary education by the U.S. News & World Report, continuing a decades-long streak. The program maintained this ranking for his entire tenure with the Spartans.

His time at Michigan State was not without controversy, though. An April 2014 article in The State News, the student newspaper at Michigan State, reported that the College of Education hired Margaret Crocco.

Crocco, a former dean of the College of Education at the University of Iowa, was accused in 2012 of ordering the destruction of records of a faculty vote of no confidence in her leadership. Heller defended Crocco’s hiring in 2014, saying that, while the hiring committee had been aware of Crocco’s past, it “had no bearing on her potential for success in the position of chair of the Department of Teacher Education.”

Heller officially became USF’s provost and vice president of academic affairs on Feb. 1, 2016. In an interview with the Foghorn at the time, Heller expressed his commitment to improving the diversity of the campus community. At the time, the University was ranked No. 7 in the country in campus diversity by U.S. News & World Report. It has since moved up one spot to sixth in the 2020 rankings, which used data from fall 2018.

Heller’s greatest entrance into the public eye at USF came in November 2018. As the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, raged around Paradise, California, concerns about air quality arose across the Bay Area. Area schools and universities suspended classes and activities. USF remained open while San Francisco State, UC Berkeley, San Jose State, UC Davis, and the San Francisco Unified School District all shut down. 

At the time, Fitzgerald was out of the country, and Provost Heller was the acting president of the University. An online petition, which demanded that Heller close the school, circulated and gained over 10,000 signatures. The provost’s office was inundated by dozens of emails and phone calls from students, families, and multiple media outlets as the University remained open later than other comparable institutions. On Nov. 15 at 1 p.m., as plans for a student walkout protest spread through the community, the decision was made to close the school for the rest of the week. The following day, the closure was extended through the Thanksgiving holiday.

An “After Action Report” found that the University’s lack of a clear air quality threshold to cancel classes was an “area for improvement.” The same report also found that Santa Clara University, 40 miles further from the fire than USF, decided to close their campus three hours before USF did.

While at USF, Heller supervised the development of a number of new programs. The Honors College launched in fall 2018, funded by a $15 million donation from USF alumnus Gordon Getty. The program now has 425 students enrolled in its curriculum.

Heller also oversaw the implementation and development of the Black Achievement and Student Engagement (BASE) program, which has been accompanied by the increased enrollment of black students in recent freshman classes. Black students on campus, however, have voiced concerns that they are not being adequately supported once they arrive at USF. 

Critics, students, and faculty alike often alleged that Heller’s management practices prevented programs from achieving greater success. At a town hall in November 2019, students accused the provost of mismanaging the BASE endowment and withholding funds from the program. Concerns were also raised about the absence of a permanent, full-time director of the program. Its current director, Dr. Candice Harrison, is also a full-time history professor.

A faculty petition that circulated at the end of the fall 2019 semester asserted that the provost was not fit to lead the University. It additionally alleged that Heller fostered declining community morale, a lack of transparency, and academic mismanagement within the University.

Among the University community, one of the most contentious elements of Heller’s time on campus was his Twitter presence. His views expressed on the platform often inspired heated reactions from his followers, both at USF and beyond. Some of his most controversial tweets have surrounded his critical stances on proposals for free higher education floated by progressive politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Heller shared a New York Times article detailing Warren’s proposal for cancelling student debt and eliminating college tuition.

“One of the worst #HigherEd financing proposals ever,” Heller tweeted, “millions of people would enjoy a huge consumer surplus they don’t need or deserve. Hopefully the other Dem candidates will do better.”

In an exchange with users in the replies to his tweet, Heller implied that eliminating tuition fees for higher education would force University employees, professors, and administrators to forego their salaries and benefits. A respondent noted that people do not face fees for police officers. Heller’s response elicited 88 replies, no retweets, and only three likes. 

“Steve — that’s an apples and oranges comparison,” Heller replied. “Police are a pure public good; higher education is not.”

This was not Heller’s only unpopular tweet. In December 2018, he shared a screenshot of an article claiming that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was “extremely problematic.” 

“The holidays just won’t be the same without Rudolph and Harvey Weinstein,” he said, comparing the holiday special to the former movie mogul accused of dozens of sexual assaults.

At the time of publication, Heller’s next career move was not known.

Editor’s note: This story contains a correction. Professor Heller’s career in higher education began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, not at the University of Michigan.

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