Jacksonville State University’s board of trustees terminated President John Beehler’s employment Tuesday, following weeks of rumors over his impending departure.
After a two-hour executive session at Tuesday’s regular meeting of the trustees, they emerged and voted to provide Beehler 30 days’ notice of his termination without cause; the notice is required under the terms of his 2015 employment agreement with the university. His termination is effective Nov. 21.
John Beehler's tenure as Jacksonville State University's president has coincided with high points, low moments and big headlines for the campus. JSU's board of trustees on Tuesday voted to terminate his employment.
Board chairman Randy Jones declined to comment further after the meeting on any reasoning behind the board’s decision. Trustees Clarence Daugette and Gale Saxon Main abstained from the vote, while all other trustees, with the exception of the absent Gov. Kay Ivey, voted to approve the motion by Tony Ingram.
Attempts following the vote Tuesday to reach Beehler, who did not attend the meeting, were unsuccessful.
Trustees last month in a special meeting approved a 90-day leave for Beehler to deal with what he later said were “close family members suffering from serious medical issues.”
After the vote, trustees then voted unanimously to name Don Killingsworth, JSU’s current chief external affairs officer, as acting president and secretary to the board.
“We’re excited about Don Killingsworth as acting president, and we’ve got a lot of great things going on at Jacksonville State moving forward,” Jones said.
“I’m happy to serve in any role that they deem necessary going forward,” Killingsworth said after the meeting. “We have a good management team still in place, so we’re carrying on as we were before and even this morning.”
No timeline set
According to Beehler’s contract, a discharge by the board without cause entitles Beehler to receive his salary for a full year after the date of removal.
The contract states that Beehler can be removed without cause if 30 days of written notice is given. Beehler could be removed “with cause” if he had been convicted of committing a felony or violated the JSU staff handbook.
According to a JSU news release issued Tuesday after the meeting, the board has not yet made plans on a timeline for the search for a new permanent president.
Killingsworth, and any future successor of Beehler, will be tasked with guiding an institution serving more than 9,000 students, its 1,100 faculty and staff and its yearly budget of around $133 million.
Beehler was hired as the 12th president of Jacksonville State University in 2015 after a 10-month search for a successor to Bill Meehan, who spent 16 years as head of the university.
Beehler came to JSU from Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, where he was the dean of business. He began his professional life in accounting after earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject from Penn State University and a Ph.D. from Indiana University.
Beehler presided over the university during a time of growing enrollment, natural disaster, and university expansion.
Shortly after Beehler began his tenure in the fall of 2015, JSU announced that enrollment was at a 15-year low of 8,314. Beehler called enrollment “our biggest challenge” at the time. Last week, JSU announced a fall 2019 enrollment of 9,021, the largest total since 2012, which included the largest class of freshmen in the university’s recorded history at 1,493.
On March 19, 2018, an EF-3 tornado swept through Jacksonville and the university while the school was closed for spring break. The storm damaged several campus buildings, leading to the planned demolition of three and repair and remodel to several others.
On Beehler’s watch, the university added a new $39 million recreation center and expansions to the baseball stadium.
In July 2018, The Star published the account of a Georgia woman and her mother, who said then-JSU basketball player Marlon Hunter raped the daughter while she was on campus in July 2017. The mother alleged that Beehler and other JSU officials interceded to have an indictment on a rape charge against the athlete rescinded.
The Georgia woman filed a lawsuit against the university earlier this month detailing claims of a cover-up.
Last month, 12 men were charged in connection to a series of alleged statutory rapes on and around the JSU campus. Eleven were charged with second-degree rape of one underage victim, while another was charged with second-degree sodomy of a second underage victim.
JSU officials have mentioned no link between Beehler’s departure and the rape allegations, but Angela Rose, the founder and leader of Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, a nonprofit geared toward helping sexual assault survivors, said it’s not uncommon for news of a sexual assault on campus to topple a university president’s career.
“We’ve seen it happen in the past if it’s been handled poorly,” Rose said.
According to Rose, presidents on these campuses may take the fall, even if they aren’t entirely to blame.
While students are living in the “Me Too” era, Rose said, many on-campus crimes are silenced because of a “victim-blaming society,” caused by a lack of education on consent and bystander intervention.
“When schools don’t take these cases seriously, it puts the entire student body at risk,” Rose said.
One of the best solutions to campus sexual assaults and a lack of reporting, Rose said, is a partnership between students, administrators, health services and campus police that reviews the campus culture and educates students on how to report an assault and what options the school can offer to survivors.
During Tuesday’s meeting, JSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christie Shelton announced that the university had been awarded a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help enhance campus safety, victim services, and create a mandated student training in prevention education.
Staff writer Mia Kortright contributed reporting.