Dr. Joshua Merchant Resigns from BVU Presidency, Provost Dr. Brian Lenzmeier Steps in

On Friday, May 8, The Buena Vista University Board of Trustees announced to BVU faculty, staff, students and alumni Dr. Joshua Merchant’s immediate resignation as president of the university. They appointed Dr. Brian Lenzmeier, previously vice president and provost, to step in as interim president.

The nature of this departure is unlike past presidents—with little explanation and no warning. The resignation came just months after the Board granted an early five-year extension to Merchant’s contract.

Merchant did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding his reasons for leaving the position.

“People resign for lots of different reasons. What I was told by the Board is that he resigned for personal reasons. That’s what I know, and I don’t know what those personal reasons are,” stated Lenzmeier.

Senior Director of University Marketing and Communications Kelsey Clausen declined to comment on the reason for Merchant’s departure, stating, “The University does not discuss matters involving personnel.” Board members Becki Drahota, Marc Brinkmeyer and Tim Brown declined to comment. Outgoing Board Chair Norm Nielsen did not respond to request for comment.

In December 2019, Merchant and Buena Vista University had been sued by a former university employee for workplace discrimination. Former Development Director Theresa Nothwehr alleged Merchant pushed her out of her job. In her 5-page narrative of the complaint, Nothwehr outlined multiple incidents in which she felt discriminated against. She alleged he increased his efforts after she complained to administration and claimed she was wrongfully terminated soon after.

The lawsuit has since been resolved according Clausen. Nothwehr’s attorney Melissa Hasso confirmed the suit had been resolved but declined to give details on the nature of the resolution. Clausen declined to comment if this lawsuit was the reason for Merchant’s abrupt departure.

BVU Community Reacts

The announcement of Merchant’s sudden departure came as a surprise to most of the BVU community.

Moments after the email was sent announcing the leadership change, the @BVUPres Twitter account was deleted from the social media platform, causing mass confusion and skepticism among BVU community members. Many are asking for answers.

“I’m just curious why. I didn’t expect it in the slightest,” said sophomore Matthew Marroquin.

“His (President Merchant’s) sudden leave was quite shocking. I am disappointed students were left in the dark and more information wasn’t provided,” added sophomore Ashley Miranda.

Meanwhile other BVU community members reacted with satire including the parody account, @MoshJerchant which tweeted, “Innocent until proven guilty,” with the hashtag #BelieveinBV.

Still others show signs of frustration via social media. “My [man’s] cut my program then just dipped,” senior music production major Sam McLachlan tweeted. McLachlan’s tweet referred to the proposed program cuts that Merchant announced in March.

Program Evaluation and Proposed Cuts

Students like McLachlan who are directly affected by the proposed program cuts were left reeling after the news of Merchant’s resignation, since this announcement replaced any news from the board meeting that was intended to discuss the program evaluation.

The Board meeting was originally set for May 7 and 8 to discuss and vote on proposed program cuts, which include chemistry, music education, music performance, music production and theatre. The proposal also included the elimination of other faculty positions aside from those within the previously stated programs. If the Board adopts everything within the proposal, a total of 10% of faculty will be cut, according to Lenzmeier. Staff/non-faculty cuts were also expected to be announced following the board meeting.

Clausen confirmed that the board did not discuss the program evaluation at this meeting and was, instead, postponed to Wednesday, May 20.

Lenzmeier said that this delay could be beneficial for the program evaluation process. He shared that the board has letters from students, alumni, parents, and faculty who were affected, as well as the response from the elected body of faculty.

“It gives [the board] more time to really think through. You know, they have a week to read through all those things,” Lenzmeier said. “I’m guessing that they probably had that read before the meeting got postponed. This gives them some time to really think about it. So, I think it’s a positive.”

Clausen said that the university is following the timeline laid out in the faculty handbook for the program evaluation, and decisions regarding these changes will still be announced to the BVU community by the end of May.

Dr. Annamaria Formichella, Director of Strategic Initiatives, declined to provide any information about the outcome of the meeting on May 20. A follow up story from The Tack will report the final decisions once they are announced.

When the announcement of Merchant’s departure went public, the Strategic Plan, which houses the original plan for the program evaluation, initially disappeared from the BVU website. When it returned, the presidential initiatives were no longer on the webpage or the PDF document of the plan. As interim president, Lenzmeier said he is dedicated to continuing the initiatives laid out in the strategic plan.

“I really want to keep the good things going that are going and really work on that,” said Lenzmeier. “You know, when it comes to change and things like that, I’ve been here 17 years; I’m not planning on going anywhere. And you know, I have a vested interest in seeing BVU be successful.”

The BVU Domino Effect

Lenzmeier was approached by the Board of Trustees about taking on the position of interim president upon the news of Merchant’s abrupt departure.

“[Lenzmeier] will serve us with integrity and dedication to our mission to prepare students for lifelong success through transformative higher education programs. On behalf of the Board, I am pleased to name him to this position,” Trustees chair Norm Nielsen said in the email sent to the BVU community.

Other members of Beaver Nation were optimistic about future leadership under Lenzmeier.

“I think Dr. Lenzmeier will do a great job as interim president. He is a great and engaging professor when teaching and I’m sure even better in higher administration roles,” Alumnus Derick Zellar commented on Facebook.

“This is the second president that has stepped down during my time at BVU. This is a high turnover rate for four years. However, there is much unknown about the situation. Perhaps it is in BVU’s best interest to have Dr. Lenzmeier serve as interim president,” said senior Kaya Wibben.

“I have enjoyed being colleagues with Dr. Lenzmeier in the past. He will serve the University well in the interim,” shared Storm Lake community member Cheri Maben-Crouch.

Lenzmeier’s temporary promotion will create a domino effect in BVU’s administration. Currently, there is not a replacement for Lenzmeier as Provost, the top academic role of the university. Instead, BVU has put its COVID-19 plan into action with the deans taking on Provost responsibilities until the position is filled internally by the end of May.

“We’ve got some really talented faculty and administrators. When the board asked me if we needed to hire someone external, I just said, ‘No, we’ve got really talented people here.’ And that also saves the university money to, you know, to go from within, and I think it’s a great opportunity for faculty member and administrator to get some new experience,” said Lenzmeier.

It’s a trickle-down effect that could impact other faculty and staff positions across campus. Whoever fills in for Lenzmeier will then have to find a proxy for their position, and the momentum continues.

Lenzmeier hopes to fill the position by the end of the month if not sooner and begin the process for finding a new president in the fall.

“I agree to serve as interim until a suitable replacement is found,” said Lenzmeier. “So, I told [the board], you know, if that was one year, two years, whatever it takes, I want to see us hire the right person; the best person we can get. And so, I will do the best I can until that person.”

A Confused Community

While it has already been a couple weeks since the original announcement of Merchant’s departure, some students, faculty, staff and alumni have communicated ongoing confusion and a desire for answers, whether from the university or Merchant himself.

“I’m a little bit confused… A week or two ago he was telling us how much he missed us and how he can’t wait to see us and then out of nowhere we received an email saying he had resigned. He hasn’t said anything about it to any of us yet,” said sophomore Daniel Meissner.

Some students want answers not just because they are confused, but because they are upset. Dalton Walker, BVU student and son of two professors whose positions face possible elimination due to proposed program cuts, shared his frustrations on Facebook.

“Alright, I love Buena Vista. But whatever the Board of Trustees is doing, they’re doing it wrong,” wrote Walker. “I don’t think they understand that without students there is no university. Maybe instead of firing everyone, focus on your student retention rate and try to get more people to attend.”

Clausen said that the university is listening to students and is working to remain open and transparent. She said the university will communicate with the community when it “has good news to share.”

“I’m definitely confused. It just happened and I’m waiting for more information before I start having feelings, negative or positive,” said junior Noah Hoffman.

It doesn’t seem like more information is coming, however. The university declined to discuss personnel matters, and the possibility of any communication from Merchant to the community seems to be dwindling.

“I’m sure I can speak on behalf of most students when I say that we are confused about his sudden resignation. I hope that we will eventually get answers, whether they come from BVU or Merchant himself,” said freshman Tara Leporte.

*Autumn McClain contributed to the reporting of this article.