Frederika “Fraka” Harmsen stepped down Monday as California State University, Sacramento, provost less than two years after assuming the university’s second-highest position and being heralded as an academic innovator who could help fulfill ambitious visions for the university.
Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen announced the move in an email to faculty members Monday morning, the first day the campus was open after last week’s holiday closure. Harmsen agreed to serve as a special assistant to the president for sustainability at Sacramento State, wrote Nelsen, who began his presidency in July.
Harmsen, a geologist, professor and member of a rock band, was hired with much fanfare two years ago by then-president Alexander Gonzalez. As provost and the vice president for academic affairs since February 2014, Harmsen led the Office of Academic Affairs, made up of seven academic colleges, the university library and the College of Continuing Education.
Campus spokeswoman Elisa Smith said the job switch was a joint decision by Harmsen and Nelsen: “They have been talking about it for some time,” Smith said.
But some faculty leaders saw it as a way for Nelsen to pick his own provost.
“My guess is it’s fairly standard for new leadership to clean house a little bit,” said Sacramento State sociology professor Kevin Wehr, president of the local chapter of the California Faculty Association. “The president is looking for a new provost and gave her some time in a special assistant position.”
Harmsen was at her Chico home Monday, according to a man who answered the phone, but she did not respond to a request for comment.
In her new position, Harmsen will work closely with the president on sustainability issues, Smith said. She will help to plan and organize studies and reports, and will assist in developing sustainability efforts on campus, Smith said. It was not immediately clear what specific types of environmental initiatives she will pursue.
Harmsen will earn the same salary in her new position as she did as provost, Smith said. Harmsen’s current salary could not be provided Monday by the university. But in 2014, the last year for which state data were available, Harmsen made $179,000 as provost at CSUS for a partial year from February to the end of December.
The job change will at least temporarily result in significant administrative changes at the university. Vice President of Administration and Business Affairs Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee will serve as interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, “effective immediately,” according to Nelsen’s email to the faculty. Stacy Hayano will serve as interim chief financial officer and Ali Izadian will move to interim vice president for administration.
A committee will be organized to search for a new provost, according to Nelsen’s email. Wehr said one or two faculty representatives generally join administrators and a student on the committee.
The statement from Nelsen said Harmsen, 56, has provided “excellent academic leadership during her tenure” and that “her dedication and intelligence have raised Sacramento State’s stature in the region and state.”
When Harmsen came to the university, she said she would improve faculty diversity and seek to provide more “international experiences” to Sacramento State students. In his statement, Nelsen credited Harmsen with establishing the Office of International Programs and Global Engagement, as well as increasing tenure-track hiring and addressing concerns about academic equality and salaries.
But Harmsen wasn’t embraced by some professors, particularly those in the liberal arts, said Sacramento State history professor Joseph Palermo. He complained that she gave preferential treatment to science, technology, engineering and math instead of upgrading facilities and computers in liberal arts departments. She wanted total control over hiring and sent her vice provost to faculty senate meetings instead of attending herself, he said.
“I’m optimistic we would get someone better,” Palermo said. “This, I think, will be a good thing. It’s a graceful way to give her a position.”
Wehr said he doesn’t “necessarily agree” with that opinion and that he had a good working relationship with Harmsen.
“There were some missteps,” he said. “There is a learning curve with this job. While on the learning curve, she definitely displeased some folks in the faculty.”
Harmsen came to Sacramento State from Chico State, where she was a professor of geology and the dean of the College of Natural Sciences. Before moving to Chico State in 2011, Harmsen spent 26 years at Fresno State University, where she was a professor, department chair and associate dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, according to university officials.
She filled the Sacramento State provost job vacated in June 2012 by Joseph F. Sheley, now president of California State University, Stanislaus.