Staffer kept close to UT president with stream of calls, e-mails
June 9, 2001
Former University of Tennessee President J. Wade Gilley, while running a major academic institution and contending with mounting health problems, also fielded a steady stream of cell phone calls and e-mails from a mid-level administrator eager for his advice and approval.
Gilley, 62, unexpectedly stepped down last week as the university continued to investigate the qualifications of Pamela S. Reed, the 44-year-old executive director of a new UT interdisciplinary research center. Gilley, who had more than three years remaining on his contract with the school, said he resigned purely for health reasons and concerns about his ability to provide long-term leadership. But he acknowledged that the Reed situation was part of ''a larger mosaic'' of difficult work issues.
This week, UT released several months' worth of Gilley's and Reed's cell phone records, which show that she called him about 140 times between Jan. 16 and April 28 — some 40 times a month. Gilley called her about 26 times during the same period.
Paired with the phone logs, the 400 pages of e-mail printouts also released by UT show that Reed felt free to regale the president with questions and advice, ideas and complaints, and that he often responded. She was hired in May 2000 and has held several administrative positions since.
One higher-education expert said the degree of contact probably was unusual for someone of her position, though not necessarily.
''I think it's unusual in terms of organizational structure and the way universities traditionally operate,'' said Edward Elmendorf, vice president for government relations and policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. ''But there are some presidents I've known that walk around and go to the offices of staff … and encourage them to communicate with them directly on matters of import.''
A UT trustee said Reed and Gilley probably were doing just that.
''They were certainly working together during that time'' on improving UT's relationship with the federal government, said Susan Williams, a trustee from Knoxville. ''I don't know if it's unusual or not.''
Neither Gilley nor Reed returned telephone calls for comment.
Reed usually called Gilley's office or his cell phone, almost always during work hours, but occasionally she phoned his house, too. Many of those calls lasted no more than a minute, although four of them lasted at least 30 minutes. One afternoon call lasted an hour.
Gilley's calls to Reed never lasted more than 19 minutes, and most lasted less than 10 minutes.
The text and the volume of e-mails portray Reed, a former airline reservation agent, state staff attorney and business consultant, as someone eager to learn the ropes of top-level university administration.
In the e-mails, in which Reed makes occasional spelling errors, she wants to prove she can be adept at securing federal grants for a university eager to raise its profile as a top research institution. She wants to maneuver UT into the good graces of the ''Busch'' administration, as she sometimes calls the newly inaugurated U.S. president. She wants Gilley to approve of her handling of bureaucratic politics around the campus. She wants him to know how successful she is at wooing the local press and political players.
She wants his advice about how to get new office furniture: ''I need a locking desk, for various reasons.''
When she skewers her co-workers, Gilley often counsels her to be more delicate in her dealings with them. ''Don't try to force your ideas on people,'' he advises her in one response. ''Ok?''
She envisioned herself as someone who could obtain federal money for the university, which Gilley had stressed since arriving at UT from Marshall University in August 1999. She believed she knew how and that visiting Washington early in 2001 was vital:
''It gives us a presence early with this administration,'' she e-mailed Dwayne McCay, UT's vice president for research and information technology. ''Remember Wade and I went to meet Busch, and I know he remembers the President of UT . . . Have a little faith in my insight — o.k.? Remember I would not have been able to get where I am at the University and previously in state government at lightening speed if I were not highly capable — just let me do what I do best.''
According to a spokesman in U.S. Rep. John Duncan's office, it was obvious she wasn't familiar with the nuances of securing federal appropriations, what Reed sometimes calls ''pork'' in her e-mails. Or, ''the other white meat.''
''What you do is you come up and you meet with the entire delegations, and you try to get the requests in for what the grants are,'' said David Balloff, communications director for the Republican congressman from Knoxville.
Reed arrived in Duncan's office for a meeting in February or March, Balloff said, with a list of buildings she wanted the federal government to fund. She had it backward, he said.
''What makes it easier to get grants is if it's for a program, instead of for bricks and mortar. But when she came up here, this list was for bricks and mortar. So when you see all of that, you know that's going to be very difficult.''
Yet, Reed was eager to prove she could make it in the high-stakes world of university administration and UT office politics.
''This has been one of the most black periods of my professional life, for various reasons, feeling like I have failed and the opportunity you provided for me being the primary,'' she wrote March 8. ''Secondary, it seems like the world is against me (the ut world, that is) and it is unfair to expect you to continually take the hit for me and I will not do it anymore. I need to make it on my own.''
Reed continued to seek Gilley's guidance, however. But he pulled back at several points, such as when his doctor told him to get more rest.
''I am sorry that you are upset but I would hope that you would take into account my age and my health. …,'' Gilley wrote April 23. ''I must rest and get away from people altogether. I am encouraging staff to not call me on the weekends regardless unless it is an emergency.''
Reed didn't take the news well. ''That is just it — I am not your staff, I am not 'other people' or at least I didn't think I was to you. I thought you enjoyed talking to me — I didn't realize I was such a liability all the way around. Please just leave me alone, ok?''
A week later, though, Gilley and Reed seemed to be on good terms again, with Gilley musing about university presidents who left their jobs or were under fire. ''Don't worry I am not thinking about any such action,'' he wrote. ''Just interesting.''
''Don't sell yourself short!'' Reed replied. ''I would just surmise that they were no 'J. Wade Gilley' and it can only be downhill from here.''
A few weeks later, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported on UT's investigation of Reed, whose research center is scheduled to open next month. The university's review continued yesterday, a spokesman said.
By MICHAEL CASS and ROB JOHNSON, Copyright © 2001 The Tennessean