Harford Community College is being operated under a strong-arm, autocratic system that has damaged faculty morale and might be hurting student performance, according to county legislators and at least one member of the school's board of trustees.
Conflict at the school is such that legislators might press for a state investigation or seek to dissolve the board of trustees.
HCC President Claudia E. Chiesi and other college officials dismiss the characterization of her management style. "Anyone in a leadership position, out in front, takes a lot of shots to do their job," she said.
She said she has been "very direct and resourceful" in doing the job given to her, but denied that she runs the school with an iron fist or in an autocratic fashion.
In letters to county legislators, some HCC faculty and staff members describe the school as a place where employees are penalized for creative thinking and are treated with little respect.
According to a survey conducted in October by the HCC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, of the 75 percent of the full-time teachers at the college who responded, 87.5 percent said they would vote "no confidence" in the president if the faculty were able to have such a vote.
The chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which identifies itself as a professional group established to promote the values of higher education and ensure higher education's contribution to the common good, has been barred from meeting on campus. Professors say it was viewed by the administration as a bargaining unit, rather than a professional organization.
Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Republican representing Harford County, says, "It's terrible. It is very autocratic. The president [Chiesi] runs the campus with an iron fist, and people are threatened. Believe me."
But board of trustees Chairman Bernard F. Barnes Sr. said he doesn't think the survey accurately reflects the thoughts of the faculty. "My confidence in the president remains. I speak for myself, but I am almost certain the board would agree," he said.
Trustee Valerie Twanmoh says the lawmakers have a one-sided and distorted impression of the situation on campus.
"Maybe we have problems," said Twanmoh, who has been on the board for three years. "But to this point, the only problem that I have heard mentioned is twofold. There is a problem in communication between the president and the board chairman on one hand and the faculty on the other. This has caused a real morale problem. The faculty feels they are not being heard or respected."
Twanmoh said there have been changes on campus - such as eliminating the Faculty Council - and not everyone was happy with them.
She said the board heard from a representative of the disgruntled faculty last summer, "and all we heard was generalizations. ... With no specific complaints, we felt the situation was no more than a reaction to change and in a little time things would work out.
"We have heard from many people on campus who say they feel good about the changes, that they feel good about the direction the college is going."
Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the county's legislative delegation, said he has received about 60 letters of complaint. As a result, he said the lawmakers are warning that if the college administration and the trustees don't move soon to address the unrest on campus, the delegation will.
"People are afraid to speak up in public and say what is happening to them," said Glassman, a Republican from Harford County. "Most members of the delegation think it would be better if the problems at HCC are settled on campus."
He said the delegation is looking at several options, including dissolving the board of trustees, having the Maryland Higher Education Commission launch an investigation, and demanding that trustees meetings have more opportunities for public comment.
Parrott has called Barnes "a puppet of the president" and said this is true of most trustees.
Barnes took offense at Parrott's words.
"How can they say that when they don't come to our meetings?" he asked. He called the comment "an insult to the integrity and character of the volunteer citizens" who serve the board.
"The whole idea that we are a rubber stamp for the administration is totally untrue," Twanmoh said.
Chiesi agreed. "Policy is not being set by just the chair and the president," she said. "The minutes of the meetings make this very, very clear."
According to Glassman and faculty members, much of the unrest on campus dates to 2002, when the administration eliminated the Faculty Council.
Chiesi acknowledges that there are disagreements among the people who work at HCC. "People disagree with how the college is organized, the choices for its direction and they disagree with some program changes. But not 100 percent of the people feel that way," she said.
Students are also victims of the oppressive atmosphere on campus, according to Michael Wagner, a 29-year-old nursing student, former vice president of the student government association and past member of the College Assembly.
Wagner said most students are reluctant to complain: "They fear they will get a lower grade or they may not be able to get into the classes they want."
One of the newest trustees didn't like the campus environment he saw. "A college campus is supposed to be an atmosphere where you can question and debate and argue and speak your piece and what's on your mind," said S. Fred Simmons, who was sworn in Dec. 1.
Simmons has moved to change things at the college. During the trustees meeting Tuesday he had a motion approved to have a permanent place on the agenda of every meeting for public comment.
Simmons said he is concerned that the problems on campus are keeping the professors and staff from operating at peak proficiency, which could be having an impact on students.
He noted that the grades of HCC's nursing students have dropped in recent years, and the latest test scores published by the Maryland Board of Nursing put HCC at the bottom of the list of schools with nursing programs in the state.
Glassman welcomed the move Tuesday night to allow public comment at the board's meetings. "But we had to throw a lot of bombs to get them to open up a bit."
Asked if the problem at HCC can be resolved, Chiesi responded: "I believe if the people operate in good faith and put the college first, our problems are very resoluble."