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Harford college president's style scrutinized

Harford Community College is being operated under a strong-arm, autocratic system that has damaged faculty morale and may 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 may press for a state investigation, or seek to dissolve the board of trustees.

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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.

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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.

They say there's an atmosphere of apprehension and intimidation in which employees lose their positions for openly expressing concerns and criticism.

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 runs the campus with an iron fist and people are threatened."

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."

Trustee Valerie Twanmoh thinks the lawmakers have a one-sided and distorted impression of the situation on campus.

'Real morale problem'

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"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 elimination of the Faculty Council - and that not everyone was happy with them.

She said the board heard from a representative of the 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 and not in Annapolis."

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If there's no movement in this direction soon, Glassman said, the delegation is prepared to act. 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 the trustee meeting have more opportunities for public comment.

'Entrenched positions'

Barnes conceded that not everyone on campus is happy. But he said he does not feel that the problems are as great as portrayed by the legislators.

There are some on campus, he said, who have taken "entrenched positions against any decision the board makes."

Barnes says the college is moving to address the campus unrest. He declined to be specific, but acknowledged that it could involve meetings with the faculty and staff where all the issues are openly discussed.

Barnes said he has received only one letter of complaint from a staff member and knows of no other board member receiving a letter. He said the letter had to do with the decision on the local chapter of the AAUP.

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"They hide behind a shield of anonymity," he said of malcontents on campus. "They say they fear reprisal. But never in my seven years with the board have I seen any act of reprisal against a person on campus."

Parrott has called Barnes "a puppet of the president" and said this is true of most trustees. She said HCC is losing highly qualified people as a result of the low morale on campus and that the trustees are doing nothing about it.

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. "It's a sting and an irresponsible statement, especially if it's not based on first-hand information."

"The whole idea that we are a rubber stamp for the administration is totally untrue," Twanmoh said. "There are good people on the board and they are trying to operate in the best interest of the college and the students."

Chiesi agreed. She said she has served under 18 trustees since joining the school in 1995. She said the trustees have attended seminars, read books and put in hundreds of hours of extra work to perform their jobs.

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"Policy is not being set by just the chair and the president," she said. "The minutes of the meetings make this very, very clear."

Barnes said he has asked trustee Howard McComas to set up a meeting between the board and the legislative delegation. "It's time for us to respond to some of this criticism."

The board chairman said he was surprised and caught off-guard when members of the legislative delegation met with the board in September and laid out a long series of complaints.

According to Glassman and faculty members, much of the unrest on campus dates back to 2002, when the administration eliminated the Faculty Council. "That was the voice of the faculty," said one tenured faculty member who has been at the school for more than 25 years. "It was their way to silence us."

The faculty member, who did not want to be named out of fear of reprisal, said, "It was replaced by the College Assembly and on the surface that looks good, but the way it is structured, there is very little opportunity for real discussion. It is mainly for show. The president appoints some of the members to the assembly. It is very easy for her to control that group."

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."

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Student complaints

Students are also a victim 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.

As an example, he said 18 months ago the school abolished the formal nursing pinning service, a symbol of graduation dating back to Florence Nightingale.

"It's something very, very important to nursing students," Wagner said. "Some 70-year-old nurses still wear their pins."

He said there was a "token move" by the school in December to allow the ceremony, but it was done during the day, without family or guest speakers. Held near the cafeteria, where other students were eating and playing cards, it "was just not the same."

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."

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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 as a trustee Dec. 1.

"It was not this way at Harford Community College. The administration had effectively stopped all dialogue. There was no public comment at the trustees meetings."

Simmons has moved to change things at the college. During the trustees meeting Tuesday he got a motion approved to have a permanent place on the agenda of every meeting for public comment. He said he doesn't want the rules to be any more restrictive than those covering the public comment portions of the county school board meetings or those of the County Council.

Simmons also requested that the board permanently remove the power from the chairman to decide on the appropriateness of an agenda item submitted by another trustee. That suggestion was defeated.

"The argument can be made," Simmons said, "that the board has ceased making policy. Policy is set only by the president and the chair."

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.

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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. It ruled that the school's student pass rate of 78.2 percent for the fiscal year ended June 30 was below the required passing rate for Maryland schools.

Glassman said he wants to see some signs that the school is seeking to address the concerns of students, faculty and staff before the delegation meets with the president and the trustees.

"One of the first things I would like to see is giving the faculty some role in shared governance of the college," he said. "Bringing back the Faculty Council would be a good first step."

Asked whether 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."


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