‘We’re in a police state’: Maryland community college president faces bullying accusations

The Washington Post

Elizabeth Burmaster was appointed president of Maryland’s Frederick Community College in 2014, a selection that served as a homecoming for the veteran educator.

Burmaster, who grew up in Frederick and took classes at the community college when she was in high school, has helped revamp college policies and worked to sustain enrollment, according to a college spokeswoman. The donor base has grown, and campus facilities have improved.

But, a few years into her tenure, Burmaster is drawing attention not because of any gains at the college. Rather, she is at the center of a simmering conflict with some members of the faculty.

There are accusations of bullying and aggressive behavior. There are reports of tensions and logs of official complaints. And there are tough questions about Burmaster’s past and what might have happened during her time at schools she led before the community college.

Burmaster rejected allegations of bullying in an interview with The Washington Post. She said she was someone who tried throughout her career to address challenges — which, she said, can rankle people.

“A lot of the language that is being used . . . well, I think that’s language that we’re hearing in a lot of places now, outside, right?” Burmaster said. “So it’s hyperbolic. It’s not positive.”

Burmaster said she believes the complaints at the college came from those uncomfortable with changes at the school, adding: “I also think that there, right now, is a lot of societal anxiety that is combustible.”

“Right now, everything is about vilifying people who you disagree with,” she said later in the interview.

Earlier this year, six complaints were filed against Burmaster at the community college, according to Caroline Cole, the school’s spokeswoman. The Board of Trustees and the board’s attorney conducted interviews and assessments regarding the allegations, which were handled as a personnel matter. The allegations of misconduct against Burmaster were “unsubstantiated,” Cole said in an email.

Because the complaints were personnel matters, Cole said, she could not provide details.

“There is no open or pending personnel issue. We’ve dealt with those,” Debra Borden, chair of the Board of Trustees, said in an interview. “But what we saw was that they were a symptom of other things going on, that they were a symptom of people being uncomfortable with change, people not understanding or feeling like they’ve been left out of the process.”

In May, Burmaster faced a no-confidence vote from faculty at the college. More than 60 faculty members voted no confidence in the school’s president, while four opposed the measure. There were 108 full-time faculty members and 487 adjunct faculty members at Frederick Community College in May.

Cole said a “number of administrative decisions” could have factored into the vote, including the cancellation of a trip to Russia and changes to the processional at the school’s commencement ceremony. A statement of concerns from the Faculty Association said Burmaster had been threatening and intimidating and had created a hostile work environment with her behavior.

Weeks after the vote, Burmaster’s contract was extended.

“When we got the vote of no confidence, we listened, and we discussed, and we decided what we were going to do,” Borden said. “But it was not what they wanted us to do. We have other responsibilities, other than basically a group of faculty members who decide they want something.”

Morale has eroded at the public college, said Mary Mogan-Vallon, an associate professor of mathematics. But she said faculty members feel a great deal of responsibility to their colleagues, some of whom have been the target of bullying and believe they cannot speak out without facing professional consequences, she said.

“We’re not a bunch of whiners,” she said. “We are holding this college together. Our students are safe, but we will not allow bullying. That’s unacceptable.”

Mogan-Vallon said that she had witnessed troubling behavior from Burmaster during large group meetings but that she has not experienced it herself. Burmaster raised her voice with faculty members, she said, or humiliated them.

“She dresses them down,” ­Mogan-Vallon said. “It’s very much along the lines of a parental voice chastising a child.”

This is not the first time concerns have surfaced about Burmaster’s leadership.

In October, the Frederick News-Post detailed previous accusations, reporting that faculty at a Wisconsin college where Burmaster served as president had expressed grievances similar to those being raised in Frederick.

A 2012 letter about Burmaster, obtained by The Washington Post and the News-Post, illustrates the allegations that emerged at Nicolet College in Rhinelander, Wis. Morale, the letter claimed, had “plummeted,” and anger and frustration festered at the school. Burmaster, the letter’s author wrote, had behaved like a “classic bully” for years.

“The current atmosphere on campus, of fear and uncertainty and low morale, has created an untenable work environment and makes it difficult for the college to run effectively,” it stated.

The letter was written by ­David Kast, who identified himself at the time as a retiring employee at the college. A recent attempt to reach Kast for comment was unsuccessful.

Burmaster also faced a misconduct allegation at another school in Wisconsin in the mid-1990s, according to media reports from the time. A complaint filed by parents triggered a months-long investigation when Burmaster was principal of Madison West High School.

“The group of parents who filed the complaint said Burmaster had inappropriately disciplined students, censored the school yearbook, manipulated nominations to the school’s homecoming court to include minorities, and compared a Jewish student’s editorial commentary to something Adolf Hitler might write,” a Wisconsin State Journal article about the dispute said.

Burmaster was cleared after an investigation, but a report on the matter took issue with her approach to communication, according to a 1994 article.

“In any of the situations I’ve been in . . . my leadership style has been the same,” Burmaster said when asked about her work history in her interview with The Post. “But I wouldn’t describe it as being a bully. I would describe it as being an effective leader of change.”

Two people familiar with the situation at Frederick Community College, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retribution, said Burmaster engaged in a pattern of inappropriate behavior — including put-downs and rampant “verbal condescension.”

Her behavior contributed to a climate of fear at the school, they alleged. Faculty and staff, they said, were wary of speaking out and were fearful of triggering the president’s ire.

“People are scared,” one said. “People are hiding. And it’s very, very difficult to work in a place like this. . . . We’re in a police state, that’s what it feels like.”

Borden, the trustees chair, called that characterization “hyperbole, to say the least.”

“I don’t see that,” she said. “I don’t see that it’s in any way any sort of police state.”

A “relatively small number” of employees were uncomfortable with changes at the college under Burmaster, Borden said, something that school officials will have to deal with.

“Absolutely, it’s important, but it is not the end of the world,” she said. “As trustees, we have to weigh all the information that we have, which we did, and we have to make decisions that we feel are best for the institution, not necessarily do what a couple people on the faculty tell us to do.”

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