Trustees | Trusteeship

Board Feud at Maricopa Community Colleges Spins Out of Control

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  October 29, 2009 by Simmi Aujla

The governing board of Maricopa Community Colleges wants to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are well spent in tight times, and its members don’t care if they have to micromanage to do so. Board members say their day-to-day management decisions preserve fiscal accountability, but some professors and college leaders fear that the board’s eccentric and assertive leadership could damage the system’s reputation.

The personal problems of board members have grabbed headlines as well, taking attention away from Maricopa’s larger challenges, say critics. Colleen Clark, the board’s 26-year-old president, pleaded guilty on Monday to a misdemeanor count of drunken driving, was sentenced to 30 days in jail, and will begin serving time in December.

The strife in Arizona raises questions about the governance structure of major community colleges, and how leaders should share power and responsibility. The Maricopa County Community College District, a 10-college system, has a troubled financial history, which the board says necessitates a thorough review of the system’s $1.4-billion annual budget.

However, a new report from an outside group of community-college experts, commissioned by the district’s chancellor, chastises the board for creating “a culture of mistrust throughout the organization,” in part because of its demands on employees for detailed information on the district’s costs, which subvert a long-established power structure. Most governing boards in higher education generally manage from afar, setting long-term policies and goals while avoiding hands-on management.

But the Maricopa board is not like most governing boards. Ms. Clark is 30 years younger than the national average for a community-college board member. The district has investigated six complaints brought by students and employees against another member, Jerry D. Walker, for allegedly racist and homophobic remarks. A third board member regularly criticizes Ms. Clark on the board’s official blog and in e-mail messages, and even suggests, in one furious missive, that her behavior is similar to Satan’s.

Administrators and faculty members also say that the trustees, who are publicly elected by residents of a single conservative county, are making decisions at Maricopa with an eye toward running for higher public office rather than protecting students. For the first time at least since 1980, board members did not raise taxes and tuition, despite enrollment’s being up 10 percent over last year. The board is also paying a New York-based consulting firm $1.13-million to perform an efficiency review of the district. “They’re coming from the mind-set of ‘How can I get re-elected?’ or ‘How can I put another feather in my cap?'” says Jim Neuenfeldt, president of the college system’s MAT Executive Council, which represents administrators and managers. “Decisions aren’t being made on the administrative level because of fear of the board.”

The conflict at Maricopa, long considered a top community-college district, illustrates the potential perils of a publicly elected board. The system’s board members must balance the interests of students and of the general public, whose property taxes support the system and who votes them into power. About a third of community-college governing boards are publicly elected, which means candidates don’t need experience in management to run for the posts.

Board members defend their leadership, saying they are responsible for the success or failure of the district.

“Simply put, the buck stops with us, the board members, and we are ultimately responsible for stewardship of the public money entrusted to us,” Mr. Walker wrote in a public letter this month. “By law, the board must make critical decisions about the operations and financial well-being of the district.”

The problems at Maricopa come at a time when students are flooding the doors of community colleges across the country, hoping to prepare themselves for new jobs, and the federal government is directing more money toward the sector. Over the summer, President Obama said the federal government would spend $12-billion in the next decade to help more students get degrees and certificates at community colleges. And about $15-million in stimulus funds are flowing in to the Maricopa colleges this year.

Richard Novak, who leads the public-sector programs of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said Maricopa’s board should resolve its feud with administrators so it can focus on the larger challenges facing students.

“You’d think a school like Maricopa would say, Let’s get our act together so we can use the money and do the best for Arizona,” Mr. Novak says.

Backlash Over Proposed Salary Cuts

Board members at Maricopa, which enrolls 130,000 students, hail from diverse backgrounds. Ms. Clark has worked at a crisis pregnancy center and is now a women’s-ministry coordinator at an Arizona church. Other members include Randolph S.E. Lumm, a substance-abuse counselor; Mr. Walker, who is retired from the U.S. Navy; and Debra Pearson, a former state legislator. Only one of the board members, Donald R. Campbell, who taught at Arizona State University in the 1980s and has been on the board for 26 years, has any experience in higher education.

Board members often draw unflattering attention to Maricopa, critics say. Ms. Clark was arrested and charged with driving drunk in July, apparently so intoxicated that she couldn’t recite the alphabet, according to the police report, and appeared in a disheveled mugshot that was splashed across local newspapers and blogs. Another board member, Ms. Pearson, called the incident “further confirmation of irresponsible, immature tendency for self-indulgence” by Ms. Clark and demanded, in a public letter, that she resign as president. Ms. Clark’s supporters gave speeches praising her leadership and criticizing her opponents at a later board meeting.

Mr. Walker, the former Navy service member, brought one Maricopa student to tears earlier in the year when he publicly berated her for supporting pro-immigration legislation. The incident took place on Capitol Hill, on a trip to Washington as part of a Maricopa public-policy program. Mr. Walker remained unapologetic, even telling a local reporter that the program should be axed because it encouraged students to advocate for liberal causes. The other four board members later wrote a letter calling his behavior inappropriate.

Maricopa has received several complaints from students and staff members about Mr. Walker’s occasional comments, which they describe as racist and homophobic. The district has paid lawyers $23,000 to investigate those complaints, according to system documents. But the biggest spark for the growing furor over the board’s conduct came last April, when Ms. Clark proposed cutting the salaries of top Maricopa administrators. She placed the item on the board’s agenda one day before its next public meeting. Several administrators and faculty members showed up in protest, and the item was later tabled. A few days later, an anonymous person claiming to be an employee sent a letter to one of Maricopa’s accrediting groups, saying the board was acting out of line by surprising employees with the proposed salary reduction.

In response to the letter, Rufus Glasper, the system’s chancellor, commissioned an outside committee of community-college presidents and board chairs. The group visited Maricopa, spoke with employees, watched hours of taped board meetings, and issued a scathing 27-page report in September.

Four of the five board members act “without any discernible understanding or appreciation of either the complexity of the district or of the role/responsibility of the board as a governing body,” the report said. The committee also said board members encourage employees and students to bring concerns directly to them, a practice that is generally frowned upon in higher education. The board has tried to wrest control over student newspapers and course content, according to the report, and members have attempted to influence student admissions.

These actions, the report states, are “ultimately unfair to those whose responsibility it is to carry out the work of a very complex organization.”

E-mail messages sent from board members to one another and to administrators, obtained by The Chronicle, seem to confirm the report’s depiction of a sometimes unprofessional board. In a disagreement with Ms. Clark about permanent pay cuts for top administrators, Ms. Pearson in September sent the board and Mr. Glasper an e-mail message with the subject line: “I call you out, LIES DO NOT BUILD TRUST!” In her note, Ms. Pearson accuses her colleague of lying about the nature of the proposal in order to build support for it and implies that her behavior is similar to Satan’s.

Board meetings, which are open to the public and videotaped and posted online, also depict an aggressive and micromanaging board. In a February meeting, Ms. Pearson halted a routine approval of a slate of administrative issues because she wanted to know why one of the Maricopa colleges was hiring a new gardener when finances were so tight. The college’s president defended the need for the position, saying the gardener would tend the grounds surrounding a new science building and there would be no way to manage the land without the additional person. After 15 minutes, Ms. Pearson agreed to hire the gardener on a temporary basis as the board examines whether such work can be outsourced to reduce costs for the district.

Shared Governance?

Board members defend their efforts to curb costs at Maricopa, which has had its share of financial scandals. In 2006, local newspapers reported several incidents of mismanagement, including administrators who spent more than $300,000 of district money on international trips and a faculty member who lied about the number of students in a course, inflating the number to keep the class off the chopping block.

Two college presidents were forced to resign because of the incidents. Mr. Glasper created a panel in 2006 that examined the system and drew up recommendations for preventing fiscal abuse. Employees can now call a 24-hour hotline to report incidents of financial misappropriation and conflicts of interest.

In an interview with The Chronicle this month, Ms. Clark repeatedly referred to the board’s responsibility to taxpayers, especially as money is tight in Arizona, which has been hit hard by the recession.

“There is a higher level of responsibility for every elected official,” she says. “If we’re going to take that responsibility seriously, we need to honor every dollar that comes to us and is entrusted us.”

Honoring those dollars means being heavily involved with management, she and other board members say.

“The board sets policies that are strong and healthy and set the tone for good things to happen,” Ms. Pearson said in an e-mail message, while “administrators are the captains that make all the decisions as to how to make it all happen.” Together, she says, “the two create a healthy balance for a wonderful system.”

However, Rick Vaughn, a mathematics professor at Paradise Valley Community College, says that power balance is far from wonderful.

“The actions of the board impact the colleges,” he says. “A lot of people are fearful of what’s going to come next.”

The outside committee’s report found that Maricopa was not in the same financial bind faced by other higher-education institutions in Arizona, such as Arizona State University. But it warned that the board’s poor leadership could eventually harm the system’s bond rating and threaten its accreditation.

Despite complaints about the board, there isn’t much anyone can do to change its composition. According to state law, board members, who serve six-year terms, can be removed from their positions only if they commit a felony or if they are recalled by voters.

Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who represents presidents and board members, said having elected boards was far from ideal.

“The political process does not lend itself to producing a good range of people,” he says.

But another higher-education expert defends the board, saying its examination of administrative costs and the decision to keep taxes and tuition low are the right moves.

“They don’t necessarily have their act all together, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be looking at all these issues,” says Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “They should.”

At least one Maricopa professor is hoping to change the system in the long run. Jim Simpson, president of the district’s Faculty Association, met last week with a state legislator to talk about altering the board’s structure. Mr. Simpson, a professor of computer-information systems and business at Scottsdale Community College, is proposing that the board be increased to seven members, with the hope that a larger group would make more thoughtful decisions.

Mr. Simpson does not pull his punches when describing the current board.

“They don’t have a clue,” he says.


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