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Trustee Romances Raise Tensions

Trustee Romances Raise Tensions
September 22, 2008

Oh, the things we do for love.

After 28 years as a board member at Greenville Technical College, George Bomar resigned from his post last week, accepting that his 2005 marriage to a high-level administrator violated the college’s nepotism policy. But a committee of Bomar’s fellow board members deliberated on the issue for nearly a year before they signaled him to bow out, highlighting the sensitivity – and perhaps reluctance – they felt while exploring the implications of their colleagues’ campus romance.

“We realized we had to get this thing resolved, because it was a black cloud hanging over our head,” said Paul Batson, chairman of the Greenville County Commission for Technical Education, which oversees the South Carolina college. “We knew it was a festering problem we had to work out.”

A similar issue has arisen at Southwestern College near San Diego, Calif., where a university trustee’s relationship with an administrator has raised concerns.

While the cases at Greenville and Southwestern have prompted much debate, there’s little question that any romance between a trustee and a college employee presents obvious problems, according to Susan Johnston, executive vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

“It opens up the question of honesty, integrity and ethics,” she said. “And the appearance is a critical one when trustees need to be operating in a completely transparent and accountable way.”

The rather lengthy history of Greenville’s nepotism debate began in 2005, when Bomar became engaged to Barbara Lassiter, vice president for planning and technology. At the time, Bomar sought an opinion from the State Ethics Commission about possible conflict of interest issues, and the commission found no violations of state nepotism laws. But questions about the relationship persisted, and – under pressure from local government officials – the board formed its own nepotism committee in October of 2007. They also sought yet another ethics commission review, and this time the commission found that the college was obligated to follow its own policy, which was more stringent than state law. Under the policy, board members cannot have "significant influence or control" over anyone related by "blood or marriage."

Last Wednesday, 11 months after its formation, the nepotism committee issued a resolution stating that Bomar violated the policy by continuing to serve on the board after marrying an administrator. The ruling gave the veteran board member little choice but to resign, and Bomar did just that.

“Finally, the board said ‘we just don’t think this is appropriate, that it sends a message out that we really don’t want to have sent, and we don’t want any suggestion of a potential conflict of interest to the college,” Batson said. “And therefore, with great pain, the committee made its report.”

After his resignation, Bomar cited his past efforts to insure the marriage didn't violate state ethics rules, noting that "We were assured by all there was no problem," The Greenville News reported.

The newspaper described Bomar's resignation as an emotional scene, in which Bomar "broke down" while announcing he'd step down Oct. 1. Upon leaving an hour-long executive session that preceded the announcement, "grim and red-eyed" board members hugged each other, the paper reported.

Bomar declined an interview request from Inside Higher Ed, and Lassiter did not respond to telephone messages Thursday and Friday.

The board plans to revise – but not weaken – the college’s nepotism policy in order to remove ambiguity, Batson said.

California Policy Doesn't Ban Dating

A trustee’s relationship with an administrator at Southwestern College has also raised questions about the strength and clarity of nepotism policies. The college forbids the employment of a trustee’s “immediate family” member, but the policy expresses no such limits for people who are romantically involved or even for domestic partners.

As the Southwestern College policy is written, there appears to be sufficient wiggle room for the relationship between Yolanda Salcido, a trustee, and John Wilson, the college’s director of business services. The two have been openly dating for years.

Wilson acknowledged that, given his relationship with Salcido, “there might be a perception of ethical issues.” That said, Wilson noted that there is no policy in place that would forbid him from dating a trustee who, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, voted on raises for Wilson and cleared the way for building projects he oversees.

Even if Salcido could be considered a neutral party when voting on college-related matters, Southwestern’s own legal counsel noted in a 2004 legal opinion that "public relations" problems could be “negated to some degree” if she recused herself from votes that directly affected Wilson.

Given the complexity and interconnectivity of colleges and universities, however, it’s hard to imagine how a trustee could recuse herself from all the votes that might potentially impact her boyfriend, according to Johnston, who serves the Association of Governing Boards.

“In the case of marriage between a board member and staff member, it seems pretty clear to me that it’s a conflict that cannot be set aside or worked around,” she said.

Salcido and David Agosto, the board’s president, could not be reached for comment.

The relationship between Salcido and Wilson has raised enough concerns that at least one administrator says she resigned because of it. For some faculty, the relationship is seen as one symptom of larger leadership problems at the college, which saw four different presidents in the space of two years.

“Do I think it’s unethical? Yeah, because I think there are situations that are a conflict of interest, [or] that could be looked at or perceived as a conflict of interest,” said Valerie Goodwin-Colbert, president of the college’s Academic Senate. “I think that’s how many faculty feel.”

Yet, there’s little faculty can do to change the policy that appears to permit trustee/administrator relationships as long as there’s no marriage, Goodwin-Colbert said.

“[The policy] doesn’t go into detail about girlfriend/boyfriend [relationships],” Goodwin-Colbert said. “So nepotism, at least in this policy, is generally in regard to marriage or family. John’s right in saying ‘the nepotism policy doesn’t really apply to me.’”

But the absence of a written policy against such relationships at a college doesn’t make them any more appropriate, according to Johnette McKown, executive vice president at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. McLennan’s nepotism policy doesn’t specifically forbid relationships between trustees and college employees, but McKown said she thinks the board’s own ethics policies could be interpreted to preclude such relationships.

“I think it’s the safest position not to have a romantic relationship with someone over whose employment you have some responsibility,” said McKown, who has a background in human resources.

Problems of Perception

While much of the focus of nepotism cases concerns favoritism, trustee relationships raise other potential issues, McKown said. If a college employee is dating a trustee, the employee might be insulated from reprimand or dismissal, even if the employee were underperforming, she said.

“That would make it very difficult for the [supervisor] to terminate that person, because they might be fearful of what a board of trustees member would feel about that,” McKown said.

Those interviewed for this story invariably cited problems with the “perception” of conflicts of interest engendered by trustee/administrator relationships, even if such conflicts never arise. At Greenville Technical College, there was a growing perception in the community that George Bomar’s marriage might affect his impartiality as a trustee, according to Butch Kirven, chairman of the Greenville County Council.

Driven by complaints from constituents, the Greenville council took an unusual action, passing a resolution that condemned Bomar’s continued service on the board in light of his marriage to an administrator at the college. The council has no oversight authority over the board, but its nonbinding resolution prompted the quick formation of the board’s nepotism committee and, by extension, Bomar’s resignation.

Kirven, the council’s chairman, said he was less concerned with whether a policy had been violated, and more concerned with what he perceived as a clear conflict of interest.

“I didn’t think the situation was a good management practice, regardless of the nepotism policies,” he said. “I didn’t think the same situation would be acceptable in the corporate world or other large organizations, and I didn’t see why we needed to make an exception here.”

 

 

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