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Forced Transparency

May 26, 2009

According to some critics in Alabama, Bradley Byrne is leaving the chancellorship of the state community college system as he came to it: for political reasons. Now, with the position opening, the state legislature has passed a bill that some hope will shed light on what they argue has been a shady selection process for the administrative post.

Earlier this week, Byrne announced that he will resign as chancellor of the Alabama Community College System in August. Many believe that Byrne, a former Republican state senator, is planning to run for governor in 2010. Though he has not formally declared his candidacy, Byrne is scheduled to make an announcement “about his future” this week.

Byrne’s 2007 appointment to the chancellorship was somewhat controversial, with critics arguing that not only was he unqualified for the position but also that no formal search was conducted, leaving him the lone candidate. Gov. Bob Riley, a fellow Republican, asked Byrne to take over the position following a wave of political corruption in the two-year system.

More than a dozen community college officials involved in the scandal have been convicted of crimes ranging from fraud to money laundering, and former chancellor Roy Johnson pleaded guilty to 15 corruption charges. Nearly three years since Johnson’s firing, the scandal still hangs over the system, and the former chancellor is still awaiting his July 1 sentencing.

The Alabama Education Association (AEA), the largest teacher union in the state, filed suit against the State Board of Education soon after it selected Byrne for the chancellorship at the suggestion of the governor. Hoping to keep him from the chancellorship, the union argued that the board had not properly conducted an open, national search for the position as generally required by state law for other senior positions. The union eventually lost the case and a subsequent appeal, at which point it was settled that no such process was required for the chancellorship.

Despite the courtroom loss, the union recently helped push a bill through the state legislature requiring that, when vacant, the position of chancellor must be “posted in a conspicuous place at each postsecondary school campus and worksite, including all state and local board of education offices, at least 30 calendar days before the position is to be filled.” The bill, which awaits the signature of Gov. Riley, states that this wait period cannot be “abridged or delayed except in emergency circumstances.” It also notes that an interim chancellor can only hold office for six months, after which a permanent selection must be appointed.

“We had a vacancy-posting bill for all other positions in K-12 and higher education, except for the [chancellorship], the state superintendent and all other appointed superintendents,” said Mary Bruce Ogles, AEA assistant executive secretary for field services. “Two years ago, when the chancellor of the two-year system stepped down, the governor appointed [Byrne], a sitting senator. It was all for political purposes. The board didn’t post the job and didn’t do any search. We had one chancellor resign one day and another appointed the next.”

Considering the turmoil the system was in at the time of his appointment, Byrne countered in an interview that the governor and the board were right to fill the position as quickly as possible. Though Byrne said he thought of himself as a stop-gap chancellor, meant to clean up a messy situation and eventually move on, he added that the governor and the board did not feel as if he could complete this mission as an interim.

“In general, I think it is better to do national searches for a position like this,” Byrne said. “Still, if you look at where we were two years ago, we didn’t have that luxury. The governor and the board needed someone to come in quickly, bring stability and do what needed to be done.”

Though Byrne said the two-year system did not work to help pass the vacancy-posting bill pushed by the union, he admitted that he “didn’t think it was a big deal.” He claimed that the same process that was used to hire him was used to hire his immediate predecessors and that the union did not raise a ruckus then. The union’s “problem,” Byrne continued, was that its leaders simply did not want him as chancellor.

Randy McKinney, vice president of the State Board of Education, did not wish to comment on the vacancy-posting bill until it had been signed into law by the governor. One of the board’s more vocal critics of Byrne, however, was not convinced that the new requirements would change much of anything in the appointment process.

Ella B. Bell, the only board member to vote against the appointment of Byrne, argued that the new rules were only as good as the board that enforces them. Despite the ruling against the union’s case, she maintains that the chancellorship should have remained open long enough for a search. By blindly accepting the governor’s selection, she said more-qualified candidates, including women and minorities, were unfairly ignored in the process.

“I didn’t come here to bring a lawyer who had never set foot in a classroom and make him head of postsecondary education,” said Bell, acknowledging a knock many made against Byrne, who does not have a doctorate but a law degree. “I want someone who is articulate, visionary and can work with the legislature. I want someone who is fair.”

Upon hearing of Byrne’s departure, Bell said she had never heard anything from him about leaving the chancellorship before his fulfilling his three-year contract. Still, like many critics, she said his intentions were obvious.

“It’s been apparent every since the day you came here that you would run for governor,” said Bell, restating her words to Byrne at a recent board meeting. “You came here to build a platform off of state dollars. Everybody knows you were put here to run.”

Of this criticism, which many union members have also echoed, Byrne only offered a simple response.

“I don’t know of a single person who has gotten to be elected governor as a chancellor of a two-year college system that is between two major criminal investigations and amidst Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of a scandal by a local newspaper,” Byrne retorted.

 

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