Most lists of the most influential community colleges nationally would include the Maricopa Community Colleges, a Phoenix system known for incredible growth, curricular innovations, a highly diverse student body, and an ambitious distance education program. However successful the system has been, though, its board has been found by an expert panel to be more than a little out of control.
An expert panel of community college presidents and trustees last week issued a report based on reviews of tapes of Maricopa board meetings, interviews with trustees and employees at all levels. The panel was convened after anonymous employees complained to the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools about board micromanagement that violated the accrediting association's rules and the norms of governance.
The findings largely back the complaint. And while there are many boards that come under fire by faculty or student groups, the level of criticism is highly unusual coming from a panel of presidents and trustees, conducting an inquiry for an accreditor.
Among the findings about a majority of board members:
- Board members displayed "a consistent lack of civility ... toward each other and to members of the college community."
- Four of the five board members appeared to regularly act "without any discernible understanding or appreciation of either the complexity of the district or the role/responsibility of the board as governing body."
- A barrage of information requests from board members and "hostile" demands have created "a climate of fear and intimidation and a culture of mistrust throughout the organization."
- Board members constantly refer to voters who elected them and obligations to represent their views, regardless of whether those views reflect the mission of the college. For example, the report cites one board member's campaign to remove references to diversity and the values of inclusiveness from district plans.
- Board members have consistently undercut senior administrators in tasks in which they should be involved. For instance, the report finds that the board members developed the last budget plan by themselves, without any consultation with administrators.
Among the findings that apply to various individual board members (the individuals aren't named with regard to specific issues) were that board members:
- Attempted to censor the student newspaper.
- Asserted the right to control course content.
- Meddled with personnel decisions, trying to both serve on search committees and then to approve selections as a board member.
- Asked (inappropriately) about dates of birth of district employees
- Attempted to influence admissions decisions in programs, such as nursing, that have competitive admissions.
- Engaged in "proselytizing behaviors" with regard to religious and political views.
- Made "inappropriate and offensive comments about race, ethnicity, religion and gender preference."
The report notes that many of the board members interviewed justified their actions by saying that they were acting on behalf of students. But the report questions this, and includes as an example a Maricopa report on the conduct of Jerry Walker, a trustee, when he accompanied district students on a trip to Washington to meet with members of Congress and their aides to talk about issues of importance to Maricopa.
The report was a response to a complaint by one of the students on the trip, who charged that Walker interrupted her presentation and those of others -- while they were in Congressional offices -- when she and others spoke about the DREAM Act, which would provide a route to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and pursue at least two years of college or military service.
The student said that Walker cut her off and indicated his disagreement with her views during the meetings in Congressional offices, and between visits to various offices told her she shouldn't have spoken in favor of the legislation and accused her of acting inappropriately. The student asked to be excused from some of the visits because she was afraid after a certain point to talk about her views in the trustee's presence.
The investigation notes that advocacy for the DREAM act had been an explicit part of the group's agenda, which had been provided by district officials to Walker in advance of the trip to Washington. Further, the investigation finds that every member of the delegation (except Walker) backed her view of how she was treated rudely, and that the position she was taking was entirely consistent with views of the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees.
The internal investigation says: "Each person interviewed described Mr. Walker's behavior as demeaning, bullying, inappropriate for the setting, and unfair to the student. Several said it was a blatant abuse of power. All interviewed, with the exception of Mr. Walker, stated that his outbursts were out of line. Furthermore, they stated that his actions resulted in students becoming fearful to speak about the issues which had been approved by college officials and for which they had prepared. Several described the setting as oppressive and a ruined or diminished educational opportunity."
In response to the charges, the report says that Walker said that "the entire episode had been orchestrated by liberal administrators and staff in order to embarrass him," but that when he was asked for evidence to back up this view, he offered nothing.
The Maricopa board has not responded formally to the findings, and the board president and Walker did not respond to e-mail requests for comment. But Colleen Clark, the board president, told The Arizona Republic: "We welcome the opportunity for board members to partner together with district administrators and move forward as progressively and cooperatively as possible."
Walker, in a Republic interview, questioned the assumptions in the report about the importance of shared governance. "The way they're treating us is, they're treating us like we're supposed to be subject to their authority," he said. "People who are elected by the people are not subject to the authority of the people who are hired."
Rufus Glasper, chancellor of the district, issued a letter with the report on the board, saying that he was hiring a facilitator to work with board members and administrators to improve the governance of the system and to respond to the issues raised in the report.