'Reign of Terror' at MassBay?

July 7, 2008

One critic has called it the “reign of terror.”

Since she took the helm at Massachusetts Bay Community College in 2005, Carole Berotte Joseph has weeded out a host of deans, received a faculty no confidence vote and, just last week, announced that the two vice presidents and the interim provost who comprise her entire cabinet have either resigned or been put on administrative leave.

And she fired her secretary, too.

Eunice Bellinger, who stepped down as interim provost Thursday, did so with a stinging, three-page resignation letter that she sent to the chair of the Board of Trustees.

“Carole Berotte Joseph has created an atmosphere on campus that is unacceptable and beyond repair,” Bellinger wrote. “Her ineffective, inadequate and abusive leadership style works to undermine day-to-day operations, with personal, personnel and fiscal costs.” She added that she has "witnessed, and experienced first-hand, countless instances, both public and private, of verbal abuse, degradation, and berating at the hands of President Berotte Joseph."

Other casualties of last week’s administrative reshuffling include Marc Eichen, vice president of information technology; Kim Gazzola, vice president of administration and finance; and Mary Connolly, the president’s executive assistant.

Joseph defended her decision Saturday, saying it was important to have new people in key roles.

“I know I have a lot of support on campus,” she said. “When these people left, there was glee on campus on Thursday. People said it’s about time.”

Joseph describes a silent majority of faculty and students who support her, but she concedes that she’s reached a veritable impasse with “four or five people who hate my guts, basically.” Included in that group are the leaders of the union representing faculty and staff, she said.

Joseph LeBlanc, president of the National Education Association-affiliated union, describes Joseph’s tenure as a “reign of terror.” The latest administrative reshuffling is another example of retribution, with the president removing those who don’t march with her in lockstep, he said.

“There are concerned people at this point across the entire state,” said LeBlanc, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council. “They just want the trustees to do their job and get rid of her.”

President Retains Key Support

While Joseph describes the criticism in Bellinger’s letter as isolated, the former provost’s words have a familiar ring to them. In late 2007, faculty voted no confidence in Joseph, blaming her for creating a “divisive and distrustful atmosphere” on campus and causing “institutional chaos.”

Despite such public rancor over the president, Joseph has retained important pockets of support. She maintains the backing of Jonathan Bower, chairman of the college’s board of trustees.

“I would say that as a board, different individuals are supportive or less so,” Bower said in an interview Saturday. “But as a board as a whole, we continue to support the president, yes.”

Bower further asserted that there may have been legitimate reasons for the latest restructuring.

“We are not pleased that matters have come to this point, but as you can imagine there are two sides to every story,” he said. “The president’s side cannot be made public; it would be inappropriate to discuss the specific personnel issues that have led the president to make her decision.”

Joseph has made sweeping changes before. She previously forced all existing deans and associate deans to re-apply for their jobs. None of them did.

“Whether [they didn’t apply] because they did not believe that they would be selected by a search committee and the president, or because they felt that she was forcing them out, is still a matter of debate on campus,” Bower explained in an e-mail.

Trustee Vote Tabled

Joseph’s rocky tenure reached a critical point last month, when trustees were slated to vote on a resolution of support for her. The resolution, which was tabled, would have created an official tally of supporters and detractors on what many describe as a divided board.

Bower says the resolution was tabled because trustees had not finished a formal evaluation of the president, which would have been appropriate to complete before the support resolution came forward.

But the back-story of how the resolution ultimately reached the board’s agenda illustrates the peculiar power play between Bower and Joseph, according to Connolly, who was recently forced out of her position as presidential assistant. According to Connolly, the first draft of the “support” agenda item called for a discussion of the possible “termination” of the president. Joseph responded with outrage, calling Bower and berating him, according to Connolly, who says she was in an adjacent office when the call took place.

“She saw that, called him and screamed at him so loud that you could hear her down the hallway with her white noise [machine] running,” Connolly recalls.

Joseph and Bower both concur that the agenda was changed, although they don’t describe their conversation as contentious.

By changing the resolution into a statement of support – and removing language about termination – the board’s view of the president’s leadership could still be sufficiently conveyed, Bower said. If the majority of the board didn’t vote for the support resolution, it would have sent the message that the president wasn't going to last, Bower said.

While Joseph has her critics, she has supporters beyond a few trustees. Tom Parsons, a professor of economics at the college, says the president is taking heat for shaking things up, often where they need shaking. Prior to her tenure, the college was top heavy with administrators – and faculty hiring was put on pause, he said.

“There has been a steady progression of eliminating administrative positions and hiring full-time faculty with those funds,” he said.

Insufficient staffing levels of both administrators and faculty were at the heart of concerns raised by state regulatory officials who looked into the college’s nursing program. The Board of Registration in Nursing said it had "grave concerns” about the college’s ability to run an effective program. The college has since addressed those concerns, and now has a "clean bill of health," Bower said.

But the board made serious allegations, including the charge that then-Provost Steve Berrien had tampered with nursing students’ grades. Berrien, who was hired by Joseph in 2007, disputed that he'd tampered with grades, according to The Boston Globe. He resigned, however, a little more than a year after he was appointed. His resignation, which Bower attributed to “personal reasons,” is among several transitions in the provost’s office during Joseph’s tenure that have contributed to instability throughout the college, according to some.

An as-yet-unnamed candidate has accepted an offer to take over as the college’s new provost, according to university officials. When he or she is appointed, it will mark the sixth transition within the provost’s office since Joseph took the helm a little more than three years ago.

Race Allegation Leads to New Complaint

The search for a permanent provost within the college has, in and of itself, become a source of controversy. Bellinger, who was appointed interim provost in January, was a candidate for the permanent post. So too was Derrick Manns, who is now assistant provost for the college. According to Bellinger, Joseph, who is Haitian, made a racially insensitive comment about the candidacy of Manns, who is black.

“She believed that the institution could not handle two people of color in the higher administration, meaning the president and provost positions,” said Bellinger, who is white. “That, to me, was personally unacceptable.”

Bellinger said, however, that she wanted to be considered a candidate for the permanent provost’s position, if Berotte Joseph were no longer the president.

Manns, who declined to comment, has filed a formal complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, according to several sources interviewed for this story.

Joseph denies making the comments about Manns’ race, but acknowledged a complaint was filed.

“How could I as a person of color make those kinds of statements,” she said. “It’s ludicrous.”

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