A Community College Divided

September 8, 2008

Will the real Charles A. Taylor please stand up?

Is he the president who led Thomas Nelson Community College, in Hampton, Va. to dramatic enrollment growth and found support to add key facilities? Or is he the president who demoralized faculty members, leaving many of this campus without tenure in fear for their jobs and posting their grievances anonymously on a blog? Or is he the president who, in his zeal to recruit students and keep employers of graduates happy, tried to water down the curriculum of a key program, ignoring expert opinion?

Following months of sparring with the faculty -- and strong public support from his board -- Taylor announced this month that he will be taking a nine-month leave. To many at Thomas Nelson, this is a story of an ambitious president whom board members hired and backed though state leaders and the board had every reason to know he would be divisive.

Taylor -- who turned down multiple requests for an interview for this article -- is no stranger to controversy. Of the three finalists for the community college presidency in 2004, he was deemed “unacceptable” by both the Faculty Senate and a college support staff association, said Joseph A. Gutierrez, Jr., chair of the college's board. These groups, in addition to the local board, which found Taylor “acceptable,” made non-binding recommendations to Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, who ultimately hires all community college presidents.

In one of Taylor's prior leadership roles, as chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane in Washington, he was fired by the institution’s board of trustees by a unanimous vote in 2001 -- without a publicly stated reason -- after only two years in office. An Associated Press story about Taylor’s firing states he was “criticized, particularly by faculty members who said he had a divisive leadership style, and for his demotion of several top executives.”

Acknowledging the two negative reviews of Taylor submitted to DuBois and his checkered past, Gutierrez said the local board still maintains he was the right person for the presidency.

“Reasonable people have different perspectives,” Gutierrez said. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I don’t think [Taylor’s selection] was anything against faculty. Taylor had great skills. Taylor came with some baggage, but we investigated and had discussions about those issues. We thought there was a lot of emotion there and that Taylor did not seem to be at fault.”

It didn't take long, once Taylor arrived, for professors to think that the board had erred. Almost two years into Taylor’s presidency at Thomas Nelson, faculty concerns prompted the local board to order that Taylor administer a morale survey in spring 2006. In response to the statement, “There is a sense of trust among the administration, faculty and staff,” only 18.4 percent of faculty members and other employees surveyed either strongly agreed or agreed. Additionally, 17.9 percent had a similarly positive response to the statement, “In general, morale and job satisfaction are high.”

More than a quarter of those surveyed either strongly agreed or agreed that they feel “comfortable speaking out on issues affecting the college.” A year later, in spring 2007, an anonymously penned blog entitled “Flagstiffed: Str8 Talk 4 A Community College” was born; it documents news and rumors of Thomas Nelson's administrative problems and issues with Taylor's leadership. The blog’s name is a play on “Flagstaff,” the title of the college’s employee newsletter. The blogger has a sharp and sometimes sarcastic tone, citing both news articles and numerous anonymous sources to criticize the college's administration. Recent posts have titles including, "Taylor Loses Mind, Attacks Faculty;" "Old Dawg, Old Tricks;" and "Hey Big Spender!"

Access vs. Rigor

At many colleges, professors gripe about administrative decisions but take comfort in guarding the curriculum. At Thomas Nelson, professors say they value the idea of community colleges as open access institutions and believe that they give opportunity while also ensuring academic rigor -- something they say Taylor challenged.

At most colleges curricular changes are approved by the faculty before presented to a board for ratification. At Thomas Nelson this year, Taylor brought a change to the board despite faculty committees twice rejecting it. He wanted to end a requirement that students pass a biology course before taking anatomy/physiology. That idea infuriated professors in the sciences who said it would set up students for failure and that it would be irresponsible to let students -- many of them bound for health-care careers -- avoid biology.

"I'm absolutely appalled that less preparation for success is desirable or allowable," Martin Zahn, biology professor, told The Daily Press at the time, noting that the requirement had been adopted by the board two years prior to combat the high failure rate of the anatomy course.

Agreeing with faculty concerns that the change would result in less-prepared students with a higher chance of failure, the local board unanimously rejected Taylor’s proposal. A faculty member with two decades’ experience at the college, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, called the move to bring the change before the board following two consecutive defeats “unprecedented.” The faculty member noted that Taylor proposed the change without any evidence that the biology prerequisite was causing a problem.

Pressure from "behind the scenes" was placed on Taylor to lobby for the change, Gutierrez said, adding that a local hospital with whom the institution works did not want some of its students to have to take the course when it did not apply to certain positions they filled. For example, he noted the course might not be essential for a lab technician whereas it might be for a nursing student.

“He screwed up,” Gutierrez said of Taylor and his push against the faculty for the curriculum change, noting that it was a concern for the board but that it did not change its overall opinion of his performance. “He took the hits for it. It was a mistake in judgment, but I expect lapses in judgment from people over time.”

Following the contentious debate concerning curriculum, the Faculty Senate distributed its own survey in late March. The lowest marks on the survey: only 8.6 percent of those surveyed either strongly agreed or agreed with both of the statements, “Overall, the administration is effective in meeting the college’s instructional mission” and “I believe the president is taking the college is taking the college in the right direction.” The qualitative remarks from faculty are overwhelmingly negative.

“The president has produced a climate with little trust,” one anonymous respondent writes. “Faculty and administrators feel threatened to give honest feedback for fear of retribution from the president. This is not conducive to a college that aspires to the free and unencumbered exchange of ideas. I think the college deserves, and must demand, much more from its president.”

Criticism and Commendation

Following the survey in late April, the Faculty Senate voted 56 to 18, with 3 abstentions that it “has no confidence in the leadership of President Charles A. Taylor." At the request of Taylor, the senate’s executive board outlined grounds for the vote. The board claims that Taylor circumvented the college’s governance procedure and failed to substantiate claims with data as requested. This appears to refer to the prior curriculum debate. Faculty leaders also claim that Taylor failed to provide adequate support for the “instructional mission” through his allocation of funds and contributed to a “climate of fear and retaliation.”

The night after the no-confidence vote, the local board expressed an entirely different opinion of Taylor, unanimously adopting a positive appraisal of his leadership. Gutierrez said faculty did not have as much perspective on Taylor and his positive effect on the college as did the board. Under his leadership, Gutierrez noted, the college has thrived; he added that its enrollment had grown and it had opened many new facilities. Since Taylor's arrival enrollment has grown from 11,000 to around 14,000. Also, the college recently opened a new academic center for commuting students in Newport News and will open a new campus in Williamsburg next year. Still, Gutierez said, Taylor was approached by the board concerning the negative response from both an updated administration-sponsored survey and the Faculty Senate survey.

“You have to take personality out of things,” Gutierrez said of the board’s appraisal of the president, adding that the board told Taylor to open more lines of communication with faculty to address morale and trust issues. “I don’t care whether Charles Taylor is loved or hated or whatever, as long as he gets the job done. I’m not in my role to make friends; I’m in my role to do my job. I am not always as understanding or friendly as I could be. I imagine that Taylor is the same way.”

At a town hall meeting in May to which all faculty and staff were invited, Taylor addressed the negative criticism levied against him following the faculty vote.

“The media may believe the biggest issue is the climate survey,” Taylor said, as quoted in a Daily Press story. “The media may believe the biggest issue is the no-confidence vote. The biggest issue is for us to move forward.”

A Typo and Racial Tension

The meeting also broached another controversial issue at the institution, when a contentious remark from a faculty member was openly discussed. One anonymous respondent to the faculty survey wrote, “TNCC is here to serve ALL members of the community, [sic] not simple [sic] African Americans. We do not need to be the first all black community college in the VCCS!”

Stating that these comments were taken out of context and that the comment had been improperly transcribed, the executive board of the Faculty Senate issued a correction of the statement following the meeting. The end of respondent’s first sentence, according to the addendum, should have read “not simply African Americans.” Barbara Hebert, current chair of the faculty senate, clarified this statement at the town hall meeting after concerns were raised that it was “racially charged” and “allegedly disparaging blacks and some staff members.”

According to 2007 data, 35.3 percent of Thomas Nelson students are black. The college's main campus is located in Hampton, Va., a city where nearly half of residents are black -- more than twice the proportion of the state as a whole. A faculty member with two decades’ experience at the college, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the racial breakdown of faculty was not equivalent, noting that it is overwhelmingly white. The faculty member also said that a majority of the classified staff, consisting of hourly workers, are black. Since the arrival of Taylor, this faculty member said he began hearing from both black and white employees that there was a “sense of racial resentment” around campus. Taylor, however, is not the first black president of Thomas Nelson. The faculty member noted that there was a black woman president for most of the 1990s, and that such an environment did not exist during her term.

“The sense was that in the Taylor regime there was a double standard: one for black employees and one for white employees," the faculty member said. "The only people being penalized for not doing their job properly were white faculty. I have never seen this kind of race conscious environment ever before. These African American faculty to which I spoke felt that Charles Taylor had created an atmosphere of racial division.”

Publicly, college officials and faculty do not mention racial issues among their concerns. Gutierrez said he attributes most of the divisions to personality differences, and the Faculty Senate's formal reasons for its no-confidence vote do not explicitly mention discriminatory practices. Still, anonymous comments from employees via the faculty survey, the oft-commented blog and those fearing retribution suggest some racial undertone to this conflict.

Taylor's recent announcement that he will take a nine-month sabbatical, starting next month, to head a research project for the state system has not generated an official response from the faculty. Jeff Kraus, a system spokesman, said Taylor’s compensation will not be affected by the research project; he will continue to receive $202,117 annually.

In a letter to faculty announcing his leave, Taylor wrote: “I am confident that the TNCC family will continue to work together in a manner that emphasizes respect and collegiality.”

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