Grudge Match

November 4, 2010

A conflict between the board and president at Daytona State College, in Florida, has caught the attention of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Now, after a faculty member complained that the board is overstepping its bounds and interfering with the college’s daily operations, the accreditor wants answers from the sparring parties.

The hubbub between Daytona State’s Board of Trustees and Kent Sharples, the college’s president, has been brewing for nearly a year. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports that it stemmed from a student housing project that was shelved last winter. Though Sharples supported the project, Forough Hosseini, board chair at the time, had concerns about it and the developer who was selected for it. Her husband is Mori Hosseini, a politically active real estate developer in the area, and also a significant donor to the institution; its College of Hospitality Management named after him. (UPDATE: An earlier version of this story noted that Mori Hosseini and his company were not selected to build the student housing project, implying incorrectly that he sought to build the project and that his proposal was rejected. He did not apply, and his company does not perform such work, and Inside Higher Ed regrets the erroneous implication.)

Following this public disagreement, the construction project was halted and Forough Hosseini stepped down as board chair, though she remains on the board. Additionally, several new board members appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, whom The News-Journal describes as a “close friend” of Mori Hosseini's, have aligned themselves with Forough Hosseini on many issues. Recently, several board members, including Hosseini, have been critical of Sharples’s handling of a financial agreement between the college and a local community foundation, which owes the college nearly $1.4 million for a music festival it organized.

Last month, Daytona State’s Faculty Senate came to the aid of the president, approving a resolution declaring their support for Sharples and urging him and the board to resolve their conflict quickly. Leonard Lempel, a tenured history professor at the college who drafted the resolution, told Inside Higher Ed that he did so because the simmering dispute between the two parties, covered extensively in the local media, was damaging the college’s reputation.

“I’m concerned that the best interest of the school isn’t being served by this whole personal vendetta,” Lempel said of the static between Sharples and the Hosseini family. “The struggle is hurting the college. I’d like to see the whole thing resolved. Also, I believe Sharples has been effective. I’m concerned that, should he leave, the current board would choose someone who was less amenable to faculty.”

Photo: PAAIA

Forough Hosseini, board member.

The faculty resolution was positive in order to avoid further unnecessary conflict, said Lempel, noting that he and other members of the Faculty Senate had abandoned the idea of trying for a vote of “no confidence” in the board in favor of one supporting the president’s leadership. After the resolution was passed, however, an unidentified faculty member sent a formal complaint to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the institution’s regional accreditor, calling into question whether the board was acting appropriately in fanning the conflict.

Belle Wheelan, president of SACS Commission on Colleges, would not share the letter of complaint or name its sender, but she did talk to Inside Higher Ed about some of the accusations made in the letter.

“We got a complaint that the board had overstepped its bounds,” said Wheelan, noting that SACS has asked Sharples to submit a report later this month outlining whether the board had violated the accreditor’s core principles. “There’s a spitting contest going on between one of the board members and the president. The board member is nitpicking everything that the president’s doing and accused the president of doing stuff he shouldn’t be doing. Now, [that board member] is questioning academic matters and pretty much anything else [she] can to make life difficult for the president.”

Wheelan said the college would have to demonstrate “in writing and in practice” to SACS that the board knows the “difference between administering an institution and governing an institution.” If the report from Sharples indicates that the board possibly overstepped its bounds, she noted that SACS would send a special committee to the college to investigate and discuss matters with the board, much like SACS did recently to resolve a board issue at South Carolina State University.

Photo: Daytona State College

Kent Sharples, president.

“When [Sharples’s] response comes back, we’ll decide whether or not the board is meddling,” Wheelan said. “Generally just a visit by the committee is enough to solve matters. Or, having to write a response usually gets folks to back off when we help them understand the damage they’re doing.”

Last week, at the latest Daytona State board meeting, Sharples retained his job; he had publicly expressed concern that the board would fire him. Still, according to an account of the meeting in The News-Journal, the board did discuss hiring a local attorney to conduct an independent audit of the “failed student housing project last year, the college’s overall bid process and the authority of the president to act without board approval.”

Sharples did not respond to requests for an interview with Inside Higher Ed, and college officials, including the board secretary, would not make board members available for comment.

Sharples did, however, confirm via e-mail that the college was preparing a report for SACS, per its request, addressing portions of the accreditor’s comprehensive standards including “board conflict of interest,” “external influence” and “board/administration distinction.”

Richard Grego, Faculty Senate president and philosophy professor, said he and other faculty members were "concerned about potentially losing accreditation over this." But he said that he and the Faculty Senate are reserving judgment on whether the board has been acting within its limits. Instead, like Lempel, he only wanted to note his support for the president and not to condemn the board.

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