New President Faces Backlash

Faculty and student leaders alike criticize leader of Minnesota's Rochester Community and Technical College over issues of spending, hiring and communication.

November 25, 2015
Leslie McClellon

It's gone downhill quickly for the new president of Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota.

The concern over decisions President Leslie McClellon has made in her 18 months in the position culminated Monday in an open letter from the college's student senate and faculty and staff unions to the Minnesota State Colleges and University System, calling for a change in her leadership.

"Without quick and decisive change, we fear McClellon's administration will irreparably harm the reputation of RCTC, lower the quality of education we offer our students and alienate our community partners. In her 18 months as president, her management has harmed virtually every corner of the campus," stated the letter, which was signed by the Minnesota State College Faculty Union in Rochester; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 4001; and the Minnesota State College Student Association in Rochester.

The three groups detail a number of ways McClellon and her administration have, in their view, harmed the campus of about 12,000 students. They allege that the president created a position on the RCTC Foundation board and filled it with a personal acquaintance, that she failed to address a list of concerns from faculty members months ago, and that she spent tens of thousands of dollars on ornamentation and a celebration for the college's centennial. In particular, there were concerns over spending $6,800 on a baroque, ceremonial mace and $3,200 on a custom-made gold chain for the celebration.

The faculty and students also question McClellon's hiring of Anthony Brown, a former administrator at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, as vice president of student affairs and enrollment management. A RCTC search committee for that position forwarded the names of three other applicants to McClellon, all of whom she subsequently declined to hire in favor of Brown. Michael Wenzel, the RCTC student senate president, demanded Brown's offer be rescinded around the same time the campus learned from news reports that there was criticism of Brown's handling of sexual assault complaints on the North Carolina campus. McClellon later announced that Brown wouldn't take the position.

"The students are relieved that McClellon reversed her decision to bring Anthony Brown to campus," Wenzel said. "Unfortunately, this was simply the latest in a long train of poor decisions and abuses of power that faculty, staff and students have had to endure during McClellon's tenure. The working and learning environment at this college has become toxic."

In an emailed response, McClellon said she's been "encouraged" by the discussions taking place with both groups and individuals on campus.

"College leadership and I appreciate the questions and concerns and continue to welcome the opportunity to discuss issues that affect our campus," she said. "I acknowledge there are people in our campus community who have not agreed with all the decisions that have been made. My commitment has been and continues to be open dialogue and honest communication with the college community so that we may address concerns and move forward with our work. The students and the communities we serve deserve our attention and excellence in providing a skilled workforce and transfer opportunities."

McClellon wrote that she and her administration have been focused on carrying out a strategic plan and preparing for the college's reaccreditation with the Higher Learning Commission.

As for the questions that surround her spending decisions during the college's centennial, McClellon responded, "We are very proud of our 100-year history of providing outstanding educational opportunities to our community. [RCTC] is the oldest public two-year college in the state of Minnesota and one of the oldest in the country … RCTC's centennial is a milestone in the history of the college and these pieces are tangible representations of our college leadership, our promise and our commitment to the students and community."

Students still remain concerned about the spending on the ornamental mace and other ceremonies McClellon organized.

"It seems rather tone-deaf of college administrators to spend so wildly when the college is facing a $2 million budget deficit, a mandatory tuition decrease and falling enrollment," Wenzel said. "Less than a week or two after the centennial celebrations, they were announcing faculty layoffs and other cuts to boot."

But Jennifer Erwin, the steward of the Rochester AFSCME Local 4001 chapter, said communication with McClellon has been nonexistent since nearly the first day she arrived on campus, and she isn't sure if the relationship between the employees and the president can be fixed so easily. McClellon has repeatedly failed to meet with the union that represents the college's support staff, and she has shown up to meetings she has attended late, Erwin said.

"I fear she's ruining what this college has been for the last 100 years for the community and the success of students. There's so much bad going on that we're not celebrating our success," Erwin said. "Ultimately our goal will be to remove her, but we also need to make sure we are taking the proper steps within the system. We don't want this to look like we just can't get along with her, or don't like change, or that it's a personality conflict. It's taken a long time to have all our ducks in a row."

Erwin said the culture of the campus has changed as well, with some employees afraid of retaliation, however, a number of upcoming meetings have been scheduled, including with McClellon, to address these problems.

Wenzel also said that the student senate will send another letter to the MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone today detailing again the problems with McClellon.

"I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed," Rosenstone said, in an email. "From my perspective, the campus community is engaging in open and honest discussion about some very important and very sensitive issues and I support the ongoing dialogue. RCTC is in sound financial health and will continue to play a critical role in the region, providing an opportunity for students to have a brighter future and helping to deliver the talent that both Rochester and Minnesota need."

Rosenstone hired McClellon in April last year. She took the presidency in July after serving as a vice president at the Community College of Denver.

McClellon did have widespread support from faculty and students when she first arrived on campus, said Darci Stanford, vice president of the Minnesota State College Faculty Association, adding that the joint letter from all three representative campus groups was a first.

"There's always a transition when you get somebody new and you have to learn some new things, but it sounds like the faculty has tried through different measures and shared governance to steer and help her acclimate to the climate and she's gone off making decisions on her own," Stanford said, adding that faculty tried to resolve these issues with McClellon privately months ago before going to the system office and the media.

Wenzel said students remain optimistic that someone will step in and fix the situation.

"Our hope is that something can be resolved without trying to damage the reputation of the college or damage the reputation of the system," he said. "A no-confidence vote would be a last step."


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