'Distracting and Destabilizing' Controversies at Contra Costa

Chancellor Bryan Reece was reinstated by the Contra Costa Community College Governing Board. He was put on administrative leave amid a tumultuous year for the district.

October 4, 2021
(Contra Costa Community College District)

The governing board of the Contra Costa Community College District in California reinstated Chancellor Bryan Reece last Thursday after putting him on administrative leave with pay two weeks ago.

The decision to allow Reece to return came after a lengthy special governing board meeting -- where Reece urged the board to reconsider, and faculty and community members made impassioned pleas on his behalf -- followed by a closed board session that lasted over five hours until just after midnight. Three out of five board members voted in favor of the chancellor's reinstatement.

Reece was put on administrative leave on Sept. 14, less than a year into his chancellorship. Andy Li, the board president, said at the time in an email to the campus that the decision was based on "personnel matters" but did not give further explanation.

"There was information the governing board has reviewed that indicated that it was in the best interest of everybody involved that the chancellor be separated from his regular activities as chancellor of this district to ensure a fair and thorough investigation of this personnel matter," Timothy Leong, the district's director of communications and community relations, said prior to the chancellor's reinstatement. He noted that the investigation is ongoing.

Reece told the board during the public comment portion of the special meeting that the district's investigation procedures have been "widely acknowledged as flawed" with unclear policies. He said he suspected a lawyer advised them to keep him on administrative leave, and board members are entitled to a "second opinion."

"Don't forget, your constituents put you in charge," he told the board. "Don't ever give that away."

Larry Ladd, a senior consultant at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said in general, such a "quick turnaround" for reinstating a campus leader from administrative leave is "unusual." Administrative leaves usually happen when there's a suspected "case of dereliction of duty or unethical conduct -- and it would be a case where you investigate and conclude whether there's justification for further action or not."

It remains unclear why Reece was placed on leave, but rumors swirled about the polarizing decision.

Reece is a first-time chancellor -- he started on Nov. 1, 2020 -- presiding over a district of three colleges in Northern California: Contra Costa, Los Medanos and Diablo Valley community colleges, which together serve more than 50,000 students.

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Some faculty and staff members questioned the process by which he was hired, because the other final candidates dropped out of the running before the board made a decision, leaving Reece as the only option unless the board chose to restart the search process.

He was fired from his previous position as the president of Norco College in Riverside, California in June 2019, despite dissent from faculty, staff, and students. More than 700 people called for his reinstatement in an online petition protesting the decision by the Riverside Community College District Board of Trustees. The board did not publicly give a reason for his dismissal.

A group of Norco College faculty members sent a letter of support for Reece to the Contra Costa Community College District governing board. The letter described Reece as an "exceptional leader."

"He was dedicated to social change, which involved him dismantling old systems of power that no longer serve the institution or its constituents," the letter reads. " … While our faculty were never given an adequate reason for his dismissal, many of us feel it was due to an internal power struggle between an old and a new way of envisioning college leadership roles."

Some of Reece's defenders at the board meeting last week described him as a new leader lacking in experience at the helm of a district plagued by rampant investigations and complaints, high administrative turnover at the college and district levels, and the unpredictable challenges of a pandemic.

Donna Wapner, a health science professor at Diablo Valley and former faculty union president for the district, described Reece as a "new chancellor who needed support."

"We knew that," she told the board. "I think all of you on the governing board said that when you were hiring someone for a three-college district who had never been a chancellor before."

Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, which represents campus leaders in the state community college system, said new chancellors often struggle to manage board dynamics and a college district's "particular history and nuances and issues," especially if board votes are often split.

Jeffrey Michels, executive director of the district's faculty union, said while Reece came into the position in an "odd way," Michels was inspired by the chancellor's focus on social justice issues in higher ed and closing equity gaps.

Several leaders from local branches of the NAACP spoke in favor of Reece's reinstatement and praised him for creating advisory councils of Black, Latinx and Asian American and Pacific Islander community members.

Contra Costa College is particularly diverse, with a student body that's 46 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Black and 14 percent Asian.

Reece is "looking through a different lens as to how we break down this barrier of access and inclusion" in a district "now more Black and brown in terms of students than it is white," said Willie Robinson, president of the Richmond California branch of the NAACP. Robinson served on the screening committee that selected Reece as one of the final candidates for chancellor.

Some district employees have a different view of Reece.

Neal Skapura, president of the district's classified staff union, AFSCME Local 1, said some of the chancellor's recent actions felt untrustworthy.

The Titan Group, an outside investigator hired by the district's human resources office, accused Reece of interfering in a probe into possible misconduct by a college employee. According to the investigator's June memo to the board, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, the district's complaint hotline received an allegation that an instructor paid students to enroll in his classes and then allowed them to drop the classes after census day when colleges take a formal count of enrollment numbers​. Reece assured the employee in text messages, images of which were included in the memo, that he would shut down the investigation. It also alleges Reece put the chief human resources officer on administrative leave after he spoke up about the "unethical actions Chancellor Reece was proposing."

"As a contracted vendor that has worked with this college for years, I am shocked by Chancellor Reece's antics, improper behavior, lack of ethics, and poor judgment," Edward Saucerman, president and owner of the Titan Group, wrote in the memo. " … This behavior by Chancellor Reece is unprecedented and calls for a full-fledged investigation into his actions and relationship with an employee facing several allegations of misconduct."

Saucerman declined a request to discuss the report but said the group has worked with the district for at least nine years.

Michels said Reece made the decision to halt the investigation with his support and "in dialogue with union leadership." He believes the investigation into the instructor was further proof of a culture of weaponizing complaints within the district.

Another source of conflict was the chancellor's enrollment recovery plan, which would spend up to $10 million over the course of three years on marketing to students with a goal of increasing enrollment by 15,000 students. The district's student headcount fell to 31,058 from 34,201 students, a 9.2 percent drop, from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Community colleges nationwide experienced enrollment declines during that same period with particularly steep drops across California's 116 community college system.

Leong noted that a new state funding formula for community college districts, which goes into effect in the 2024-2025 academic year, will base a significant portion of the funding on student success metrics and other factors. That means funding levels will be more difficult to predict.

The shift is a "big, big deal," Leong said. "I think that what we came up with is a comprehensive plan that I believe is a smart, visionary way of approaching this dilemma that we're facing."

However, Skapura said he and others raised concerns that up to $10 million was an exorbitant and "unprecedented" amount for a community college to spend on marketing.

"We all came to the same to the same conclusion -- we're flushing money away on this stupid thing," he said.

Skapura also believes Reece behaved unethically in the planning process. VisionPoint, one of the firms hired to help outline the marketing plan, was allowed to bid on the contract to implement it, a decision some administrators advised against. Reece recused himself from the selection process to address potential legal concerns and VisionPoint was ultimately chosen in April. The board reversed course in May and rescinded the contract after seeking additional legal counsel.

Nonetheless, "at that point, the whole thing looks tainted," Skapura said.

Michels believes this incident​ with the marketing firm may have landed Reece on administrative leave but "if it was the wrong thing to do, I think he made the mistake innocently." He believes there was "nothing corrupt about the process."

The district was already embroiled in conflict before this latest debacle. The governing board did not extend the contracts of the chief financial officer, the chief human resources officer and the executive vice chancellor of administrative services, who served as interim chancellor at the time, last year to the consternation of staff and faculty union leaders. All three have sued the district, according to Skapura.

The chief financial officer, Jonah Nicholas, left the district for another job, according to Skapura. The two other administrators remained until the end of their contracts but have since been put on paid administrative leave without explanation. Dio Shipp, the associate vice chancellor and chief human resources officer, was put on administrative leave in June and Eugene Huff, executive vice chancellor of administrative services, was put on administrative leave in August.

Meanwhile, two of the board members who voted not to renew the contracts, Vicki Gordon and Greg Enholm, were separately found to have committed ethics violations, including putting undue pressure on administrators and harassing fellow board members, and were not re-elected in November 2020.

Michels told the board that placing Reece and other senior administrators on administrative leave has been "distracting and destabilizing."

"We are spending an enormous amount of time in this district putting out fires that we are lighting ourselves," Michels said. "I'm a professor. I want to work on student issues. I work for the union to make it easier for my professors to teach and create learning conditions and teaching conditions that are ideal. And I can't do that if there's nobody at the district office to be a partner in negotiations and problem solving."

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Sara Weissman

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