A regional accreditor placed Luzerne County Community College on probation in June, citing concerns about the Pennsylvania college's leadership. But Luzerne's Board of Trustees is now considering a contract extension for the president, Thomas P. Leary, angering some local critics.
“It is inconceivable that the LCCC board wouldn’t even consider a leadership change,” said an editorial  by The Citizens’ Voice, a local newspaper.
The board hired Leary in 2008, without conducting a search. A 37-year veteran of the college, who had most recently been vice president of student development, he got the nod after having served as interim president for a year.
Leary’s four-year contract expires in February, less than a month before the college must submit a report demonstrating compliance in several administrative areas to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, its accreditor.
Trustees are still discussing Leary’s contract. But the county commissioner, Stephen A. Urban, has said that the board should not grant Leary a new contract while the college is on probation, according to The Citizen’s Voice.
Neither Leary nor the board’s chairman was available for comment on Wednesday afternoon.
The leadership questions pose a challenge for the board, which has had its own turmoil in recent years. Two former board leaders are currently in prison after corruption convictions that were unrelated to their board service.
If board members renew Leary’s contract, they’ll do so against the wishes of the leader of county’s Board of Commissioners, which selects the college’s trustees. But if they dismiss Leary, the college would be without its president amid accreditation problems.
What’s clear, several governance experts said, is that the college should have conducted a search when Leary’s predecessor stepped down. Colleges need to take a look at available talent before selecting a president, they said, and a formal search can help build confidence in an institution’s leadership.
“You should always do a search,” said Terry O’Banion, president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College. There is a great deal of turnover among community college presidents, and a search can help the odds of landing a president with sticking power. “The jobs are too hard” to not conduct a search, said O'Banion.
If the board chooses to search now, it would be almost impossible to pick Leary again, said Raymond Cotton, a lawyer with Mintz Levin who specializes in the contracts of college presidents.
A new search “should be the end of the presidency,” Cotton said, “because people would lose confidence in him."
It helps to have stable leadership during an accreditation challenge, observers said. But there are plenty of former college presidents who can ably serve as interim leaders, some of whom specialize in accreditation.
If Luzerne’s board opts to not retain Leary, it should bring in an interim president until the college is no longer on probation, said Angela D. Provart, president of the Pauly Group, a search firm that specializes in senior administrative positions at community colleges.
“You’ll have a much bigger pool of applicants,” she said, once the accreditation cloud is lifted. “Who wants to come in and touch that?”
Middle States put Luzerne on probation in June , after a site visit in which the commission determined that the college was not in compliance with its standards for administrative capabilities, institutional assessment, general education and assessment of student learning.
Luzerne, which is located near Wilkes-Barre, must present a report to the accreditor in March with evidence that it has in place a “chief executive and administrative leadership with appropriate skills, degrees, training, and assignment of responsibilities and functions to ensure that the institution is led toward the achievement of its goals,” according to a written statement  from the commission.
The probation notice came after embarrassing criminal episodes involving trustees and a college administrator.
Peter Paul Moses, a former associate dean, was convicted in July of stealing money and laptop computers from the college. An audit found  that Moses misappropriated $104,000 from the college cafeteria, keeping the cash rather than turning it in to the business office.
The two imprisoned former trustees were nabbed as part of a county corruption probe, but those criminal charges did relate to their roles on the board.
Urban told The Times Leader , a Wilkes-Barre newspaper, that the county’s Board of Commissioners has improved the quality of Luzerne's trustees. “Those are the people that are there to ensure young adults get an education and to look out for the interest of the taxpayers,” he said.
Whatever the board chooses to do with Leary’s contract, they should move fast, said O’Banion. Lingering uncertainty about leadership won’t help win over the accreditor.
“You need to fish or cut bait,” O’Banion said, “and do it quickly.”