Directing upheaval at community colleges LaVista restructuring Baltimore Co. system

February 11, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In spreading his gospel about Baltimore County's community colleges, Chancellor Daniel J. LaVista invokes the Japanese phrase kaizen -- clear the mind.

And he uses that philosophy to fend off critics and remain focused on his goal of restructuring Maryland's largest two-year college system, with more than 70,000 students.

Recently, the chancellor ran into a storm of protest over a plan that called for senior employees to line up 30 minutes after midnight and stand in line for 6 1/2 hours to compete for 50 slots in a limited buyout. He apologized, canceled the plan and expanded the buyout to the nearly 400 eligible employees.

"I didn't manage that well," said Dr. LaVista, 51. "I take full responsibility for it."

Despite repeated complaints about his management style, he continues his mission -- slightly scarred but undaunted.

As the colleges face cuts in state and county funding, and enrollment dips, Dr. LaVista is directing sweeping changes at the campuses at Essex, Catonsville and Dundalk. He is consolidating courses and services, and the first stage of his plan calls for some administrators and faculty to be "dislocated," a euphemism for early retirement, transfer or a contract that is not renewed.

To his critics, Dr. LaVista is an aloof bureaucrat, an empire builder with a handsome salary and perks. Some are rankled that he has a new office in Towson and that he has hired several former colleagues from the Midwest since starting work in September.

'Corporate mentality'

Detractors say his official explanations are punctuated with techno-babble as he executes a painful reorganization of a system in which 1,200 people teach and work.

"The buyout was symbolic of the corporate mentality," said Stanley Markowitz, a history professor for 26 years at Essex. "Dr. LaVista is coming here at a difficult time, but that mentality is not conducive to the changes the chancellor says he wants to make."

Dr. LaVista's defenders, however, say he is dedicated and bright, a dynamic leader set to lead the colleges as one system into the next century.

Al Starr, a veteran English professor, said "some of the things he's written in his memos, I have a problem with, but when I see him in person, he's very powerful. I'm very impressed with him. We'll have to see how it works out, give him time."

The chancellor says he isn't wasting that time. He's at several campuses a week, meets regularly with representatives from the business sector and briefs trustees on the restructuring.

"I'm still a stranger in Baltimore County, and I'm listening to students, faculty and administrators so they can have a hand in creating what we want to do," said Dr. LaVista, who as a boy dreamed of coming to Baltimore and replacing Johnny Unitas as the Colts' quarterback.

The former professor and president of the College of Lake County in the northern suburbs of Chicago said that if the colleges produce quality students, the surrounding localities will benefit and grow.

The colleges will continue to serve as gateways to four-year institutions for younger students, he said, and as centers for retraining for older students.

No ivory tower

"The average age of our students is about 32," he said. "A lot of them are federal government-types who have been downsized, or others in private industry who are seeing signals that their jobs are not secure and they need additional training; their security and piece of mind are threatened."

Dr. LaVista said the community colleges also must help the students who need remedial training in reading, mathematics and critical thinking.

"This is not an ivory tower teaching post," he said. "These widespread needs require our faculty to help those students learn how to study for a test, how to take notes. But that is something we do very well because our faculty has that sensitivity. They want those young persons to succeed."

The community colleges must compete for students with the area's four-year institutions such as Towson State University and Villa Julie College. And the outcome could depend on how instructional techniques keep pace with technology.

Ronald G. Abe, a retired high school teacher and the system's board chairman, said Dr. LaVista was hired "to improve efficiency and productivity and it's a difficult job. For more than 30 years you have three institutions that have existed separately and now people are seeing a [unified] approach.

Painful memories

"LaVista is taking a lot of heat because people are anxious for their jobs, but that will pass. It will take three or four years before things are phased in and we are fully supportive of our new chancellor."

While Dr. LaVista notes that he is a stranger in Towson and the eastern county, he's intimately familiar with the anxieties of reorganizations or plant closings.

He was raised in upstate New York. His father didn't graduate from high school and was a laborer in a tanning factory.

That factory was closed, the work sent to Asia and his father had to commute nearly 100 miles a day for his new job.

"I recall the stress that caused to my family," the chancellor said.

"It's still sad to go back home."

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