Balto. Co. college panel to decide chief's fate Board of Catonsville, Dundalk, Essex schools sets private meeting

December 22, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

The trustees of Baltimore County's three community colleges -- under mounting fire from angry faculty members -- plan to meet privately next week to decide the future of Chancellor Daniel J. LaVista.

Trustees have told The Sun that a vote will be taken Dec. 30 on whether to oust the veteran educator, who was hired in September 1995 to unite three independent campuses in Catonsville, Essex and Dundalk into one system and streamline administrative services. The board appears to have enough votes to oust him, the trustees said.

LaVista -- the system's chief executive officer -- was not invited to the meeting to be held at the Towson headquarters he created when hired. The public will not be admitted, but formal decisions must be made in public.

"There will be some defense of Dan at the meeting because he's a nice guy, but the job just hasn't been done," a board member said. "The votes are there for him to go because he has decided to represent parties other than the board that hired him. This was not a place for him to engage in empire-building."

LaVista, 51, has drawn criticism from public officials and college employees on several issues. For example, an early retirement plan would have had longtime employees line up at night for nearly seven hours to qualify; he also rented and remodeled offices in Towson, causing some to say he was creating a layer of bureaucracy.

He later apologized for, and canceled, that controversial provision of the early retirement plan. The Towson offices might be scrapped, too -- board members are examining ways to move the executive staff to the college campuses.

But it was LaVista's support of the faculty during the second phase of the system's reorganization that upset many board members, leading to next week's crucial vote, several trustees said. Through a spokesperson, LaVista declined to comment on reports that his job is in jeopardy or on the Dec. 30 board meeting.

"I knew when I was coming in that there would be significant challenges as part of a far-reaching reorganization," LaVista said. "I still view this as an exciting and professional opportunity. Yes, it is a difficult situation."

Last week, when the board approved a $76 million budget for fiscal 1998, several minor disagreements arose over budget questions between the chancellor and trustees, but there was no public sign of tension.

The 10-member board, which is appointed by the governor, needs a majority vote to oust the chancellor. His contract, which includes a $130,000 annual salary and numerous perks, runs through September 1999, but it allows the board to remove him (( with a $100,000 buyout.

Meanwhile, Patricia S. Florestano, Maryland's higher education secretary, wants to intervene between the colleges' faculty and trustees. She said she has requested a meeting with the trustees to "assist them in terms of . . . listening to the faculty."

"Changes in higher education are more effective when the faculty is involved. It seems the situation in Baltimore County is overheated, and I want to do what I can to help matters there," Florestano said. "While the board has direct management authority, I want to assure the citizens that the quality of education will continue."

Florestano's actions were prompted by a petition sent last week to Gov. Parris N. Glendening calling for the board resign. The demand from faculty leaders at the three campuses followed a proposal by the board last month to abolish tenure for new faculty members.

Under separate guidelines issued recently by the board, full-time instructors would be paid less for teaching summer classes, sabbaticals would be curtailed, and departments heads would have to spend more time teaching the system's 70,000 full- and part-time students.

Save Our Colleges, a group of faculty members, has hired an attorney to seek an injunction blocking those moves, which professors allege were crafted privately in violation of the state's open meeting law.

Larry Aaronson, head of Save Our Colleges and a veteran business professor, said the group also will file a formal complaint against the board with the state attorney general's office.

"We hope LaVista's not a casualty out of all this chaos, but it's shaping up that way," Aaronson said. "His sin was to listen to the faculty and believe in shared governance."

Michael Cain, an English professor at Catonsville and president of the American Association of University Professors chapter there, said, "LaVista came in thinking he was going to be a chancellor and found out he was a hatchet man.

"I think he was trying his best to serve all the parties involved in this -- board and faculty -- and that proved to be both his strength and weakness. While he never had a full opportunity to be chancellor, he was trying to execute some policies that shouldn't be executed."

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