Kelly takes on college challenge Restoring confidence at 3-campus system is a formidable task

March 09, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Francis X. Kelly, the hard-charging new general of Maryland's largest community college system, says peace is at hand.

But while the board chairman of Baltimore County's two-year schools has already earned high marks for his energy and earnest style, his task remains formidable in attempting to inject energy and positive direction into a badly battered system and demoralized staff of faculty and administrators.

Militant professors, distrustful of trustees and concerned about abolition of tenure, are calling for collective bargaining. These professors also are concerned about a drop in spring enrollment and the growing number of younger students who require remedial work in math and reading.

"There is no reason in the world why this system can't be a national model, but it's going to take work," said Kelly, who was sworn in last week as chairman of the board that governs campuses at Essex, Catonsville and Dundalk.

"I believe in academic freedom, I believe in a clear chain of command and I believe in accountability. There will be accountability because I want everyone to support the most important people in this system -- the 70,000 students."

Kelly steps into a system reeling from the firing in January of chancellor Daniel J. LaVista. The board he chairs has been criticized as a throwback to a "good-old-boy network" controlled by political leaders.

An angry Baltimore County Council cut millions from the system's budget because members saw LaVista as an empire builder who could not adequately explain where savings from his reorganization were going into education.

To start his campaign of improvement, Kelly has hired a respected educator and national expert on higher education, James L. Fisher. Eventually, interim Chancellor Harold D. McAninch will be replaced by a permanent system chief, and sources say Kelly wants to hire a top financial administrator who will work more closely with county budget officials.

In tightening board responsibility, Kelly will also form executive, academic affairs and finance committees.

Fisher, a former president of Towson State University who has advised more than 300 higher education institutions nationwide on governance issues, will conduct an orientation course for the 11 trustees and has advised them to read one of his books, "The Board and the President."

"We are working for a more enlightened relationship between the board and the chancellor," said Fisher, who will receive an annual consulting fee of $100,000.

Fisher says that "community colleges represent one of the greatest contributions to higher education in history. Other nations, like China, Russia and South Africa, have in the last decade seen community colleges as the great equalizer. It's a beautiful idea."

Political background

Kelly, a former state senator and a confidant of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who appointed him, has been busy since January visiting campuses and meeting with lawmakers and higher education officials in Annapolis and members of the County Council in Towson.

Already, faculty leaders, trustees and elected officials who have met Kelly say he brings energetic leadership, knowledge of higher education and an intimate understanding of the political landscape. That understanding could lead to increased public funding for the college system.

"He's impressive," said Michael Cain, a Catonsville professor and president of the school's American Association of University Professors chapter. "He appears ready to get the board out of the rigid ideological framework that took the system to the brink of chaos."

Larry Aaronson, a veteran Catonsville economics professor and leader of Save Our Colleges -- a private corporation funded by faculty and staff -- said that Kelly "brings political expertise and respectability to the board he can work a room."

Lingering mistrust

"But," Aaronson said, "there remains great trepidation among the approximately 700 faculty members because we still don't trust the board."

He said collective bargaining would end such unilateral actions by the board as its workload changes and abolition of tenure and would provide "a mutual meeting of the minds between the board and faculty."

He said faculty members at Montgomery Community College have had collective bargaining for five years, and the idea is gaining strength in Baltimore County.

Another outspoken critic of the board, Essex Professor Margaret Guchemand, said Kelly "seems to have a good handle on higher education. He sounded as if he was respectful of what we do."

Added Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Perry Hall Democrat: "If Frank Kelly can't restore faith and direction to the colleges, nobody can."

Bouquets aside, Kelly's task will be difficult.

In January, the faculty called for the ouster of the trustees after the panel -- itself afflicted with regional infighting and charges of ineffectiveness -- eliminated tenure for new faculty members and demanded more accountability for professors and their workload.

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