Leader's style hurts college, delegates say

President's autocratic ways said to damage morale of HCC faculty

Atmosphere of intimidation

Chiesi denies running school with iron fist

January 18, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford Community College is being operated under a strong-arm, autocratic system that has damaged faculty morale and may be hurting student performance, according to county legislators and at least one member of the school's board of trustees.

Conflict at the school is such that legislators may press for a state investigation, or seek to dissolve the board of trustees.

HCC President Claudia E. Chiesi and other college officials dismiss the characterization of her management style. "Anyone in a leadership position, out in front, takes a lot of shots to do their job," she said.

She said she has been "very direct and resourceful" in doing the job given to her, but denied that she runs the school with an iron fist or in an autocratic fashion.

In letters to county legislators, some HCC faculty and staff members describe the school as a place where employees are penalized for creative thinking and are treated with little respect.

They say there's an atmosphere of apprehension and intimidation in which employees lose their positions for openly expressing concerns and criticism.

According to a survey conducted in October by the HCC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, of the 75 percent of the full-time teachers at the college who responded, 87.5 percent said they would vote "no confidence" in the president if the faculty were able to have such a vote.

The chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which identifies itself as a professional group established to promote the values of higher education and ensure higher education's contribution to the common good, has been barred from meeting on campus. Professors say it was viewed by the administration as a bargaining unit, rather than a professional organization.

Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Republican representing Harford County, says, "It's terrible. It is very autocratic. The president [Chiesi] runs the campus with an iron fist and people are threatened. Believe me."

But board of trustees Chairman Bernard F. Barnes Sr. said he doesn't think the survey accurately reflects the thoughts of the faculty. "My confidence in the president remains. I speak for myself, but I am almost certain the board would agree," he said.

Trustee Valerie Twanmoh thinks the lawmakers have a one-sided and distorted impression of the situation on campus.

"Maybe we have problems," said Twanmoh, who has been on the board for three years. "But to this point, the only problem that I have heard mentioned is twofold. There is a problem in communication between the president and the board chairman on one hand and the faculty on the other. This has caused a real morale problem. The faculty feels they are not being heard or respected."

Twanmoh said there have been changes on campus - such as eliminating the Faculty Council - and not everyone was happy with them.

She said the board heard from a representative of the disgruntled faculty last summer, "and all we heard was generalizations. ... With no specific complaints, we felt the situation was no more than a reaction to change and in a little time things would work out.

"We have heard from many people on campus who say they feel good about the changes, that they feel good about the direction the college is going."

Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the county's legislative delegation, said he has received about 60 letters of complaint. As a result, he said the lawmakers are warning that if the college administration and the trustees don't move soon to address the unrest on campus, the delegation will.

"People are afraid to speak up in public and say what is happening to them," said Glassman, a Republican from Harford County. "Most members of the delegation think it would be better if the problems at HCC are settled on campus and not in Annapolis."

He said the delegation is looking at several options, including dissolving the board of trustees, having the Maryland Higher Education Commission launch an investigation, and demanding that the trustees meetings have more opportunities for public comment.

Barnes admits that not everyone on campus is happy. But he does not feel that the problems are as great as portrayed by the legislators.

There are some on campus, he said, who have taken "entrenched positions against any decision the board makes."

Barnes says the college is moving to address the campus unrest. He declined to be more specific, but acknowledged that it could involve meetings with the faculty and staff where all the issues are openly discussed.

Barnes said he has received only one letter of complaint from a staff member and knows of no other board member receiving a letter. He said the letter had to do with the decision on the local chapter of the AAUP.

"They hide behind a shield of anonymity," he said of malcontents on campus. "They say they fear reprisal. But never in my seven years with the board have I seen any act of reprisal against a person on campus."

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