NAACP wants meeting over Harford college trustee chairman's job

Senator backing off calls for leader to resign

March 14, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The Harford County chapter of the NAACP is calling on a state senator to sit down with the group and outline her reasons for recently demanding the resignation of the community college's board of trustees chairman.

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents southern Harford County, said Friday that she is backing off recent threats to dissolve the Harford Community College board of trustees if its chief, Bernard F. Barnes Sr., does not step down.

But calls for the resignation of Barnes, who is black, have resonated deeply among African-Americans, who make up about 9 percent of the county's population and have little representation in town and county government.

"It disturbed me that Dr. Barnes would be the one that's bashed. Why him?" said Laura Copeland, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"We are concerned," Copeland said. "Maybe there's something she knows that we don't know. "

Jacobs said she would be "delighted" to talk with NAACP members. "This is not about anything other than the direction of the college," she said.

Jacobs said that although she is no longer seeking Barnes' resignation, she still plans to meet with him this week to address lingering concerns about months-long contention over openness and governance on the Churchville campus.

"He's done some really good things, like finally allowing public comment" at trustees' meetings, she said.

Barnes declined to comment.

Positions such as Barnes' take on added importance as a larger voice for the black community, Copeland said, because among the three town and county legislative bodies, one elected member, Barbara A. Jenifer-Ferguson on the Havre de Grace City Council, is black.

Barnes and fellow trustee Agnes Minor, along with Salina M. Pleasant-Grice on the county school board, are "critical" to African-American residents, she said.

"Most of them," Copeland said, referring to other elected officials in the towns and county, "do not really recognize our needs."

At Tuesday's Harford Community College board of trustees meeting, more than 50 people, representing the NAACP and Ames United Methodist Church, attended in support of Barnes.

For several months during the fall and winter, disagreements involving the leadership style of President Claudia Chiesi and the board festered. Some faculty members, upset at changes in shared governance on the Churchville campus, took their concerns to members of the General Assembly because they said they were being shut out of the process unfairly.

Allegations from some delegation members have included noting anonymous claims of intimidation against faculty members and calling Barnes "a puppet" to Chiesi's autocratic style.

Copeland said the group observing the board meeting saw none of that Tuesday night. She said Barnes, who finishes his term as chairman in the spring, may be the head of the group, but he has only one vote and she doubts he alone could drive the board's decision.

"Those people are strong people," Copeland said of the other board members, some of whom served with her late husband, Charles Copeland, who was also a trustee. "They have strong minds."

She pointed to Barnes' experience as a public schools administrator as an indication of his ability. Copeland said his having to defend his ability to lead is "an injustice."

Barnes' administrative roles in Baltimore City and Harford County have included serving as principal at Lake Clifton/Eastern High and Harford Technical High before becoming assistant superintendent for educational services in the Harford schools, the post he retired from in 2002.

So Copeland and others in the black community are left to wonder whether more troubling issues could be behind the attacks from the lawmakers.

"As a member of our community, we know he is an outstanding citizen, an outstanding educator and an outstanding church member," said Phillip Hunter of Bel Air. "We don't understand the rationale behind attacking Dr. Barnes."

But Leonard D. Wheeler of Bel Air, a retired College of Notre Dame professor who works in lay ministries with the Methodist Church, said he fears that he does know where the attacks spring from. "There is a test," Wheeler said. "I hate to apply this test: If Bernard were white, would the response be the same?"

Jacobs said she was not alone in her concerns about campus governance. She said her office has received about a dozen letters from Harford County residents on the issue, at least one that suggested her actions have been racially motivated.

"If [Trustees] Fred Simmons or Lee McDaniel were trying to block input, I would have asked for their resignation, too," Jacobs said. "I see the NAACP's involvement as an opportunity to sit down and let them see that that's not what this is."

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