Waiting for leadership

July 25, 2004

NINE WEEKS AFTER the abrupt resignation of Sylvester E. McKay, no interim president has been named for Baltimore City Community College. For longer than that, state authorities have let languish vacancies on BCCC's Board of Trustees, its governing body; the same officials stood idle while the hobbled board second-guessed its headstrong president on hiring and reform decisions.

What's taking so long? Management and accountability failures are preventing BCCC from achieving its potential as the main bridge to higher education and jobs for Baltimoreans, and there's no time to waste.

The community college is the first stop after high school for most Baltimore graduates; it should be a springboard for their hopes and dreams. But poisoned leadership and neglectful oversight of the community college, which is operated like a state agency, threaten its stability. It cannot follow through on promised and necessary academic reforms until internal power struggles abate or are defused; even the help sent by the governor - auditors, technical advice and a consultant lined up by Secretary of Higher Education Calvin W. Burnett - cannot alone overcome intransigence.

Some of BCCC's governance troubles can be solved only by the General Assembly, and only then if the Baltimore delegation snaps to, and unites to overhaul the state-run community college.

But classes resume in just a month. In the short term, BCCC's leadership must be shored up well before the legislative session begins:

The vacancies on BCCC's board must be filled, and right away, with Baltimore-based professionals who understand that a board's role is to set policy, not micromanage. The board hasn't been helped by state statutes that fail to properly separate some of its and the college president's powers, especially in hiring decisions. But if Baltimore's senators nominate and the governor appoints new trustees who have expertise in higher education, management and human resources - not just political connections - perhaps the board can steer clear of pitfalls.

Any current trustees who cannot collaborate with the newcomers should step down and take with them the board chairman, James E. Harris Sr., whose tenure has been dominated by turbulence. This board was too distracted from academic priorities. The governor and Baltimore legislators should make clear that the alternative is disbanding and reconstituting the total board.

The trustees must quickly name an interim president from outside the institution. This should be a proven leader in higher education who does not covet the position for the long term and who is beholden to no factions. There are too many internal candidates vying for control.

The search for the next BCCC president must get started publicly and with input from alumni and students, faculty and the business community. But state leaders must attend simultaneously to eliminating obstructions and putting BCCC on a solid foundation so its next president has a better chance at success.

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