A welcome change at CCBC

Chancellor Kurtinitis' style praised by staff and students


Growing up in an area of Pennsylvania where most men worked in the coal mines, Sandra Kurtinitis seemed bound for the drudgery of a job in a local dress factory.

But she had other dreams that would carry her past the mountains surrounding her home in Wilkes-Barre. And last week, as she set out to inject a new spirit into the Community College of Baltimore County, she said she will draw upon her character shaped by her blue-collar upbringing, and the wisdom and people skills culled over 30 years in higher education.

"My dad, a coal miner, told me, my three sisters and brother that we'd all be teachers. He taught us to embrace possibilities," Kurtinitis, the school's new chancellor, said. "He was right. We all became successful because of the examples of my parents, children of immigrants, who showed us that love mattered, as did hard work."

Kurtinitis, a former college president, English professor and author, said she aims to "re-establish a high spirit of morale among the faculty and staff because CCBC has taken it on the chin over the last couple of years."

At the school of 70,000 students, she seems to have made a good first impression.

During her initial meeting with about 350 professors and administrators in August, she got a standing ovation, said Thomas M. Lingan, chairman of CCBC's board of trustees.

And after her first full day on the job Oct. 31, Kurtinitis, 61, dispatched an e-mail to faculty and administrators.

Part of it read, "When you see me out and about on the campuses, please step right up to me to introduce yourself. ... We will do the important work we have to do together better if we know, value and trust each other."

It was signed "Sandra."

"She is devoid of ego," Lingan said. "The college needed her touch, her humanity. Sandra is in sharp contrast to her predecessor."

Irving Pressley McPhail stepped down as CCBC chancellor in June amid growing complaints about his leadership style.

"It was his way or no way," said Baltimore County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder. "He was the authority. Nobody at the college felt part of the team."

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said McPhail's "singular rule caused a lot of friction. A chancellor is supposed to be the head of a team that includes the faculty, students, staff, the community, business. ... That was not happening."

Before he resigned, McPhail was criticized for spending $400,000 to move his office from Catonsville to Dundalk. McPhail could not be reached for comment for this article.

Trustees at the school said they expect Kurtinitis to quickly address some nagging problems in the three-campus college. Among them are concerns about administrative salaries. The central administrative staff includes at least four vice chancellors and other top administrators. Annual salaries for three of the vice chancellors range from $140,000 to $160,000, county records show. An interim vice chancellor is paid $103,000 a year.

Since CCBC has been one system of governance for several years, the position of campus president also might be eliminated, Lingan said. Two presidents currently administer the campuses at Dundalk, Essex and Catonsville. Each president earns $145,000 annually, records show.

"One of the directions we are leaning toward is more of a horizontal organizational structure, less top-down," Lingan said.

Officials also want the new chancellor to move away from McPhail's "Learning First," philosophy that emphasized student engagement over lectures. Some faculty found that while the approach brought national attention to CCBC and McPhail, the system seemed to have little impact in the classrooms.

This week, Kurtinitis will also begin working with the board on a budget of nearly $150 million for the next fiscal year.

Those who have met her say they are impressed with the chancellor's warm style and academic credentials.

"She will be a quick study in getting a handle on her new job," said John Walker, a professor in the math and science department at Essex since 1985. "She is a down-to-earth person who appears to understand that she has to trust people who work for her."

For Anthony Brown, the president of the Student Government Association at Dundalk, the "atmosphere at school has changed since she came here. It's her personality."

Students are more hopeful, he said, that they will be included in dialogues about campus issues. "After meeting her, talking with her, I can say that we, the students, are going to be in the room when decisions are made."

Kurtinitis, who signed a three-year contract that pays her $190,000 a year, came to CCBC from Quinsigamond Community College in central Massachusetts, where she served as president for 10 years. She also spent 22 years at Prince George's Community College, where she was a professor of English and the department chairwoman.

"Sandra is a very complete person, a standout, and we were sorry to lose her," said Roland Gauthier, chairman of Quinsigamond's board of trustees.

Kurtinitis earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in British literature and she holds a doctorate in American civilization from George Washington University.

While prepared to work long hours, she said she wants to strike a balance between her job and pursuits such as playing tennis, attending the theater, hiking and traveling. Lingan said that Kurtinitis can also play a mean polka on her accordion.

She has three grown children, including a daughter in Washington state who is a professional smokejumper - a parachuting firefighter who battles rural and forest fires.

Kurtinitis said her efforts won't stop at the college boundaries. She said that she will strive to regenerate connections with the campus communities, something that slipped, critics say, during McPhail's nine-year tenure.

"The communities are our soul," she said, "We don't have ivy walls around us. Reaching out, including the people who live and work around our college, will be crucial."


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