Baltimore City Community College unified by struggle to get off probation

President, faculty leader say they're finally on the same page with accreditation threat looming

  • Carolane Williams, president of Baltimore City Community College for the past five years, says of the recent turmoil at the school, "I knew I was going to have to tough it out."
Carolane Williams, president of Baltimore City Community… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
January 28, 2012|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Carolane Williams does not flinch when confronted with the particulars of her difficult year, which included an employee uprising and unwanted scrutiny from the leader of the state.

"I knew I was going to have to tough it out," says the woman who has led Baltimore City Community College for the past five years.

She regards the backlash as a natural byproduct of bold leadership, though others have accused her of pressing ahead on questionable decisions without regard for useful input.

After a turbulent year marked by internal conflict, probation from its accrediting agency and sharp criticism from Gov. Martin O'Malley, the college is finally making positive strides, according to Williams, board Chairman Gary Rodwell and faculty president Chima Ugah.

"The current climate is like night and day compared to last year," Ugah says. "It was toxic."

Ugah's comments come 13 months after the faculty issued a vote of no confidence in Williams' leadership, citing poor communications and autocratic decision-making.

That was only the beginning of the president's troubles. In July, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education put the college on probation, saying the institution lacked any comprehensive method for assessing student achievement. If the college, with an enrollment of about 7,000, does not show progress during a review this spring, it could face a devastating loss of accreditation.

Then, in September, O'Malley overhauled the college's board, appointing five new members. "The governor has been disappointed with the lack of progress," a spokeswoman said at the time, "and he believes now is the time to infuse the board with new leadership."

Williams did not take O'Malley's rebuke quietly. In a letter, dated four days before O'Malley announced his new appointments to the college's board, Williams said she was bothered by a "disparaging" comment the governor made during a phone conversation between the two. She said O'Malley had criticized her and the board for "not taking the interests of students seriously."

"I really regret having to write this letter, but I must say your call was most disturbing to me," Williams wrote, before outlining some of the college's successes. "Never before have I been so berated and felt so disrespected."

Rodwell says he was also surprised by the governor's dissatisfaction, because the college had significantly increased its number of graduates and its enrollments in science, technology, engineering and math, all areas of interest to O'Malley.

Asked three months later for her reaction to O'Malley's criticisms, Williams smiles and says, "Who am I to question the governor of the state?"

A spokesman for O'Malley says the governor has no new comment about the college or its leadership.

But Williams, Rodwell and Ugah all say the new board has been helpful in getting the college on track.

Ugah, a professor of information science, says, "With the newer ones, we have a lot of people asking the right questions, people with educational backgrounds."

The new trustees, who include a Venable attorney, downtown business leaders and representatives from Morgan State and Johns Hopkins universities, deferred comment to their chairman.

"I think the new members are magnifying the need for data-driven accountability," says Rodwell, who has served on the board since 2009.

He, Williams and Ugah also agree that the Middle States probation has unified the campus behind a single goal.

"It has, by necessity, demanded more frequent and effective communication among faculty, staff and the administration, more intense collaboration on measuring student learning outcomes," Rodwell says. "There's a shared sense of urgency about getting the college off of probation."

"That is the underpinning," Williams says. "If we don't have accreditation, we might as well all pack our bags and go."

When Williams came to Baltimore in 2006, she took over an institution that had already endured years of turmoil. Low graduation rates and daunting needs for student remediation had long since become the norm.

Her predecessor, Sylvester McKay, resigned in 2004 after an unflattering report from the Abell Foundation revealed that the college spent $700,000 on math teaching software without making a plan to assess its effectiveness.

It took the state nearly two years to find a full-time replacement. Williams, who had served as provost at Broward Community College's North Campus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., arrived promising a "new day."

Williams, a community college product herself, talks about the work as a calling. "I know what that college did for me," she says. "I believe this is what I'm supposed to be doing, and my faith in God helps me stand firm on what needs to be done, no matter what happens."

Williams made several significant changes early in her tenure. The college moved classes out of its highly visible Inner Harbor campus on Lombard Street, saying the costs of maintaining the building outstripped the benefits to students.

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