A mass meeting of Medgar Evers College faculty on December 8, 2010, endorsed a statement of no-confidence in the president and provost of the college. With close to half of the college’s tenured faculty taking part, the measure was approved by a vote of 59 to 6, with one abstention. It sharply criticizes President William Pollard and Provost Howard C. Johnson for taking a “dictatorial and confrontational” approach.
The detailed resolution faults Pollard and Johnson for poor leadership and management skills, hostility toward faculty and staff, cutting funds from essential student services and distancing the college from the surrounding community in central Brooklyn, with which it has maintained a close relationship since its founding in 1970.
“There are multiple issues that always come back to the same thing: A lack of respect for the mission and the legacy of the college, and incompetence in how to follow proper governance process,” said Brenda Greene, a professor of English and the executive director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College (MEC).
Greene is one of five members of the steering committee of the Committee of the Whole Faculty, which was launched in November by a group mostly senior faculty. The group’s organizers say it was needed because the college’s Faculty Senate was no longer functioning effectively; they cite a failure to meet regularly and a flawed election in which fewer than 25 votes were cast.
The College Council, MEC’s overall governance body which is chaired by the college president, saw its November and December meetings cancelled, just as the controversy over President Pollard’s leadership came to a head.
In an open letter to the college on December 10, Pollard dismissed the no-confidence vote as a statement from an unrepresentative minority. The college has 182 full-time faculty, fewer than 75 of whom are full or associate professors, plus a larger number of adjuncts. According to Greene and others, a majority of the 66 faculty members who voted on the no-confidence measure are tenured, and the vast majority are full-timers.
The broad show of dissent, which drew media attention in the Daily News, Our Time Press and elsewhere, followed months of simmering frustration. While the president and provost often speak of making the college a student-centered institution, critics say its actions have undermined prospects for student success.
The no-confidence resolution notes that under Pollard and Johnson the college’s Center for Teaching and Learning and its Writing Center have been eliminated, the number of tutors has been cut, and staff in the library and student computer lab have been reduced, while the hiring of high-paid administrators has grown.
The catalyst for the December 8 meeting was the sudden non-reappointment of at least 10 faculty and staff. Like many others, Eugene Pursoo, a distinguished lecturer in the Department of Public Administration, was handed his letter of non-reappointment by a campus security guard as he arrived to teach his class. Pursoo sat down at his desk at the front of the class, read the letter, and told his shocked students he had just been informed that next semester would be his last.
“I thought the whole process could have been handled with more dignity,” said Pursoo, who has been at Medgar since 1996 and helped launch its Department of Public Administration in 2002.
Earlier that morning, Sahidha Odige received a letter of non-reappointment from the same campus security officer while working at the circulation desk at the Medgar Evers Library, where she is a fifth-year CLT. “It was pretty public,” Odige told Clarion.
Odige had been transferred from her previous position in the college president’s office to the library last February. Her non-reappointment came despite a glowing evaluation in September from the library department chair, and a unanimous vote from her department in support of recommending her for tenure.
“This kind of behavior cannot and should not be condoned in any academic institution,” said PSC Chapter Chair Clinton Crawford. Such incidents, he said, are part of a growing pattern of arbitrary actions by the college administration.
“We are appalled that faculty at the college are being treated so unprofessionally and with such a lack of collegiality,” said [retired] PSC Director of Contract Enforcement Debra Bergen. “The college’s faculty deserve to be treated with respect for their rights under the contract.”
A number of faculty and staff were given letters of non-reappointment after the contractual deadline of December 1. This is a clear violation of the union contract, said Bergen, and if this happens to you it is critical to file a grievance before the contractual time limit runs out, in most cases on January 11. If you have received a notice of non-reappointment, she said, call the union office immediately at 212-354-1252.
The Medgar Evers administration has also been faulted for indifference to the historic mission of the college, and turning its back on MEC’s historic links to the central Brooklyn community. One flash point has been the college’s academic and co-curricular centers, many of which connect scholarly research with community service and a focus on social justice, and offer collaborative educational opportunities to students at MEC.
One of the major projects of the Center for Black Literature (CBL) has been the National Black Writers’ Conference, a biannual meeting that brings prominent authors and poets to MEC. Past participants include Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, Maya Angelou, Samuel Delany, Edwidge Danticat and Amiri Baraka. Novelist Walter Mosley has called it “the most significant gathering of black writers in the country.”
One of its main funders has been the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and CBL Director Greene has secured a series of NEA grants supporting the conference in previous years. But this past summer Provost Johnson initially refused to sign off on Greene’s application for an NEA grant to support the next session of the conference in 2012. According to Greene, Johnson balked at the prospect of having to grant her reassigned time to work on the project, and did not relent until two days before the application deadline, under pressure from an NEA official.
The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions has been less fortunate. On December 3, it received notice it was being evicted from its campus offices as of December 30.
Staffed by former prisoners with advanced degrees, the Center for NuLeadership had been part of MEC since 2004. Its work on criminal justice policy issues and support services for ex-offenders who enroll in college have built a strong reputation among advocacy groups working on prisoner re-entry issues. Earlier this year, the new administration at MEC blocked a NuLeadership grant proposal for a program in which first-time non-violent drug offenders would attend college or other educational programs under court supervision, instead of being sent to prison. NuLeadership staff had secured such arrangements in a number of individual cases, and sought to expand the idea into a broader program. Johnson and Pollard, however, objected that the proposal raised insurance liability and security concerns for MEC and declined to support it – a stance that criminal justice advocates blasted as “evening-news risk assessment.” (See Clarion, Summer 2010.)
NuLeadership board member Eddie Ellis said the center would relocate soon and will continue its work. The broader question, he said in a December 20 statement, is what will MEC’s policy be “regarding formerly incarcerated students and other at-risk youth seeking to turn their lives around by acquiring higher education?”
In his December 10 open letter, Pollard defended his record. “Any recent changes in personnel have occurred as part of our routine academic and administrative decisions- making [sic] process,” he wrote. “My administration’s policies and practices reflect a deep commitment to the best interests of our college, and the standards of excellence that allow it to fulfill our college’s core mission.”
Pollard’s and Johnson’s critics, however, say that their concerns are supported by the administrators’ records at previous institutions. As provost at University of North Texas (UNT), for example, Johnson denied tenure to more than one-third of candidates in 2004, though all of them had support of their colleagues and deans. The University Tenure Committee at UNT said it was particularly troubled by Johnson’s refusal to provide reasons for his determinations. The head of UNT’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Don Smith, said that in one case Johnson admitted denying tenure based on an assessment of titles of published articles, without reading any of the articles themselves.
According to the Washington Post, Pollard left his post as president of the University of the District of Columbia after “the university’s Board of Trustees forced [him] to resign” in June 2007. That November, his successor told local officials that “gross mismanagement” under Pollard had wasted millions of dollars in public funds.
“The past of the president and the provost is a checkered one,” said Crawford. “To allow a situation like this to fester can only cause more dissent in the institution.”
While faculty support for the Pollard administration has collapsed at Medgar Evers, the president still has strong backing from 80th Street. On December 9, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein commended Pollard for his work. In a letter to Pollard, Goldstein wrote: “Your efforts to calibrate and set priorities in a difficult fiscal climate are to be commended…I firmly believe that your leadership, and that of your team, is advancing the very best interests of the student body.”
Despite the current turmoil, Greene remains hopeful that the situation at Medgar Evers College can be resolved.
“Chancellors will publicly support their presidents no matter what,” she said. “But presidents and provosts have been asked to resign before when the situation became unbearable and untenable for an institution.”