A controversial president moves on
Former student Sakia Fletcher is one of many in the MEC community who believed they were retaliated against for speaking out.
Rudy Crew, who has been dodging calls from the campus community to resign for nearly a year, stepped down as president of Medgar Evers College (MEC) on February 28.
It has been a wild ride to say the least. Last April, Crew indicated that he would soon leave the college for a superintendent position in Georgia’s DeKalb County School District for which he was a final candidate, but his candidacy was ultimately rejected by the school board. At the end of May 2020, CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez announced that Crew, who has served as MEC president since 2013, would be retiring at the end of the 2021 Spring semester. But some in the community wanted Crew gone immediately.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of the slain civil rights leader for whom the college is named, reportedly blasted Crew’s record after his failed bid for the DeKalb County post this past summer, saying in a letter to the CUNY Board of Trustees that his leadership is “exacerbating a deteriorating situation in an institution that carries our family name.”
Owen Brown, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at MEC, was quoted in the New York Daily News last summer saying that as Crew spent time seeking the DeKalb position, he “left the college adrift as our faculty worked valiantly to provide online distance learning.” Crew’s time at MEC has been marred by “declining enrollment, retention and graduation rates,” added Brown, who called for Crew’s resignation at the time.
“Crew entrenched an administrative leadership group which exploited ethnic and other divisions among faculty and staff to advance individual agendas and parochial interests,” said Terrence Blackman, an associate professor of mathematics at MEC, upon hearing news of Crew’s resignation. “The resulting patronage, nepotism and cronyism has stunted the growth of the college,” he said, adding that “our academic and social justice imperatives were stifled or dismissed in favor of the unfocused and unsustainable whims of favored insiders.”
Blackman welcomed Crew’s resignation, saying, “This is a much needed first step along the path to rebuilding the college around its historic mission.”
Other faculty and staff have gone on the record to say that Crew’s presidency has led to a downturn in educational quality at the school. “We’ve lost 25 percent of core faculty,” said Kathleen Barker, a professor of psychology and the chair of the MEC Faculty Senate, referring to the faculty situation under Crew’s tenure. “This is a huge hit.”
According to Zulema Blair, the chair of the college’s public administration department, MEC students have also struggled since the start of the pandemic. “Students and faculty were lacking in everything: supplies, internet access, laptops…. Students weren’t being given the equipment that they need to effectively participate [in online school].” she said.
In addition, at the time the PSC protested the layoffs of more than 1,000 adjuncts, Medgar Evers College, along with Bronx Community College, was responsible for the largest number of three-year appointment denials for incumbent adjunct instructors. PSC activists delivered a petition to the MEC campus administration to demand that it reappoint all 66 teaching adjuncts eligible for new or renewed three-year appointments and “reduce the maximum class size to the Spring 2020 level of 28 students.
Blair, Blackman and Barker were among the MEC faculty and staff, joined by other community members, who had called on Crew to resign rather than serve out the remainder of the academic year. In addition to bad leadership, they said, Crew oversaw an environment of bullying and intimidation against colleagues and students.
Consider the case of Sakia Fletcher, who as a student in the Spring of 2019, attended a Community Board 9 hearing at Medgar Evers College to verbally express her displeasure with a local development project supported by the local City Council Member Laurie Cumbo. The next day, Fletcher says, MEC gave her an emergency suspension effective immediately, which barred her from communicating with teachers and from entering the college. Fletcher, who graduated from MEC last year, is currently suing both the college and Council Member Cumbo on the grounds that her First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
Crew was not an unknown entity when he arrived at MEC. He had served as the city’s schools chancellor under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, before going on to serve in a similar position in Miami-Dade County Florida public schools and later as the chief education officer in Oregon. He attracted controversy in each of these roles. The Miami New Times – in a wide-ranging investigation involving interviews, formal complaints and legal documents – characterized him as “a poor chief executive who will do almost anything to enhance his image as an education reformer, even if it means protecting corrupt but loyal administrators or firing those who expose misconduct.”
Crew has not been without his supporters, though. Chancellor Matos Rodríguez hailed Crew’s leadership last year, and in a piece published in Kings County Politics this past summer, several faculty members and administrators (including Clinton Crawford, the PSC chapter chair at Medgar Evers College) praised the outgoing president, saying, “We have implicit confidence in the unrivaled leadership and unwavering commitment of President Crew.” Some faculty believe the problems at MEC are not Crew’s fault and that he inherited an underfunded and flawed institution and that Crew’s skillset as a K-12 administrator didn’t effectively translate to the CUNY setting.
David Orenstein, a professor of anthropology, said that while he understood that faculty had concerns about Crew’s leadership, the former president had responded to a variety of anti-Semitic attacks against Orenstein, including the vandalization of his car in the college parking lot. “Crew was kind, courteous and deeply supportive of me during this difficult time,” Orenstein said, adding, “for this, he gained my support.”
But Blair said that Crew’s leadership had split the faculty and staff into two “tribes,” one that was critical of his leadership and one loyal to the administration. She hoped that his resignation would bring a new day to the campus.
“We’ve witnessed this tribalism at Medgar Evers College,” she said. “Tribalism has no place in an academic institution. We need a president who is a visionary and who will work with faculty and staff to establish a collegial and supportive academic environment for faculty, staff and students. We need leadership who understands and implements the mission and objectives of social justice for which the college is built on, and for which the community needs. We will work extremely hard to reverse the damage that has been done and rebuild a stronger and more robust Medgar Evers College, a historic Black institution.”
For his part, Crew said in his resignation letter that he is “immensely gratified by the growing array of programmatic innovations initiated in our school of education, business, liberal arts and science, health and technology,” and that there were “a good many more achievements and milestones along the way.”