Faculty cite maintenance problems
The Bronx Community College Faculty Council – one of three bodies that make up the college’s Senate – passed a vote of “no confidence” against Kay Ellis, vice president of administration and finance, at the end of the Fall semester. While the resolution does not call for Ellis’s removal, BCC faculty members hope that the vote pushes the administration to deal with infrastructural mismanagement and budget cuts.
The resolution accused the vice president, who was appointed in 2016, of allowing gross physical deterioration throughout campus, including a lack of proper lighting and inadequate indoor heating under her watch.
The office of the bursar cited “ongoing campus heating issues” as the reason for keeping its office closed for a day in November. BCC President Thomas Isekenegbe went as far as to send an apology to the entire campus about the lack of heating and the lack of communication about the situation.
“We understand that being cold is not conducive to effective teaching and learning and that the current environment cannot continue as temperatures drop,” Isekenegbe said in an email to the campus community. “I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience to you.”
THE COLSTON HALL AFFAIR
Maintenance issues at the college led to chaos early in the Spring 2019 semester after pipes burst at Colston Hall, one of the BCC’s main classroom buildings, which caused a weeks-long disruption, severe flooding and forced 500 classes – as well as faculty offices – to relocate.
The PSC BCC chapter cited years of administrative neglect that led to the crisis. Sharon Utakis, the PSC chapter chair at BCC, told Clarion at the time, “We have a beautiful campus that has been neglected for decades and now all the deferred maintenance is coming due…. This disaster [at Colston Hall] makes BCC the austerity poster child.”
In calling Ellis’s treatment of the faculty and staff “unacceptable,” the resolution stated that Ellis had engaged in the “continued intimidation of staff” and that when “confronted with requests to test for mold in the aftermath of the Colston catastrophe [she responded], to paraphrase: ‘This is the Bronx.’” It noted that Ellis told a “faculty member concerned about the cold temperatures in offices and classrooms to ‘Wear a sweater.’”
“If you compound the Colston disaster with the lack of heat this semester, the lack of communication from the vice president, the overall issues with maintenance, rodents and garbage, the facilities really come up as our number-one issue,” said Roni Ben-Nun, an associate professor of art and music and the chair of the College Senate. “This vote of ‘no confidence’ is no surprise.”
Diane Price Banks, an assistant professor in biological sciences and a PSC delegate, told Clarion, “The vote of ‘no confidence’ in Kay Ellis was based on several factors: Delays in supplying heat to the college community, lack of addressing health and safety issues, rodent infestations, lack of transparency, her supervision of subordinate staff and several hired contractors who performed inadequately. For example, two years ago, a hired contractor installed the wrong pipes throughout campus. This mistake led to the existing issues with providing heat to the campus by October 1 of last year.”
In testimony to the CUNY Board of Trustees in December, Utakis outlined how the cuts have affected the campus: “There are fewer custodians, which means cleaning happens less often. Students and faculty complain about trash overflowing in classrooms and hallways. Bugs and rodents are more prevalent than in the past.… A department assistant in my department found rodent droppings all over her desk and office when she returned to work after the weekend. She later found out they were rat droppings. She was asked to leave the droppings there until the exterminator came…so for a whole day she sat in a room with rat droppings everywhere.”
The text of the no-confidence vote also blamed Ellis’s “budgetary mismanagement” for a variety of cuts on campus, including a “reduction in course sections, raising caps on class sizes [and] cutting full-time faculty lines.”
Indeed, in October, the college released its proposed financial plan, one that the college’s Executive Legal Counsel Karla Renee Williams said in an email included, “significant delays to all administrative hiring,” “additional reductions in faculty lines” and “an overtime cap of $608,000.”
Like PSC members throughout the CUNY system, BCC faculty and staff have lambasted the cuts. “The budget cuts that are being enacted at BCC are racist to their core. BCC students are overwhelmingly black and Latino and their education is being attacked,” said Alexander Wolf, the deputy chair of the biology department. “If the president and other administrators at BCC have students’ best interest in mind, as they consistently claim they do, then they should go to CUNY Central and refuse to accept the budget cuts.”
Wolf told Clarion that the vote against Ellis will not solve the problems the campus is facing. “She is not the only administrator who has proven to be incompetent. Her incompetencies are just the most obvious,” he said. “More importantly, the problems at BCC are not simply problems of personnel. There are structural, institutional problems that replacing a vice president or two will not address. Ellis did not cause the budget crisis. The attack on our students’ education is primarily coming from CUNY, Albany and City Hall. Our administration deserves blame, but certainly not the entirety of it.”
A FIGHTING HISTORY
This is not the first time PSC members at BCC have organized against administrative shortcomings. In the Fall semester of 2014, CUNY announced the sudden departure of then-President Carole Berotte Joseph. And as Clarion reported at the time, the announcement “was made five days after BCC’s Faculty Council voted to create a select faculty committee to investigate areas of ‘widespread concern amongst the instructional staff regarding the administration’” of the president.
When reached for comment about the Faculty Council vote on Ellis, a spokesperson for the college told Clarion, “We have no statement at this time.”
But some BCC chapter members hope that the no-confidence vote will not go unnoticed – various sources told Clarion that administration officials are taking the vote seriously. Ben-Nun said, “I would like the administration to take responsibility for this and make some visible changes to the way we maintain our buildings and classrooms.”