Not long before Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton selected to be the president of Ohio’s largest two-year institution, a national group named her the top community college CEO in the country. Now, six years later, faculty members at Cuyahoga Community College say that the woman they once welcomed with open arms isn’t fit to feat the 22,000-student college.
Trustees and others, however, characterize the growing rift between Thornton and the faculty as a struggle over who will control the college–the president or the faculty union.
Cuyahoga has gained a reputation for rough-and-tumble politics. Trustees fired Thornton’s predecessor, who once lunged over the table and slugged the board chairman during a trustee meeting. Late last month, nearly three-quarters of the full-time faculty cast ballots against Thornton in a no-confidence vote of her leadership abilities, according to union officials. But that vote is in dispute. Although the union says that nearly 300 members cast ballots (with all but thirty-three voting nay to Thornton’s leadership), trustees say only about 100 faculty members voted altogether.
“She’s autocratic,” complains Patrick Masterson, a speech communications professor and president of Cuyahoga’s American Association of University Professors chapter, about Thornton. But that’s just one of the complaints. The faculty union has drawn up a twelve-page list of grievances against Thornton dating back to her third month on the job in March of 1992. Thornton, who even critics acknowledge has created much good will in the Cleveland community, declined comment. However, she told a local newspaper after the vote, “My door is always open.”
The Politics of the Vote
Some community college leadership experts say the Cuyahoga case illustrates the difficulties presidents face when pinched between the conflicting wishes of faculty and trustees. When such clashes occur, some experts say, faculty unions increasingly are more willing to wield no-confidence votes like a club if college presidents resist their demands.
Dr. Barbara Uehling, the executive director of the Business-Higher Education Forum for the American Council on Education (ACE), believes there is a correlation between the frequency of no-confidence votes and the financial stability of institutions.
“The most significant factor in triggering them is financial stress, but second is governance issues,” she says. “And that generally gets down to the fact that administrators aren’t doing something the way the faculty believe it should be done. Very often it is caused by a culture clash.”
Dr. George Vaughan, a professor at North Carolina State University and expert on presidential leadership at community colleges, says no-confidence votes can become old hat, “Especially in a union situation. “On the other hand, it’s very disheartening for a campus to reach this stage. When it comes to this, I think there are major problems,” offers Vaughan.
Robert Kreiser, the associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, says the organization, which has about 44,000 members and some 900 campus chapters, does not track the number of no-confidence votes taken by faculty. But, he says, such an action is not commonplace.
“It is a rare step for a faculty to take because it means that all efforts to persuade the president to do what the faculty would like [have failed],” says Kreiser. “No-confidence votes are ultimate acts of frustration.”
The Effectiveness of the Vote
Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr., former president of Bronx Community College, says no-confidence votes “generally don’t change the situation unless there is an avalanche of other factors.
“During my first presidency, I received two no-confidence votes by the union and each time I received a raise from the board of trustees,” says Dr. Donald Phelps, a higher education professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The third time they threatened it, the board promoted me to chancellor of the district.”
Uehling, the former chancellor of the University of Missouri and of the University of California-Santa Barbara, says she has been threatened with no-confidence votes before but never been the subject of one.
“For a while, it was so commonplace that I don’t think any administrator should have been upset about it,” she says. “At one of my former institutions –Missouri–the faculty did it so often and to so many administrators that the faculty senate suggested it should no longer be used as a device because it was becoming ineffective.”
At the University of the District of Columbia, four of the last five presidents at the financially troubled institution drew no-confidence votes from the faculty, says university spokesman John Britton. The only president who didn’t receive such a vote stayed just nine months.
Dr. Julius F. Nimmons, UDC’s recently appointed interim president, even received a no-confidence vote from the university’s faculty shortly after taking the post and submitting a budget with which professors disagreed.
Faculty Members Question Governance The faculty revolt at Cuyahoga was touched off by plans to switch from a quarter system to a semester system, which college officials say will make it easier for students to transfer to other institutions. The conversion takes effect next fall. Most other colleges and universities in northeast Ohio already have switched or are in the process of doing so, says college spokeswoman Graciela Figueroa.
Faculty Senate President Donna Van Raaphorst says the faculty twice has vetoed the plan, which she says would force teachers to carry a slightly larger teaching load with no additional pay. Administrators dispute that assertion.
Faculty members also say they fear the switch would drive away students at a college that already has seen its enrollment slide for more than three years in a row. “That’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Van Raaphorst says. “There are very serious governance issues. She doesn’t ever really listen to other people.”
Faculty leaders complain that Thorton and her administrators routinely ignore their recommendations–even ones that are seemingly innocuous. As an example, they note that the administration once tried to veto the reappointment of two African American professors to a college committee on affirmative action. The faculty won that fight.
Trustees Question “1-Percent Tribute”
Despite differences with the faculty, however, Thornton appears to have retained her popularity with the board of trustees. The chairman of the board has publicly supported her leadership of the college. And John Chiappetta, a former Cuyahoga trustee who stepped down last month after seven years on the board, contends that the no-confidence vote is really “retribution. “
“I haven’t heard any complaints about her leadership from the faculty before this. The real problem is the board refused to pay them a 1-percent tribute,” says Chiappetta, who adds that union leaders have demanded a 1 percent pay hike this year and next to compensate for the increased class load the calendar switch will bring. But the college’s contract with the union does not call for renegotiations in faculty pay until 1998–and Cuyahoga’s professors already are among the highest paid in the area. Salaries for full-time faculty range from a low of $42,000 a year to a high of about $67,000 a year, college records show.
“This is all so frivolous it’s pathetic,” Chiappetta says. “These are the type of tactics used by steel and sewer workers–and these [faculty members] are highly educated people we’re talking about.”
“Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for a no-confidence vote or censure. But Dr. Thornton is one of the top five presidents in the United States. They have the best of the best,” says Phelps, the former head of both the Seattle and Los Angeles Community College districts.
Phelps, who has worked with Thornton in the past on several national committees, says that she has pushed Cuyahoga to the peak of excellence. “If I were on the faculty of that institution,” he says. “I would be doing everything I could to safeguard her and keep her the president.”
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