Louisiana Lightning Rod
Baton Rouge Community College Chancellor Marion Bonaparte was at the center of a racially charged storm that led to his ouster, and is expected to hurt enrollment at the new state institution
BATON ROUGE, La. — Marion Bonaparte, Baton Rouge Community College’s chancellor, who was placed on paid leave after reports surfaced regarding missing cash, shoddy record-keeping, and disgruntled staff, was fired earlier this month.
“I have been demonized, dehumanized, and dishonored,” Bonaparte told Black Issues only weeks before he was asked to vacate the position.
The beleaguered chancellor had gone on the counterattack in closed-door meetings with a task force looking into problems at Baton Rouge, saying that his critics are spreading patent lies about him in an attempt to sabotage his good name and that of the new college.
He also leveled serious accusations of his own against several Baton Rouge faculty and administrators, accusing one of stymieing a theft investigation, another of incompetence, a third of improper conduct with a student, and a fourth of spouting a racial slur.
Prior to his firing, Bonaparte said he planned to ask the U.S. Justice Department for a full investigation of goings on at the embroiled college and planned to contact the U.S. Civil Rights Commission “to see if any of my civil rights have been violated by this despicable attack on my character and reputation.”
The strong backlash comes less than a month after Louisiana’s new community and technical college system took control of Baton Rouge, five other existing or planned two-year colleges, and more than 40 vocational-technical schools scattered throughout the state.
Political leaders here in Louisiana, which consistently finishes near the bottom in education spending, have placed high stock in the new community and technical college system as a way to turn around the state’s lackluster education record. The governor lobbied hard for the new system.
But Baton Rouge’s troubles are not an isolated incident, which some here fear could portend more difficult times ahead in one of the last remaining states to create a two-year college system. For instance, state officials fired the president of Nunez Community College earlier this year. Although under fire from her bosses for not straightening out the college’s messy finances, Nunez’ president, Carol Hopson, complained bitterly that state officials refused to provide the college with enough money to fix the bookkeeping problems.
George A. Baker III, director of the National Initiative for Leadership and Institutional Effectiveness at North Carolina State University, says states that attempt to consolidate divergent institutions into a single higher education system often run into problems. Connecticut and New Hampshire, for instance, each experienced administrative shakeups, lawsuits, and faculty discontent earlier this decade when they merged their technical colleges and community colleges into single institutions.
In addition, “Louisiana has been a tremendously politicized state,” says Baker, who holds the Joseph D. Moore Endowed Chair in Community College Leadership, taught scores of today’s sitting two-year college presidents, and has served as a consultant for numerous state systems.
“There is so much competition and infighting in higher education in Louisiana,” Baker says, “that I would not put it past someone there who is threatened by this new structure to somehow point out some mistakes that may have been made at the colleges.”
The long-simmering problems at Baton Rouge, which opened less than a year ago with 1,866 students, burst into the public arena several months ago when a White instructor filed a lawsuit alleging she was fired after complaining about discriminatory hiring practices.
Next, five other White faculty members filed a federal reverse discrimination lawsuit in May against Bonaparte and the college, alleging Bonaparte, who is Black, “created a work environment hostile to non-Black employees.” They also accused him of trying to intimidate them.
Bonaparte told Black Issues the five faculty members conspired with three top college administrators in an attempt to undermine him. He says the three administrators encouraged the instructors to file grievances and the lawsuit against him and the college.
In a move that led to his temporary removal, Bonaparte fired the three administrators: Antonio Majul, dean of business affairs; Leonard Garrett, dean of administrative student services; and Phyllis Mouton, director of the college’s business and industry institute.
Angry Louisiana State University and Southern University officials, who oversaw the community college here until the new two-year college system took control last month, say Bonaparte did not have permission to fire the three. Garrett and Mouton were reinstated. Majul has been placed on administrative leave.
The three administrators complain that Bonaparte never gave them a reason for their terminations. But Bonaparte says he fired the three because they “aided and abetted” the five faculty complainants in what he describes as a smear campaign.
What’s more, Bonaparte also says he repeatedly voiced concerns about Majul’s performance to his former bosses at Louisiana State and SouthernUniversity.
By all accounts, the financial problems at the school are monumental. The college has not reconciled its bank account since it first began offering classes last fall and has not had a financial statement over the past year.
Brown, president of the new Louisiana Community and Technical College System, acknowledges, “There are multiple problems with how money has been handled and things have been processed and accounted for.
“The financial operations are not sound,” Brown says. “The way cash was handled was inappropriate. There is no budget. And we do not know how some of the funds were invested for the fiscal year that ended June 30.”
Bonaparte insists Majul is to blame for the financial mess.
“I tried to get rid of him,” Bonaparte says, adding that Louisiana State University System President Allen Copping’s response was, “‘Well, you hired him, now you have to live with him.'”
Says Bonaparte: “That wasn’t the right attitude.”
At the final meeting in June of the Louisiana State and Southern officials who oversaw Baton Rouge, Bonaparte says he told university officials that he didn’t trust Majul and that he had no confidence in his “willingness or ability.”
“They shrugged, laughed, and stated that I appeared to have a management problem, and they left the campus,” Bonaparte recalls.
University officials say they didn’t take action because they had just appointed several task forces to probe problems at Baton Rouge. Bob Rasmussen, vice president of academic affairs for the Louisiana Southern University system, acknowledges that Bonaparte complained about Majul’s performance. But he says the chancellor never documented them or asked for a meeting to discuss them.
“We knew that Bonaparte wanted to get rid of him,” Rasmussen says. “But in order to get rid of somebody, there should be cause. We knew that they didn’t get along, but that’s not a reason to fire somebody.”
Meanwhile, Majul counters that Bonaparte is to blame for the financial problems because he allegedly harassed Majul’s workers to the point that several of them quit.
“Our whole area has been disrupted,” Majul says. “There was no way for us to have gotten our jobs done.”
Bonaparte denies that: “I didn’t run anybody off — I didn’t even work with his people. … [He] can’t blame me for any of these mis-doings. He didn’t do his job — that’s the bottom line.”
In fact, Bonaparte contends he didn’t realize the scope of the college’s financial troubles until Louisiana’s legislative auditor, Dan Kyle, brought them to light in May.
Louisiana State and Southern University officials say they too were shocked by Kyle’s revelations. Ralph Slaughter, Southern University’s system vice president for administration and management, says there were no problems in the previous year’s audit because Baton Rouge used Louisiana State’s computer system to keep track of its finances.
“When the school opened, they went on their own, they brought in new software and everything — and now it looks like the conversion was too much for them,” Slaughter says. “But all the reports from [Baton Rouge administrators] were that everything was wonderful.”
However, Baton Rouge’s bank statements remain out of balance by hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Kyle’s audit. And Kyle says the college’s books still haven’t been reconciled. Perhaps more disturbing is a March theft from the bursar’s office, Kyle says.
“When you’ve got money missing and you can’t reconcile bank statements and don’t know what’s supposed to be there, that’s scary,” Kyle says, adding that although the $1,305 theft was relatively minor, he believes it could indicate an employee taking advantage of the situation.
Because the combination to the safe was left in the office, Majul contends that the safe could have been opened by anyone who had a key to the door of the bursar’s office. And while there is a surveillance camera in the office, no tape was in the machine on the weekend of the theft, he says.
Bonaparte contends that Majul hindered the investigation by blocking efforts to submit the college’s entire finance staff to polygraph tests. Bonaparte says Majul argued that the missing $1,305 wasn’t a lot of money and was covered by insurance.
While the state Office of Risk Management did indeed replace the missing funds, “we can’t function with a thief in our office,” Bonaparte says.
Besides suggesting that Garrett and Mouton were conspiring to discredit him, Bonaparte also criticized their effectiveness.
Bonaparte says he had serious questions about Garrett’s interaction with and sensitivity to students. Bonaparte recounted an incident last fall in which a student accused Garrett of assault and battery. Garrett denied the charges, noting that the student in question was later escorted off campus.
But Bonaparte worries, “If the student is correct, then we could possibly have a dean of students who resolves student issues by body slamming the student.”
Regarding Mouton, Bonaparte says she conducts myriad meetings with no follow-up or closure to proposals: “There is no substance — only fluff and fuzz.”
Mouton counters that Bonaparte never discussed such problems with her.
“He never … indicated any displeasure with my work,” she says, while also denying that she plotted to undermine Bonaparte and challenging him to provide evidence to prove that allegation. “He’s the leader here at the college and I work directly for him … and he has every right to call me in and reprimand me, especially if he thinks I’m undermining.”
The Tiny Tim Incident
Bonaparte also has launched a counter- offensive against the five White faculty members who have sued him and the college, raising questions about their work records and ethical conduct.
In testimony last month before a task force created to investigate the grievances raised by the five faculty members, Bonaparte alleged that Fernando Figueroa abandoned his class several times to serenade a young female student on the ukulele as she sat “between” his legs.
Figueroa acknowledges sometimes leaving his night class alone to work on group projects but denies courting students in his office: “I don’t play a ukulele, I play a guitar. And No. 2, I have never serenaded a student in my office. And No. 3, no one has ever sat between my legs.”
Bonaparte told task force members that reports about Figueroa came from several faculty members and the college’s night administrator, Curtis Johnson. Johnson says he did report Figueroa was “consistently out of his classroom” and sometimes could be heard playing an instrument.
Johnson says he has no idea if Figueroa serenaded a female student, “but the chancellor would know more about that than me.”
Bonaparte says he believes many faculty and staff are hesitant to talk now because they are afraid of losing their jobs. But Figueroa angrily denounces Bonaparte’s allegations as a blatant attempt to smear him.
“I knew that they were trying to cook up something like this on me,” says Figueroa, who teaches English literature and composition.
Figueroa also denies that Mouton and Garrett encouraged him to file a grievance or a lawsuit. He says the two administrators did, however, advise he and the other litigants about their options, which included filing a grievance and a lawsuit.
“They were behaving as mentors to individuals who were new to grievance policies and procedures, who were new to what to do when their boss was not behaving in a way that a boss should,” Figueroa says.
Tiptoeing Through an Explosive Issue
Bonaparte also testified at the task force hearing that several students reported hearing another one of the five who has filed suit against the college, Laura Alford, use a racial slur to refer to African American students in her class. Alford, according to Bonaparte, allegedly told a colleague she was shocked to walk into her classroom on the first day of school and find “a bunch of n[word].”
Alford strongly denies she ever used a racial epithet in front of students or elsewhere at the college.
“The chancellor did call me in and accuse me of that, and I told him it wasn’t true, and gave several reasons why it wasn’t true,” Alford says. “First of all, I don’t say it. Secondly, even if I was the kind of person that uses that, I wouldn’t say it at work. And the third thing is that I don’t have that many African American students in my classes.”
Bonaparte says he called Alford into his office after several students told former librarian Anne Shepherd that Alford was overheard using the slur. Reached at her new job at a public library in Florida, Shepherd says she can’t recall exactly what the students told her or the context.
Alford says if Bonaparte really thought there was anything to the claim, “he should have documented it and initiated a formal investigation or inquiry. Instead, he said, ‘We’ll keep it between ourselves and I won’t put anything in your file.'”
Bonaparte says he didn’t take any action against Alford because it was a potentially explosive issue.
“There were a lot of things that we tiptoed very lightly because we didn’t want to make a big issue of them so soon after the school opened,” Bonaparte says.
The Big Unknown
Some Louisiana higher education officials are beginning to voice concerns that Baton Rouge’s much-publicized woes will hurt the college’s booming enrollment this fall. But Bonaparte says if students shun the college, it won’t be his fault.
“The drop in enrollment will be due to the calamitous lie that I abuse White women — they put it out there intentionally to harm the college,” Bonaparte says, an apparent reference to the fact the college was created because of Louisiana’s segregationist past.
The college was born as part of the 1994 settlement in the long-running federal lawsuit over the desegregation of the state’s public colleges and universities. It was meant to serve as a racial mixing pot in a city with two universities — one predominately White, the other mostly Black.
The federal judge that oversaw the agreement arranged to have the college initially placed under the control of those two institutions — predominately White Louisiana State University and historically Black Southern University.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com