ULLIN — Shawnee Community College trustees are trying to get a better understanding of the source of discord between the college’s president and faculty in order to determine what steps need to be taken to improve the stressed mood on campus, said Randall Rushing, chairman of the board.
President Peggy Bradford, who the board hired in July 2017, has done “wonderful things” for the college, Rushing said. At the same time, trustees are aware that the faculty, in particular, are unhappy with her administration.
The board met for a marathon five hours on Monday night, much of that behind closed doors to discuss the president’s performance and related issues. The board has tentatively scheduled a special meeting for next week to continue the discussion, Rushing said.
Rushing said that regardless of the root causes of campus angst — and there are a multitude — the board is concerned that the sour atmosphere has the potential to shake students’ and families’ confidence in the college.
The Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges in Illinois and 18 other states, recently noted a similar concern during a mid-cycle review. The college maintains its good standing with the Higher Learning Commission, but the agency noted a “climate of distrust” and is planning a return visit later this year to determine what progress the college has made to open lines of communication.
As well, the commission has directed the college to make better use of data collected from assessments of student learning to guide teaching practices and policy.
“We don’t want this, or any internal issue we have, to affect the students adversely. It’s just not healthy. It’s just not good,” Rushing said.
Adding to the mounting pressure facing the board to address the issue, Ian Nicolaides, a professor and president of the college’s faculty union, informed the board on Monday night that the Shawnee College Education Association has issued a second vote of “no confidence” in her leadership. The first vote was made about a year ago; this most recent one was endorsed by 22 tenured faculty members on Jan. 10 (five faculty members were not present, and nontenured faculty did not participate), according to the statement Nicolaides provided the board, a copy of which he shared with The Southern.
Nicolaides said the decision was “due to the multitude of gross failures in leadership” and violations of the Shawnee College Board of Trustees’ policies, allegations that were not specifically identified in the statement. Nicolaides also said that during Bradford’s tenure, nearly 50 employees have left the school.
At present, SCC employs about 200 total, not counting student workers, according to a college spokesman; he was unable to confirm the faculty’s number on deadline. Nicolaides provided the newspaper with an Excel spreadsheet listing the employees who have left, along with the general reason why; he said it was compiled from a combination of staff knowledge and board packets.
“This attrition is not sustainable and no clear vision has yet to be communicated by the president to the faculty,” he said in a statement.
In response to the faculty’s vote, Bradford blamed the friction on necessary but tough decisions she’s had to make "to ensure our institution remains fiscally sound," some of which "directly impact many of the members of the faculty who have expressed concerns."
Of the union’s concerns about employee turnover, Bradford has previously said this is a “common reality that takes place among all types of organizations when new leadership arrives.” She also noted that the losses were a combination of retirements, resignations and the nonrenewal of contracts. The college has filled the open positions with “highly trained replacements” who are thriving, as well as offering a fresh perspective to the institution, she said.
As well, Bradford said in her statement that she was made aware of the faculty's recent "no confidence" vote in an email from The Southern seeking comment Tuesday, and not from the union itself. "The information was not delivered to me at the board meeting, and I had no previous knowledge regarding their vote," she said.
Underscoring the communication chaos on campus, even this is a point of contention. Nicholaides said a written statement on the vote was provided to board members during an executive session Monday night, and discussed verbally in Bradford's presence. Rushing said the meeting ran late into the night, and he could understand how there might have been a lack of understanding among the parties during the brief interaction on the vote during a hastil0 called third and final executive session to discuss a different matter.
According to the faculty union’s list, about 60 percent of the employees who left resigned, though no further information is provided. The college spokesman said some have left to take positions they sought elsewhere to further their careers, and at least one person because of a spouse transferring jobs out of the area.
But faculty say there’s more to the story than routine turnover. Rhonda Dillow, a math professor of 30 years, said she has decided to take an early retirement because of the climate on campus, and what she described as an unwillingness by the president to hear the concerns of faculty.
“No one comes to the table anymore in a spirit of caring and willingness to work through differences. My No. 1 concern is this institution used to make every decision based on the students’ needs first. That drove every decision, and we no longer do that,” she said.
She submitted her letter of intent to leave the college to the board on Monday night, and later told The Southern that she would stay on longer if not for the current tension on the campus.
Bradford’s three-year contract runs through July 2020. Rushing, the board president, described the ongoing evaluation of Bradford’s performance as routine. He said it is not unusual for trustees to begin discussions about their top leader a year and a half out from the end date of the president’s contract.
“If actions are going to be taken — and there’s a big if there — we would need a good period of time for a new presidential search,” Rushing said. “I’m not saying that’s happening. But it can take a year or so to recruit a new president if that’s where we go. Now is the time to talk about it.”
The board did not take any action on Bradford’s contract at Monday night’s meeting. But the fact that an agenda item allowed for the “consideration of compensation, non-renewal, resignation or termination of” the president’s contract drew a large crowd to the main Ullin campus.
The audience included both faculty discontented with her leadership, as well as community members who came to voice support for Bradford and to express their concerns to the board that they believe animosity toward her may be racially motivated.
Bradford is the first African American and the first woman to serve as the college’s president in its 50-plus year history.
“I want to ask you to look at her objectives that you all set forth for her and see if she accomplished those objectives and judge her fairly on what she has done for this school,” said Nomie Whitaker, of Olmsted, whose grandson attends the school. Whitaker said that in the absence of specific incidences of misconduct from those who are seeking her removal, she’s inclined to believe the lack of embrace for Bradford on campus is because of racism. She noted that Bradford has opened two new extension centers, in Cairo and Vienna, and renewed a shuttered college foundation to accept donations to be used for scholarships and other activities.
Alonzo Adkinson, of Villa Ridge, seconded Whitaker’s concerns. “Your skin color shouldn't hold you back,” he said.
While Adkinson spoke about racial discrimination experienced by African-Americans, one faculty member said quietly to another, “Stop it,” and shook her head in disapproval of his comments.
For their part, faculty members have maintained that their disagreements with Bradford have nothing to do with race or gender, and are strictly about management decisions.
Adkinson said that whatever the issues are, people here need to figure out how to work out their differences.
“They said this used to be called a college in a cornfield. I tell you what, things going like it is, people butting heads, it may be called a cornfield that used to be a college,” he said.