Infighting and Turmoil in N.J.

An accreditor's decision to place an embattled New Jersey community college on probation may have been the wake-up call officials needed to improve its operations.

December 18, 2017

The turmoil at Essex County College has led to a point where now the institution's accreditation is on the line.

In five years the college has seen three presidents; senior administrators have been fired, board members have fought in public and federal and state officials have launched investigations.

And now the college is at risk of losing its accreditation after being placed on probation by its accreditor, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, last month.

The problems have drawn the concern of a community that doesn't want to see the college fail to provide an education for the thousands of minority and low-income students who attend the Newark, N.J., institution.

But it's that threat of losing accreditation -- and the federal financial aid tied to it -- that could push the college in the right direction.

"This college is a treasure to the community," said the Reverend Ronald Slaughter, pastor of Saint James AME Church in Newark, adding that the college is vital to black and Latino students. "Look at the enrollment. Ninety percent of students are minorities, and this is their only shot at success in America as we know it. This is a necessary step for them to get to a four-year institution and fulfill that education requirement … and that has been jeopardized."

The turmoil at Essex started after the longtime president A. Zachary Yamba retired in 2010 after 30 years in the position. The college's problems came to a head last year when the board fired President Gale Gibson and the college's attorney and vice president for human resources, Rashidah Hasan. Gibson notably doubled the three-year graduation rate at the college from 5 percent to 10 percent, according to a paper she co-authored with a former trustee. Both Gibson and Hasan have since launched wrongful-termination suits and claim they were let go by the board in retaliation for investigating financial misconduct by administrators.

That dismissal was followed by the New Jersey attorney general's office opening an investigation into questionable athletic credit card purchases. That eventually led to a former track coach pleading guilty to stealing $150,000 from the college.

A separate, unrelated federal investigation was also launched. In the midst of this, enrollment at the college has continued to drop -- it decreased by 1,300 students from 2015 to 2016, to approximately 9,600 students, according to 2017 state data.

The current president, Anthony Munroe, was hired in May, but he soon experienced his own troubles. The Board of Trustees, the majority of whom are appointed by the county executive, rejected two of Munroe's personnel appointments -- one for a chief financial officer, which Middle States cited the college for not having. Meanwhile, accusations and allegations of wrongdoing have been thrown among administrators, trustees, the president and the county executive.

"We had to speak out on behalf of the student body and on behalf of taxpayers, because this is tax money and federal money being mismanaged," Slaughter said. "Yes, they are on probation. But now the school is headed down a path to success … we believe with the new board structure and with the president and some of the things he's trying to do, it'll propel Essex to be one of the premier community colleges."

Slaughter is part of a group of clergy and other local leaders who have taken an active interest in resolving the college's problems. The group, which is supportive of Munroe, called on certain trustees and administrators to step down from their positions. They also have accused Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. of having too much political influence on the board.

Inside Higher Ed attempted to contact a number of faculty members for comment, however, they said that only administrators could speak to the situation.

Despite the probation announcement last month, the college has already been working to eliminate the problems that led them to the threatened status. This month the college saw an injection of new money from the county and a number of new trustees replaced board members, who had allegedly been a part of the college's problems.

"Our new board chair and I are very clear and resolute that we are supportive of this college and we're supportive of each other," Munroe said. "I am confident that we are resolved as an institution to proactively and comprehensively address and resolve each and every issue above and beyond what Middle States cited of us."

The college received a $1.5 million transfer from the county to help its budget, which increased the county's contribution to nearly $14 million this year, said DiVincenzo.

"I gave that because I want to show Middle States that the college has us behind them and whatever needs to be done, we will work together," he said. "I know how important that institution is, especially to minority kids."

Despite Middle States evaluators' concerns with Essex leadership and governance, DiVincenzo said trustees were replaced to give the college a "new look from other professionals " and "new experience." For instance, one trustee resigned and another relocated.

"We have seven out of eight new board people," DiVincenzo said. "I didn't ask people to resign when their term was up. We just replaced them. Those board people who were there did a very good job under the circumstances."

DiVincenzo denies allegations he has too much influence over the college board. The county executive has a committee that selects up to eight of the board members and recommends them to him. He sends his recommendations to the freeholders or county legislators, and they vote on the selection, he said.

"I don't go to the board and tell them what to vote for," DiVincenzo said.

Munroe is also adamant that the probation had nothing to do with the academic integrity of the institution. The three-year graduation rate for full-time students increased from 10.4 percent to 12.8 percent this year, and third-semester retention increased from 56.5 percent to 58.6 percent, according to state data.

"Essex County College remains a high-quality institution providing exceptional educational experiences for any and all students who come through our doors, and that has not changed and never been called into question by Middle States," said Munroe. "We remain resolute and firm to ensure our students remain first."

Munroe said the college is grateful to the county for the extra money that is going to ECC's general fund for operations.

And despite troubles in hiring a chief financial officer months ago, one was promoted from deputy chief financial officer into the acting position, he said, adding that the college also hired a chief compliance officer and a forensic accounting firm.

"We're going above and beyond to ensure we have reliable systems of checks and balances and reliable controls," Munroe said. "And that we provide our trustees with training and guidance and resources necessary to fulfill their fiduciary roles and responsibilities."

The college has approached the Association of Community College Trustees to help the board and the administration work together, and a board retreat was held last month, he said.

College officials will have to demonstrate to the accreditors by March that they and the college have made progress in resolving these issues.


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