Tainted Search at Maricopa

Governing board member accused of spoiling the search for a new chancellor of Arizona's largest community college district.

September 4, 2020
 
Maricopa County Community Colleges District
Kathleen Winn

The search for a new leader of the Maricopa County Community Colleges District has come to a halt.

An investigation found that a member of the search committee for a new chancellor tainted the process by violating a confidentiality agreement and attempting to persuade a candidate to not apply for the position.

The search was halted in August, but the college community and search committee members only recently learned why after a professor and search committee member filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a copy of the investigation. Amy Gittler, a lawyer hired by Maricopa, investigated the search and wrote the report.

‘Inexcusable’

In the report, Kathleen Winn, an elected member of the governing board of the district, is accused of breaking the confidentiality agreement all search committee members signed. She also spoke directly to a candidate for the chancellor position and tried to persuade him or her not to apply, discussed why she didn't support the candidate with a community member, and told the lead search consultant that she wanted to keep the person out of the applicant pool, according to the report.

Winn also showed support for one or more candidates to people outside the search committee and copied the candidate on emails expressing her support, the report states. She also had extensive communication with the lead search consultant, Gene Head of Diversified Search, without including the chair of the search committee. Winn and Head also deleted messages they sent each other before Gittler, the investigator, could review them for the report.

Gittler recommended in the report that the search process be ended, that Winn be removed from the search committee and that the current search firm be fired.

Winn, an at-large member of the board whose term expires in 2022, is not a stranger to scandal. She was previously accused of violating campaign finance law along with Tom Horne, former attorney general for Arizona, during his run in the state's 2010 election, according to the Phoenix News Times.

​"Kathleen Winn’s actions were inexcusable. Her responses, both her threatening text to Keith Heffner and her statement issued through a public relations firm, have been further evidence that she is failing in her role as an elected member of the MCCCD Governing Board," Patrice Nango, president of the district's Faculty Association, said in an email. "This series of troubling incidents has also further eroded employee trust in the board’s ability to govern the district and successfully hire a new chancellor. It is tragic that in the first few weeks with students and faculty returning to learn and teach in this already challenging time, we are all being distracted by Winn’s actions instead of celebrating a smooth and positive start to Fall semester."

The board's response to this situation -- and how long it takes to make a response -- will determine if it can win back the trust of the public and district employees, Nango said. The association is also concerned that there are no legal mechanism to hold board members accountable other than recalls, which are unrealistic in a large county like Maricopa, she said.

"These board positions have in recent years drawn some opportunists seeking a stepping stone to other political positions, which has resulted in certain policies that undermined student learning environments, faculty and staff work conditions, compensation, and shared governance," she said.

Other faculty members are also upset about the investigation's findings.

"The report, if it is accurate, demonstrates a crisis of accountability on the part of a member of the governing board," said Barry Vaughan, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Mesa Community College, which is in the Maricopa district. Vaughan has been with the college for 24 years and is a former president of both Mesa's Faculty Senate and Maricopa's Faculty Association. He is the current president of the Faculty Association Foundation. "If the report is accurate, Ms. Winn’s behavior is egregious and demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the voters who have put her in office. I think if Ms. Winn had even a shred of integrity, she would resign as a member of the board."

Marie Sullivan, president of the governing board, provided the following statement to Inside Higher Ed:

“As the process began, different individuals started relaying uncomfortable and possibly inappropriate conversations with Ms. Winn concerning her preferences for the chancellor position. It is important to note that everyone on the search committee had been advised to only discuss the candidates with a select few individuals who were authorized for those conversations. Ms. Winn also signed a confidentiality agreement which clearly stated the appropriate way to conduct the search for the next chancellor and also clearly stated many actions not to take. Unfortunately, it now appears Ms. Winn violated numerous provisions within her signed confidentiality agreement. Based on the findings of the investigation, I am deeply disappointed. As a governing board, we owe our students, faculty and those who elect us with the highest fidelity of conduct. Unfortunately, it now appears that Ms. Winn did not comport herself accordingly."

Shifting Blame

The local public radio station, KJZZ, published a statement from Winn this week.

“Almost immediately after the finalist list became known to committee members, allegations were made by the chair, who had on numerous occasions stated she preferred the interim chancellor. These allegations are believed by many to have been made in an effort to bring the search to an end and secure the interim chancellor’s continued employment,” Winn said in the statement, according to the station.

She also told the radio station in a statement the investigation was initiated by a board member who wants to win the favor of the faculty union, and she called the report a sham. She also was denied due process, she said.

"It is unfortunate that taxpayer money was used to sabotage the search process," her statement reads.

Winn did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

Vaughan believes she's trying to shift the blame with her statement. He said she wasted taxpayer dollars by tainting the search process.

"If any employee of the district did what she had done, they would in all likelihood be terminated," he said. "But as a publicly elected official, she can only be removed by the voters."

This situation is not one that Judith Wilde, a research professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, who studies presidential searches, has seen before. But it wouldn't surprise her if this has happened elsewhere, but without someone taking the effort to make it public.

​One of the most damning parts of the report is that Winn and the lead search associate deleted their texts to each other, Wilde said.

"If it were absolutely innocent and they both felt that they were doing the right thing, they would not have eliminated the texts," she said, adding that undisclosed communications are inappropriate.

The district should take time to recover and not start a new search right away, Wilde said. Once a new search is convened, both the firm's staff and the search committee should receive the same training to understand what is appropriate or not in the process, she said.

Wilde also suggested the committee include more faculty members and be more transparent by providing updates often.

Whistle-Blower Concerns

Winn is also being accused of threatening a faculty member.

Keith Heffner, past president of the district's Faculty Association and a member of the search committee, filed the information request for the report on Winn's actions and sent it to the board. He claims to have received a text from Winn saying, "You will not like my response" after doing so. He wrote a letter to the governing board claiming whistle-blower protection.

Heffner said he filed the information request because there was no explanation as to why the search was canceled.

"After reading and re-reading the report, I was disappointed and angry," he said. Heffner believes the board should have removed Winn from the search in January, when the board's general counsel was made aware of Winn's email saying she supported a certain candidate.

Heffner filed the whistle-blower protection letter to protect himself and others from future threats, he said. He believes the text Winn sent about an hour after the report was made public was an attempt at harassment.

"I believe the governing board needs to hold Ms. Winn accountable for her actions and demonstrate the seriousness of her misconduct. I also think the governing board needs to get someone onboard who can provide more sensible legal advice around issues of committee member misconduct," Heffner wrote in an email. "An entirely new search firm should be engaged after a rigorous vetting process that is transparent and includes a broad range of internal and external stakeholder input. Committee members should represent internal and external constituencies with reasonably balanced numbers."

The drama with the search comes after the former chancellor, Maria Harper-Marinick, stepped down after receiving a vote of no confidence from faculty. In many ways, the district has been turning things around with its interim chancellor, Steven Gonzales, according to Vaughan, but the tainted search has thrown a wrench in its recovery.

"I believe that the interim chancellor has made great strides in correcting many of the problems that the district was suffering from under the leadership of the previous chancellor. I think the majority of the board members are striving, as best they can, to also correct many of the problems that the district was suffering," he said. "Unfortunately, Ms. Winn's behavior on this search committee is jeopardizing the work that the majority of the board has done and the interim leadership has done."

Vaughan believes the standards for search committees in the district are excellent and need not be changed, but that Winn shouldn't be part of any future searches.

"I’m deeply saddened and shocked at the behavior of a publicly elected official who would nefariously and intentionally attempt to corrupt a hiring process, premised on the reliability of investigative report," he said. "I think she owes the voters of Maricopa County an apology."​

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