If Edison State College faculty and administration were united on anything Thursday night - and there were few commonalities to be found - it was pain over the state of Edison State.
Tensions, which faculty members say started building seven months ago, boiled to the surface at Thursday’s meeting. It was called by Edison President Kenneth Walker to address concerns expressed by faculty in meetings earlier this week and subsequently in a letter delivered to his office Thursday morning.
In Thursday’s meeting, Walker looked forlorn at times, and pained at others, as some faculty members broke into tears expressing frustration over the loss of highly regarded administrators, potential problems with how academic degrees are being granted, opaque hiring practices and the high salaries of some of the college’s top administrators.
Faculty members drew a single connection between their concerns and the timeline of their unrest.
“The common denominator for all of these things that have happened in the last six months is Dr. (James) Browder,” said Marty Ambrose, a faculty member and the chief negotiator for the faculty union at Edison. “I’m sorry to say it. It makes me heartsick.”
Browder, hired less than five months ago into a position created just for him, was eventually given the title of senior vice president. In February, he was given a hefty raise, which college officials say was commensurate with his new title. That change put him in charge of the rest of the college’s vice presidents, including Vice President for Academic Affairs Steve Atkins, who abruptly resigned last week.
At Thursday’s meeting, faculty delivered a resounding message to Walker: They cannot and will not work with Dr. Browder on academic matters.
Walker responded that Dr. Browder was never in charge of academic affairs, but faculty say the reporting structure gave Browder clear authority over the other people in charge of academics and called for him to sign off on multiple academic matters.
Ambrose was also unequivocal that the faculty union, a chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, would be unable to negotiate with Browder, who Ambrose said “has a history of retaliation.”
Browder came to Edison after serving for roughly eight years as the superintendent of Lee County schools.
Walker pledged that his administration would try to refine the description of Browder’s role, communicate better about Browder’s job and find another administrator to negotiate labor issues on behalf of the college.
But among the more than 100 faculty members present via a video feed across the college’s three campuses and a third outlying center in Hendry County, there was a sense that would not be enough.
“If you could propose a solution, what would it be?” mused Dave Oliver, a professor of business. “I don’t see a lot of solutions without some resignations.”
In a faculty gathering following the meeting with Walker, teaching staff of the college discussed holding a formal Faculty Senate meeting Monday, with the potential of taking some sort of action. While faculty did not discuss specific motions or votes that might be taken, there was broad discussion of a possible vote of no confidence, with Walker’s and Browder’s names both mentioned, as well as discussion about the Board of Trustees presiding over the college.
During their meeting with Walker, the faculty voiced concern that there was a broad disconnect between them and the administration at the college.
Walker noted that he came to Edison as the president in 1991 and found a faculty with the lowest average pay of the 28 community colleges in the state. Twenty years later, he noted Edison is in the top four or five and has expanded into a state college with broad plans for expansion into grade-school education and eventually masters degrees.
Many of the faculty who spoke on Thursday first expressed their esteem and regard for Walker and his work at the school.
“I have admired you as a leader,” said Russell Swanson, vice president of the Lee Campus Faculty Senate, before he went on to state his dismay over Walker’s expressions of surprise that two top administrators had left the college in rapid succession.
“I’m personally still troubled by the pattern, and I don’t understand how it happened,” Swanson said. “It’s with a heavy heart that I talk about this.”
Some faculty voiced fears that Walker’s grand vision was taking away from the reality of 15 percent budget cuts to the state college system being floated by the Legislature, something Walker himself pointed out.
“When I come to work in the morning, I’m actually happy that we have a high unemployment rate, because if it weren’t for a high unemployment rate, I fear that the staff wouldn’t be here anymore (because they would find jobs elsewhere),” Oliver, the business professor, said during the meeting with Walker. “The staff are very frustrated, and frustration is starting to turn to anger. You have your vision, but we may not have the resources right now.”
Of many of the questions posed to Walker on Thursday, he declined to speak in specifics because he said they related to personnel matters that are considered confidential. That included the resignations of former Executive Vice President Noreen Thomas in October and Vice President for academic Affairs Steve Atkins last week.
Walker made allusions to things being kept from him by members of his administration and said the college’s reaccreditation process before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools had been delayed because of unspecified problems in the power structure.
“I’m not using that as an excuse,” Walker said. “I accept full responsibility for what the situation is now.”
Other issues raised by faculty in Thursday’s meeting and in the letter sent to Walker’s office Thursday morning include:
* The college’s execution of a $290,000 settlement with former Executive Vice President Noreen Thomas prohibiting her from discussing her departure.
* The graduation of roughly 50 students in the fall who lacked some of the credits needed for graduation and received substitutions for elective courses to satisfy requirements. Faculty say that does not necessarily violate a law but demonstrates a lack of oversight.
* Walker’s compensation, including a $322,400 base salary, plus another $23,000 in annual benefits, along with salary he draws from the Edison Foundation and the Edison State College Financing Corporation; while the numbers are far from concrete, faculty estimate Walker is drawing $800,000 to $1.1 million in direct salary and benefits from the college. Walker disputes that but promises to provide more clear numbers in the coming days.
* The departure of the administrator previously in charge of the college’s reaccreditation, which is set to occur in 2012 and for which the college is anticipating site visits this year.
* Claims of hiring discrimination by top administrators, including the recently-departed Atkins, who claim the college is ignoring the recommendations of search committees put in place to recommend candidates for top jobs.
Connect with higher education reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale