Failure to Communicate
How Rose Bellanca riled up WCC's faculty
The recession was a rollercoaster ride for Washtenaw Community College. Income from local property taxes shrank by $9 million between 2008 and 2012, lopping nearly 10 percent off this year's $95 million budget. As laid-off workers signed up for retraining, enrollment rose at a record pace--only to fall just as fast when funding dwindled and people found new jobs. And in recent months, the college has lost two vice presidents: VP of finance Steve Hardy, who left in November, and VP for instruction Stuart Blacklaw, who was fired in March.
Many in the school's faculty are appalled at the departures--and at odds with Rose Bellanca, who became the college's fourth president in September 2011. "I used to love coming to work," says history professor and faculty union president Dave Fitzpatrick. "But that's changed now. I have no confidence in the president, and, more importantly, the president has no confidence in me." Carrie Krantz, English department chair and spokesperson for the twenty-five department chairs, agrees. "I love WCC. I endowed a scholarship here, and what's happening now is breaking my heart."
Just what's happening now isn't easy to understand. Hardy and Blacklaw said nothing when they left and have declined interview requests, Blacklaw noting he'd signed a non-disparagement agreement. And the faculty members the Observer interviewed say communicating with President Bellanca has often been difficult and at times impossible.
"I'm the chief negotiator for the union," says Fitzpatrick, "and we have monthly meetings with the president. [With previous president] Larry [Whitworth], we'd get on his calendar quickly, and when we raised issues at the meetings, he was always about problem solving. By contrast, when we tried last August to set up a meeting with [Bellanca] for September, we were told that there was not a single day in September or October she could meet. Only in November could we get a day with her.
"And in those meetings, it was never about problem solving but about affixing blame, usually to Stuart
[Blacklaw]," Fitzpatrick continues. "[Bellanca would] start to answer a question, and then she'd say to Stuart in front of everybody, 'I'm not blaming you'--which was exactly what she was doing."
"Larry had a heavy-handed administration style," Krantz added in a March interview, "but he was fair and approachable, willing to listen, and willing to engage. There's none of that with the new president. Specifically, [the department chairs] requested a meeting with her in January, and she declined. I asked her for another general meeting after that and have heard nothing back."
The faculty went public with its frustration at a meeting of the college's board of trustees on March 26. Saying he spoke as "a representative of a unified faculty," David Wooten, a member of the biology department, addressed the trustees--and a standing-room-only crowd of supporters. Wooten acknowledged that "it became apparent early on that President Bellanca and former VP Stuart Blacklaw had a difficult working relationship.
"But," Wooten continued, "the fact that Stuart was fired 'effective immediately' when the entire faculty was in a meeting, the fact that he was in front of us not five minutes prior talking about his continued efforts for faculty support, the fact that he was not given the opportunity to leave his position respectfully and with prior notification, the fact that faculty were in a union meeting discussing how to communicate and collaborate better with this administration, while that same administration was firing our VP right under our noses without any communication to us, is beyond ironic."
Then Wooten asked, "If there are any faculty members here that share these thoughts, please show their support by raising their hand." The response was virtually unanimous--about fifty hands went up. To underline the point, the faculty took out a full-page ad the next week in the Washtenaw Voice, the campus newspaper, announcing a scholarship in the name of Stuart Blacklaw--the vice president Bellanca had just fired.
Larry Whitworth ran WCC with a strong hand for thirteen years, and the college's trustees looked long and hard for his successor, even extending their deadline when they weren't satisfied with the first pool of candidates. Bellanca stood out, board chair Anne Williams recalls in a phone interview, because she "has a lot of chief operating officer experience, she's got a lot of experience in fundraising, she's got a lot of experience with strategic planning and working with the community in collaboration ... She really focuses on the community college mission."
"They hired me to develop a strategic plan because there wasn't one," says the new president by phone from an out-of-area conference. "They also wanted me to work with the external community, to meet with local heads of industry and business so our students can meet their needs, and with our local K-12 partners to get more students. The last president didn't believe in K-12 partnerships."
Whitworth, says trustee Richard Landau, "refocused our curriculum on career paths rather than on discrete departments" and "created a strong infrastructure" with building projects that included a new library and a fitness center. "What we as trustees were looking for from the new president was to really leverage those accomplishments with the community and to put us in the position where the community was better aware of what the community college was and what it had to offer."
Bellanca says she's making progress on those goals. "We've accomplished making the strategic plan. That was done last year with 160 in-person interviews with faculty and staff, plus we sent a survey out to every employee to ask questions of them about the future. And so far I've met with 125 top administrators and CEOs at hospitals and IT companies and manufacturers" to discuss their needs.
What Bellanca calls "K-12 partnerships" are ways to recruit students to WCC before they finish high school. Though Whitworth might not have been interested in them, WCC has been doing that for more than fifteen years through the Washtenaw Technical Middle College, a charter high school where students earn both a high school diploma and some form of certification from WCC--a technical certificate or an associate's degree. Landau says that when he joined the board in 2001, WTMC had about 300 students; that's grown to the point that "at our most recent board meeting, we approved an enrollment of 450."
But Landau is most interested in "dual enrollment"--connecting students to WCC while still in their local high school. Working "principally with Willow Run and Ypsilanti consolidated districts," Landau says, "we have charged Dr. Bellanca ... to reach out to those constituencies in the community that have not necessarily had access to a college education, to be able to make [WCC's] resources available to high school students so they see a path beyond high school." The hope, Landau says, is to expand the horizons of students in poor districts while building the college's enrollment in the long term.
In the short term, though, enrollment continues to fall: WCC's head count rose more than 10 percent during the recession, from 20,796 in 2007-2008 to 23,206 in 2009-2010--only to fall right back to 20,860 in 2011-2012.
This year's enrollment isn't yet final. But in the fall and winter terms, students took about 5 percent fewer credit hours than expected. That cost the college about $1.6 million in tuition and fees, which was by far the biggest contributor to a revenue shortfall of $1.9 million that was addressed in a midyear budget adjustment.
Landau points out that there's nothing unusual about needing to tweak the budget as the academic year unfolds. And controller Lynn Martin emails that "modest increases [in tuition rates] each year have allowed us to adjust our budget." Though individually modest, those increases raised tuition per credit hour from $73 to $89 over the past four years--a total of 22 percent. Tax revenue also is slowly increasing as the local housing market recovers.
The February budget adjustment more than offset the lost revenue with $3.5 million in spending cuts. But since most of those savings came from leaving teaching positions unfilled, that did nothing to improve the faculty's frame of mind.
Besides increasing enrollment, Bellanca is looking for new sources of funding. One success she points to is a $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. WCC will use the money to make sure its information technology curriculum meets the needs of local and regional businesses. In addition, the president says, "we have partnered with five entrepreneurs who're helping us by looking for different ways to bring in revenue."
Asked why VP of finance Hardy left, Bellanca replies: "That was his choice, and I was very disappointed that happened." As to why Blacklaw was fired, she will say only: "It's all in the FOIA the Voice did of his last evaluation. His evaluation was very clear about what he needed to do, and he knew he was expected to work towards those goals. That never happened."
As reported in the Voice, Blacklaw's last review by Whitworth praised his "exceptional job this past year at developing a positive, productive working relationship with faculty, department chairs and deans." Bellanca's review of Blacklaw, in contrast, implied that the vice president was too supportive of the faculty. High on the list of goals she says Blacklaw failed to meet was the requirement that he "Visibly support the college president in communications with faculty and staff."
In his response to the review, Blacklaw described himself as a "servant-leader ... the only effective style of leadership for a group of individuals [faculty members] who, through tenure or contract, cannot easily be removed. One who inherits a protected workforce cannot move an organization through intimidation."
Bellanca's relationship with the faculty was so frosty that after the March trustees meeting, union president Fitzpatrick said that a faculty vote of no confidence in Bellanca was "a real possibility." The only thing holding them back, he said, was "the faculty's concern that, by bringing it to the public, it could hurt the college's reputation." At the time, department chairs spokesperson Krantz predicted that the situation at the college "will get uglier before it gets better. The majority of the faculty would vote 'no confidence,' not 100 percent but the majority."
Rick Landau, an attorney, notes that neither Bellanca or the trustees can "comment on any particulars with regard to the recent developments with the vice president for finance or the vice president for instruction." That said, though, he adds, "I can tell you those matters were closely monitored by the board, and the board fully supported the president in her decisions with regard to those particular positions."
Landau says a vote of no confidence would be "counterproductive." He adds that he thinks the faculty "have much more trust in our board and in our executive leadership team than to resort to that kind of theatrical gesture." And he also suggests that the faculty's unhappiness may reflect the frustration felt by organized labor at new anti-union laws. " I don't think there's a member of this board who agrees with what the legislature's done with regard to right-to-work," he volunteers.
Fitzpatrick says right-to-work isn't the problem--it's Bellanca's attitude. And even Landau concedes that the relationship may have been damaged. "We look forward to President Bellanca rectifying whatever issues she has with communications with the faculty," he says. "We have directed her to take such steps as are necessary to improve that atmosphere, [and] we have faith that it will improve."
Interviewed in early April, Bellanca made it clear she's heard that message. Asked about the faculty's complaints about her failure to communicate, she replied, "Honestly, I could have done better. When we talked about strategies, dialogue never occurred, and it should have occurred. That's my responsibility. I hope we can get past that, to say, 'OK, this happened, but let's not make it happen again.'"
On the faculty's dramatic appearance at the trustees' meeting, the president is equally blunt. "Maybe they felt they needed to do something big to get my attention, and maybe they did. But I got it; I understand." To prove she means it, Bellanca said she plans to "meet with the department chairs, and keep that up until a new VP of instruction is in place."
Carrie Krantz confirms that for the first time, Bellanca attended a meeting of the department chairs in mid-April. "She made an excellent presentation with promise of improved communication and collaboration," Krantz emails. "Only time will tell to see if there are significant improvements."
Bellanca thinks a vote of no confidence by the faculty is unnecessary: "They've already voiced their opinion, and [a vote would] be like knocking me over the head with a sledgehammer. But I respect them, they're a great faculty and good people, and if that's what they feel they need to do, then that's what they need to do.
"But it's my job to move the college forward, and while I respect them, I get it. Now, can we move the college forward?"
[Originally published in May, 2013.]
On May 29, 2013, wrote:
As a student of WCC and an ex-staff member, I have seen appropriate changes. I was a tech in one of the departments. She made it immediately known that techs who have been working at the college for a lengthy time needed to move on. The tech position is there to help students make some extra money while being able to complete their education. Once you have completed you need to move on. There are techs that have been done for years and are still working there. She made it to where these employees moved on and it opened the doors for new students to have this opportunity.
I'm not sure if Dr. Fitzpatrick is the best source. I had him as an instructor and he is very condescending to his students. He is the type of person that has his own view of how things should go, and if it doesn't go his way, he becomes confrontational. Which is what appears to have happened. I'm not saying he doesn't have any validity in his statements, but I have learned to take what he says with a grain of salt. As well, I have kept others from taking his classes because of this.