Friday, May 01, 2015

what happens when your professional and managerial leadership covet the status but aren't up to the task


pitch |  Beginning in 2005, James served as director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security. He found his way into higher education via a 2007 task force on campus security that he co-chaired with Robert Stein, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education. The two hit it off. When Stein learned that there was an opening at MCC for a vice chancellor of administrative services, in 2009, he recommended James as a candidate. The MCC board of trustees — a six-member body, elected by the public — approved. When Jackie Snyder stepped down as chancellor of MCC the next year, James was recommended for the job. Despite less than a year's experience working in higher education, he got the appointment.

One of James' first acts as chancellor was to turn MCC's campus security into an official, state-commissioned police department. Today, MCC boasts a force of 35 uniformed officers, plus another six uncertified public-safety officers. Though it patrols only five small campuses, MCC's police department numbers nearly as many cops as that of Gladstone, Missouri — an 8-square-mile suburb with a population of 28,000.

If you're measuring MCC's success in non-law-enforcement terms, however, James' tenure as chancellor has been a shaky four years. According to faculty surveys and outside studies, the district is in disarray — a condition confirmed by more than a dozen current and former staff, faculty and administrators, many of them longtime MCC loyalists, interviewed by The Pitch in recent weeks. The beefed-up police department, they say, is merely the most visible way that James has shifted resources away from educating students.

"You'd think a guy with a police background and basically zero higher-ed experience, chosen to lead a community-college district, would bend over backward to familiarize himself with academia and not focus on all the law-enforcement stuff," says a longtime faculty member who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. "Instead, it's been the complete opposite. He's consistently shown disdain toward the academic traditions that have been in place at these schools for 100 years."

Such criticisms might be easier to dismiss as the grumblings of change-averse academics, were it not for the growing body of data indicating that MCC is underperforming. A 2014 report, commissioned by MCC and prepared by CLARUS Corp., a community-college marketing-research firm, concluded:
"Nationally, over the last four years, the number of applicants to community colleges has been increasing. But at Metropolitan Community College, from 2010 to 2013, the number of applicants has been in decline (from 14,600 to 11,500)." The report goes on to note that the school's conversion rate — the percentage of applicants who end up enrolled at MCC — has held steady at 40 percent, though "the typical conversion goal for a community college is 60 percent."

James' tenure has also been marked by a significant exodus of high-ranking, long-serving administrators, including several vice chancellors and presidents with decades of the kind of higher-education experience that James lacks.

Shake-ups are common when new administrations take command, and unpopular moves are often necessary to ensure the long-term viability of an institution — particularly at community colleges, where state funds are ever-depleting and donations add up to a fraction of what four-year universities comfortably rely on.

But many of MCC's critical positions — vice chancellors, directors and, as of last month, a school president — remain unfilled. And several of the past administrators who spoke with The Pitch indicated that most of those who have left MCC in recent years toughed it out under James' leadership as long as they did out of a sense of duty to the students, whom they believe are getting shortchanged as a result of changes that James has made.

Kathy Walter-Mack first arrived at MCC in 2007, when she was part of a two-person consulting team hired by the school to investigate racial-discrimination complaints, brought by several black students, against two teachers and a staff member. Walter-Mack's conclusion was that the allegations were unsubstantiated but that a systemic environment of intolerance existed at MCC. One of the recommendations of the report was to establish a diversity-0x000Acoordinator position at MCC. Walter-Mack was subsequently hired for that position.

Her pedigree included a stint in the 1990s working in the Kansas City, Missouri, school district, which was then still mired in a decades-long desegregation battle. She had by then been the executive director of the Desegregation Monitoring Committee, a court-ordered governing body through which the district had to clear virtually all of its decisions. Walter-Mack later went to work for Sam's Town, where she oversaw compliance with city quotas for minority- and women-owned businesses. Later, she returned to Kansas City Public Schools and served as its general counsel.

According to a 2001 Pitch story ("Taylor Made," October 4, 2001) chronicling leadership problems in KCPS, Walter-Mack attempted to consolidate district power in her office and was subsequently fired by Superintendent Benjamin Demps.

"Really and truly, she [Walter-Mack] was running a large part of the district," Jack Goddard, chief of staff to the KCPS superintendent at the time, told The Pitch. "A lot of everyday decisions, principals were reporting up through her as much as they were through the superintendent. ... You had a really confused chain of command."

That characterization is likely familiar to staff and faculty at MCC, who now know Walter-Mack in a variety of roles.

When James became chancellor, in 2010, he created a new position — chief of staff — and installed Walter-Mack in it. In 2013, Walter-Mack took on the additional role of vice chancellor of human resources. Owing to her background as a lawyer — she's licensed to practice in Missouri and Illinois — Walter-Mack is also highly involved in all legal matters pertaining to MCC.

James has grown increasingly reliant on Walter-Mack, "abdicating daily decision making to her so he can focus on community visibility and fund raising, leaving the running of the academic institution to others," according to notes from the faculty emergency meeting.