Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bethune-Cookman University under Leadership of Trudie Kibbe Reed: The Role of the Southern Association of Colleges

To add to what I wrote yesterday about Bethune-Cookman University and the recent resignation/retirement of its president Trudie Kibbe Reed: as the university's accrediting body the Southern Association of Colleges prepared to review the school for reaccreditation in 2010, it invited third-party comments from members of the public.  I submitted a third-party comment to SACS as someone who had served as the school's highest academic officer, its vice-president for academic affairs.

The conclusion of my document reads as follows:

BCU is now dominated by an administration with an autocratic, capricious, and even destructive leadership style that is not building an academically strong institution with sound values.  In key respects, the current leadership team of BCU is ethically compromised.  I strongly recommend that the SACS review team look very carefully at the quality of leadership at this school, and at the record of its president when she was president of Philander Smith College.  Even if you choose to dismiss my report as that of a disgruntled former employee (and it’s not that: I am genuinely concerned about BCU and its future), you would be wise to listen to the growing number of former employees of the current administration who once endorsed its vision and worked very hard to defend and assist the school’s leader, but who are now thoroughly disenchanted by the quality of leadership at this institution.  

In 15 single-spaced pages, I provided abundant information to support this conclusion.

After I submitted my third-party statement to SACS, I received a letter from Dr. Gerald Lord, a SACS official, informing me that my statement could not be taken into consideration since it arrived after SACS's deadline for the submission of third-party statements.  But unfortunately for Dr. Lord, it was rather easy for me to disprove the claim that my statement had reached SACS after its submission deadline, since I had sent my document by special delivery mail and had the signed and dated signature of the SACS staff member who received the document to show when it arrived--before the deadline.

I sent this information to Dr. Lord, and to the best of my recollection, did not hear back from him in response to my proof that my third-party statement had arrived prior to the submission deadline.  It struck me then and now as . . . odd . . . that an academic accrediting body whose accreditation standards are entirely hinged on the notion of integrity invites third-party submissions from the public and then informs those who submit these submissions that they will not be considered in the accreditation process--and, in my case, does so by sending out false information about when the submission has been received.

It strikes me as even more odd that the testimony of someone who has served as the chief academic officer of an institution, who has much well-documented insider information about what is going on at the leadership level of a university at which he or she has served, would be treated in this cavalier and downright disrespectful way.  If, that is, SACS is really interested in integrity and academic excellence in the institutions it accredits . . . .

As I noted yesterday, shortly before SACS gave Bethune-Cookman reaccreditation, she was placed on the SACS board of trustees.  Her school's press statement announcing this in May 2010 states that the primary mission of SACS's trustees is to "guide the organization's work and to implement the accreditation process."

Then this happened: after SACS re-accredited Bethune-Cookman University in December 2010 (with a glowing review of the university, per the school's press release to which my posting yesterday linked), the  American Association of University Professors went on in June 2011 to censure the school, noting serious questions about integrity raised by how the school's top leaders had wielded power, and concluding, 

A pervasive atmosphere currently exists at Bethune-Cookman University in which the administration supports favorites and ignores or punishes those who fall out of favor or who question, contend, or appeal.  No adequate mechanism or procedure exists for the impartial or balanced hearing of grievances.

The AAUP censure came six months after SACS, which stresses integrity above all in its criteria for accrediting institutions, had given Bethune-Cookman a glowing bill of health.  According to media reports, the president to whose leadership SACS gave its thumbs-up in the reaccreditation process in 2010, Trudie Kibbe Reed, has now just resigned with 30 of the 33 trustees on her board voting to accept the resignation.

There's something wrong with this picture, isn't there?  There's something wrong with the claim that integrity counts first and foremost in the reaccreditation process for academic institutions, when third-party statements by very competent witnesses are not only ignored, but dismissed on the basis of false claims about when they arrived.

There's something seriously wrong with the claim that integrity is front and center in the thinking of an academic accrediting body when its officials are capable of behaving in this dismissive, disrespectful way towards those from whom they invite testimony as they re-accredit a school.  

The results of that dismissive, disrespectful treatment of highly qualified witnesses, when a school is re-accredited, can be as follows: a leader who is functioning without integrity as her or his lodestar, who is autocratic, capricious, and often downright cruel in her or his exercise of leadership, can inflict significant damage to a whole chain of hapless individuals, while one of the key institutions designed to oversee the quality of leadership in the school stands by and does nothing to stop the harm, and the erosion of values absolutely essential to an academic life that means anything at all.

Values like speaking the truth . . . . Or values (which would seem to absolutely essential to a United Methodist institution) like treating all individuals with respect . . . .  And values like respecting the human rights of employees, granting them due process and fair hearings when they're fired . . . .

As I said yesterday, I hold the Southern Association of Colleges, along with the United Methodist Church and the board of trustees at Bethune-Cookman University, responsible for permitting the destruction of a number of good folks' well-being, reputations, and livelihood to continue long after there was strong reason to stop the destruction.  I hold these institutions responsible for their lack of careful supervision of and response to what has been happening at Bethune-Cookman University for some time now, which has had a significantly negative impact on the academic life of an illustrious HBCU that deserves far better.

Not to mention the significantly negative impact the irresponsibility has had on the lives of many individuals who offered their talents to this institution, were assured those talents were wanted and needed, and who were then treated with an amazing lack of respect when they were suddenly fired--in one case after another, fired when armed guards appeared at their offices and ordered them to clean out their desks and leave the campus immediately, with no hearing, warning, or chance to defend themselves prior to these humiliating dismissals.

These kinds of firings became the leitmotiv of Reed's leadership style as president of Bethune-Cookman.  I can well understand why the business elites to which many newspapers report at an editorial level would celebrate such behavior.  For corporate leaders, what's not to like in ruthless firing of employees with no hearings, no respect for their human rights, with armed guards carrying out the peremptory firings?

But for a United Methodist institution with Wesleyan Christian values?  For an institution that wants to build a sound academic life and which is expected to abide by canons of academic life applicable throughout the U.S., which call for due process and a chance to defend oneself as one is fired?

Not so much.  The values conveyed by the string of repeated firings under Reed's leadership at B-CU, in which armed guards appeared at people's desks to order them off campus: these have nothing at all  to do with the core values of the United Methodist Church and with academic life at any institution that expects to be regarded with respect.

And when the employees Reed was humiliating in this way were in some cases openly gay employees who have no legal protection against discrimination in Daytona Beach and the state of Florida, what is the local newspaper really saying in the pro-Reed editorial to which I've just linked?  Does the paper think that promoting discrimination based on sexual orientation is good for the economic and cultural life of the community?  Does the paper think that sending armed guards to escort openly gay employees (about whose "lifestyle" you've made discriminatory statements in writing) from a local campus, when they have had no evaluation, no hearing, no due process in which they can defend themselves against whatever charges are used as the basis of their sudden firing, is good for business in any community?  Does the Daytona paper imagine that behavior of this sort will attract creative, educated people to its community?

When the legal system of the state and community give a gay employee no chance to challenge this treatment on any legal grounds?  And when the institution behaving in this discriminatory way towards the gay employee has tremendous financial resources at its disposal to crush anyone who challenges it?  And when the leader of that institution has placed the gay employee she's treating in this way in a financial crisis by making false promises to the employee--and when she knows that the employee who is already in financial crisis due to her broken promises will endure even more serious financial hardship if he tries to mount a futile legal challenge to the injustice?

Lots of well-respected researchers, including Richard Florida, might strongly disagree with the Daytona paper that this kind of discriminatory anti-gay behavior is good for building a vibrant community.  Or that it attracts the kind of creative and educated people to a community that a community needs in order to thrive.

No comments: