WATCHING ADAMS COMMENTARY – 2/26/18
A colleague joked recently about how Dr. Matt Nehring, the acting president at Adams State University (ASU), should promptly establish a “disaster relief fund” to help relocate all the former ASU employees and their families who were displaced during Dr. Beverlee McClure’s presidency. But it wasn’t really a joke; it was a sobering observation.
“The Aftermath of Superstorm Beverlee” I called it.
The definition of a superstorm is “a powerful and destructive storm that affects an unusually large area” – usually a number of compounding forces which combine in a disastrous way.
Something akin to this confluence of destructive elements has happened at Adams State and now those who survived the tempest must put the campus back together again. But unlike a natural disaster, the conditions which caused Superstorm Beverlee were largely preventable.
SUPERSTORM BEVERLEE: A DAMAGE REPORT
Near financial ruin. Downgraded credit. Audits and sanctions. Deterioration of institutional standing. Strained marriages and even divorces. Families separated by high employee turnover and distant jobs elsewhere. Shrinking departments. Diminished enrollment. Closing programs.
Yes, the buildings are still standing… but the human infrastructure was decimated from years of gross managerial incompetence by the ASU Administration and Board of Trustees.
It didn’t have to be this way.
THE STORM GATHERS STRENGTH
It is true that former ASU president David Svaldi led the university into some very troubled conditions during his time in office – particularly with regard to unethical academic practices in Extended Studies and racking up debt with athletics construction projects such as an indoor track bubble and football stadium complex.
ASU turned out some amazing numbers and great PR between 2010 and 2012. For that brief moment of being branded as a “university” for almost unashamedly marketing purposes only, it seemed like those impressive cash flows from online coursework could continue unabated… and unpunished.
More sinister though, President Svaldi also oversaw and allowed for a culture of bullying and retaliation to metastasize—infecting many departments and offices around campus with a disdain for critical thought and an erosion of shared governance.
With Vice Presidents Bill Mansheim and Dr. Frank Novotny by President Svaldi’s side, the mantra “If you don’t like it, you can leave” became the invisible sign hanging in nearly every office. Institutional dysfunction was the standard operating procedure and the mere act of trying to map out the university’s decision-making process in a flowchart was at once excruciatingly confusing and instantly branded as an act of insurrection by upper administration.
But Svaldi managed to exit through a side door just before Richardson Hall showed its true signs of structural instability as the storm clouds gathered. According to sources familiar with the story, Svaldi knew that the Confessions of a Fixer scandal would land ASU on probation a year before it happened.
A SUPERSTORM ALWAYS HAS WARNING SIGNS
After the Kuenhold study identified a broad array of structural issues, and after the Mathieu report found even more egregious problems with Extended Studies, mere academic probation from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) seemed almost too kind. These cautionary episodes revealed a few of many systemic dysfunctions in ASU’s administrative structure.
From around 2013 onward, the many warning signs were there. Individuals, and later groups of people, brought these concerns to the attention of the administration. For their temerity to organize and put their positive restlessness to action, they were summarily punished in overt and thinly-veiled ways.
Almost none of these whistle-blowers still walk the halls of ASU today. Those who do are usually silent; they survived by learning precisely how to navigate a retributive system of coercion and intimidation.
So with the Killing of the Campus Advocacy Group (CAG) by the fall of 2015, many of these same voices of sincere concern were driven underground – and no doubt radicalized by the disdain for which they had been treated.
The message was clear: if working within the system for institutional change would be met with retribution, constructive dismissal, layoffs, or outright banishment, some other means for corrective action would be made necessary.
The faculty-produced publication The Billy Pulpit was abandoned years earlier with the departure of Dr. Mark Finney, former Mass Communications faculty. With it went the only meaningful channel of publication communication between and among employees at ASU.
Subsequently, former Mass Communications faculty Danny Ledonne formed a group of writers, researchers, commentators and analysts to continue on with the work that the institution often refused to do. Some elements of CAG regrouped, added new ASU employees, and formed Watching Adams.
They published the public salary data that the university had been sitting on for years, revealing gross inequities in employee compensation. Within months, the watchdog website identified ASU’s ongoing failure to issue adjuncts a timely paycheck, a lack of dual career or nepotism policies, violations of employee confidentiality, and the lack of shared governance on campus.
But Watching Adams did not sit well with the new administration.
NEEDLESS DISASTER STRIKES
In her opening months during the fall 2015 semester, incoming president Beverlee McClure quickly took all the wrong advice from all the wrong people. She then outdid herself by failing to realize how disastrous her course of action would take her when she refused to correct a chain of errors in judgment.
What could have been minor brush-ups or misunderstandings were magnified into headline-grabbing controversies, needless contests of will over matters as asinine as what constitutes an “administrative meeting” or whether McClure’s judgment to wear a fat suit with rotting teeth for a university community’s Halloween party was really presidential behavior.
Refusing to back down or reflect upon her errors in judgment, President McClure instead threw everyone around her under the bus.
According to her, the unlawful campus ban of Ledonne was Assistant Colorado Attorney General Jessica Salazar’s fault! It was ASU Police Chief Grohowski who fabricated the police watch list that doesn’t exist! The HLC’s sanction of academic probation was “some sort of political statement” to make ASU their “whipping boy!”
ASU Community Partnerships and the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Museum became threats to McClure’s propensity for occupying center stage in every photo op and she took great steps to undermine them both.
The necessary and urgent work of Dr. Chris Gilmer to commission an audit of Extended Studies became the basis for a “dissolving of their friendship” – he looked too presidential for her comfort! This culminated in Gilmer’s forced “resignation.” And Gilmer’s husband must have been co-editor of Watching Adams!
McClure had to be right about everything; her perceived failings must have been due to the failure of others.
When she wasn’t alienating her own colleagues, McClure was casting herself as the victim. She endured the “friendly fire” of “sexism” from male students and faculty. The media never quoted McClure correctly. Every article was “spun” in harsh and negative ways – it was “fake news!” McClure was the target of “cyberbullying” and even “cyberstalking” by one deranged “terrorist” “sitting behind a computer.”
McClure was the first woman president and surely anything that didn’t go her way was due to owning a uterus. It was a massive conspiracy involving Watching Adams, a few disgruntled faculty and staff, countless outside agitators, the local and national media, and the evil spirits she had to ward off with mirrors in her windows and frozen lemons with the names of her enemies in her freezer. (Seriously, that happened.)
INHERITING A HURRICANE… AND MAKING IT A SUPERSTORM
On balance, the mess that Dr. Svaldi handed to Dr. McClure was often made worse under her leadership – particularly when it came to campus morale, retaining students and employees. ASU began to hemorrhage its workforce from nearly every area of campus. Full time student enrollment declined a full -11% since McClure took office.
In some departments, today’s ASU seniors have almost none of the faculty that were teaching when they were freshman – substantially hurting retention and graduation rates. ASU’s six-year graduation rate is about 26% lower than the Colorado state average.
Due to attrition, remaining staff and administrators are promoted multiple times to fill positions with which they have little or no experience. And too often, the impulse has been to pathologize the departing employee as “part of the problem” while the rest of the campus is admonished to “drink the Kool-Aid” – or else.
Some of the biggest mistakes ASU has to correct are self-inflicted while others are eclipsed by the national challenges American public higher education is facing.
But by most respects, Superstorm Beverlee inflicted massive institutional harm that was wholly unnecessary and has only left those who remain in the Adams State Hunger Games more ragged, more disillusioned, with a loss of trust in one another, and just hoping for a break in the storm. With McClure’s removal from office, the first rays of sunshine may be visible on the horizon.
The Svaldi administration could have halted many of the worst practices before they were normalized and even mandated as part of organizational culture. The Board of Trustees could have held Svaldi to account for his missteps much sooner, taken a more active role in maintaining key performance indicators, and holding highly-paid administrators to those metrics.
The Board certainly could have chosen a more qualified successor for office than Beverlee McClure – already arriving at ASU with a litany of warning signs that largely forecast this administrative disaster. Former Board Chair Arnold Salazar became complicit in ratifying many of the worst acts of McClure’s unpresidential behavior with not only his stamp of approval, but an unwarranted three year extension to her contract.
It didn’t have to be this way.
REBUILDING AFTER THE STORM
Now the good folks remaining at ASU must pick up the pieces after Superstorm Beverlee and rebuild their institution towards fiscal solvency, academic integrity, and institutional compliance. The total cost of all this damage may never truly be known.
Hopefully, the lessons learned will inform Dr. Nehring’s leadership under Board Chair Cleave Simpson. As one colleague noted, “part of picking up the pieces is to learn to trust one another again.” ASU can still be a flourishing and vibrant campus if it puts its people first – from upper administrators and senior faculty right down to the last promptly-paid adjunct and respected janitorial staff. Campus morale matters. Treating people with respect and supporting their efforts matters.
Those were the principles upon which the Campus Advocacy Group was founded and there’s now an even greater need for them at Adams State. Rather than exiling creative and independent thinkers, ASU can build a brighter future by embracing diverse points of view and valuing the people who dedicate themselves to making the campus great.