Members of the Washtenaw Community College Board of Trustees,
Eighteen years ago August I was hired to teach history at WCC. To be bluntly honest, having received a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, I was disappointed to find myself teaching at a community college. I had envisioned myself, not surprisingly, teaching at a four-year university, perhaps a top-tier institution. Teaching at a community college was something of a disappointment.
For about five minutes it was a disappointment. I very quickly came to love WCC, to love my students, and to love my colleagues. I had left the active duty Army in 1992 to finish my Ph.D. so that I could teach history and so that I could have a positive influence on the lives men and women, young and old. WCC fulfilled that ambition and then some. Then and now, I have no further career aspirations other than to be a history instructor at WCC. Add to it that I love Ann Arbor and all that it offers. I have lived in Ann Arbor for more than 20 years and it is more of a home to me than anywhere I’ve ever lived.
But, for the last year, I’ve been looking. Not actively, but looking nevertheless, fielding offers from colleagues around the nation who are interested in hiring me. I’ve been looking because, over the past three years, WCC has gone from being a highly functioning institution to one that is dysfunctional and that has a toxic work environment. For the last year I have had a hard time dragging myself out of bed to go to work. That has never happened to me in my 36-year professional life. Never. And if you were, just once, to wander the hallways of WCC and talk to its employees (one wonders why you don’t do this rather frequently), if they felt they could speak freely without fear of retribution, most would tell you the same thing.
So this is not about “change”. If you truly believe this is about “resistance to change,” then you have not been paying attention. In the eighteen years that I have been on the College’s faculty we have seen massive change in education and in our College: changes in delivery, changes in technology, and changes in our discipline. We have instructors here at WCC whose disciplines literally change so much during the instructional semester that they are teaching new material they did not anticipate at the semester’s start. By our very nature, professional educators are prepared for change and are willing to engage it and to shape it.
And that remains true today at WCC.
The issue is not “change”. It is leadership. More correctly, it is the absolute lack thereof. President Bellanca, over the past three years, has shown herself completely incapable of leading the College toward the change necessary for WCC to become an educational leader in the 21st Century. Leaders lead. They don’t threaten. They don’t scream. They don’t isolate themselves from their subordinates. They don’t give evasive answers when asked very direct questions. They don’t tell people what they think those people want to hear and then retreat from that position afterwards. They don’t surround themselves with a small circle of trusted advisers and receive little input from anyone outside of that circle. And they definitely don’t resort to “I’m the president” when someone asks to be a part of a collaborative process. Any expert on leadership—corporate, educational, or military—will tell you that this is a recipe for disaster. Yet this is exactly what has happened at WCC over the last three years.
As for how the faculty have approached this crisis: beginning in the winter of 2012, current and retired faculty members began quietly reaching out to members of the Board of Trustees telling them of the problems that were brewing. These contacts went on for nearly a year before the public breach. Had the Board desired to keep these issues quiet and to deal with them in both a productive manner and in a manner that kept WCC out of the headlines, that was your opportunity. You failed to seize that opportunity.
But, in fact, one more quite accidental opportunity arose. Prior to the regularly scheduled “public” meeting of the Board in February 2013, Jenny Baker, then the president of the WCCEA, sent you the text of the presentation she intended to give that night. Fortuitously, a snow storm hit late that afternoon, and the meeting was postponed for a week. Jennifer then gave to President Bellanca a packet of supporting material to give to each of you, a packet that Jennifer had intended to give to you at that Board meeting. Both the text of the presentation and the packet made clear that there was a serious problem brewing between President Bellanca and the faculty. The Board now had a second chance to keep this problem from going public. All the Board had to do was to reach out privately to the WCCEA leadership and say: “We hear you. We happen to disagree with you. But several of us would like to meet with you to discuss your concerns and to see if we can help find a way forward.” Had the Board done that, I promise you, I would not have made the comment I did at the following week’s Board Meeting (Jenny could not attend). But the board was unanimous in its absolute silence.
So it went public. And the Board publicly slapped us down. And the faculty fully understood that you were not going to act on our concerns. As a result, for the last year, we’ve been silent, as clearly neither private nor public communications have had any apparent impact on your actions. And, all the while, the situation has gone from bad to worse.
This, then, is the context behind Thursday’s vote. Having tried and failed, time and again, to engage President Bellanca and get her to lead the college in a truly collaborative and respectful manner, and having tried and failed to engage the Board of Trustees, first privately and then publicly, the faculty leadership felt there was little alternative to that vote. And to be clear: believe this or not, I was one of the last of the faculty leadership to come to the conclusion that this was necessary. I had fought for more than a year to stop this from happening, but I finally concluded that this was the only way forward. If the Board of Trustees are unhappy with this vote, you have only yourselves to blame that it came to this. The unfortunate irony in all of this is that your unflinching support of President Bellanca has not only done a disservice to the College, but it has done a disservice to President Bellanca, as well.
So we have come to this very distressing moment. Thursday’s vote gave me no glee, believe me. I was deeply saddened that an institution that I have come to love, one that has become embedded in my DNA, had gotten to the point where that vote was necessary. But, let there be no doubt in your mind, it was a necessary action. You, the WCC Board of Trustees, gave us little alternative.
So the ball is now in your court. Please don’t volley it back to us.
Dr. David Fitzpatrick
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret), United States Army