Turmoil at NKY’s Gateway as classes start

James Pilcher
Gateway Community & Technical College is seeing its share of turmoil lately, with friction between the board of directors and school and state administrators.

The first two weeks of August haven’t been the greatest for Gateway Community and Technical College as the college’s students head back to class Monday.

Last week, long-standing conflicts among state and local school administrators and the college’s board of directors exploded into public view. That eruption comes at a time when questions about the performance of one of Northern Kentucky’s most important workforce development tools have resurfaced, raised by a candidate for Kentucky governor.

That’s on top of previous concerns raised by regional constituencies ranging from local businesses to manufacturers about how well Gateway prepares graduates for the workforce.

The conflicts are so wide they include disputes about Gateway’s overall performance, the proper roles of the college’s administrators as well as what role the board should have.

For example:

• Students supporting a laid off professor came out in force at a recent board meeting to ask about his dismissal. The board chair entertained the at-times emotional testimony, although the board has no say in the college’s personnel decisions That, in turn, raised questions about proper meeting procedure.

• At the same meeting, the board chair said there is still concern in the community about the college’s performance in producing qualified job candidates for local businesses. He also questioned how Gateway handles its faculty, with instructors following up with further protests and questions to college administrators about policies they deem unfair.

• After the meeting was over, the chairman of the school’s nonprofit foundation called the board chair an obscenity.

• The president of the statewide agency that oversees Gateway later denounced how the meeting was conducted. The agency’s attorney even sent a scolding letter Friday to the local board about how its actions could open members to possible lawsuits.

• A dispute arose between the board and state officials over whether appropriate procedure was followed during the board’s review of the performance of Gateway’s president. The state president even sent back what was submitted by the local board unopened.

Yet board chairman Jeff Groob remained unapologetic about his role in raising questions and the board’s recent actions.

“Among other things, our role is to reflect back to Gateway’s administration how the school is meeting the needs of the community, whether that be the faculty, students or the business constituency,” Groob said. “And it is clear from what we have heard from students, faculty and employers that Gateway is not meeting those expectations.”

Former Gateway Community and Technical College president, Ed Hughes, will receive a $438,000 bonus from the college's foundation nearly a year after he retired.

Gateway president Ed Hughes acknowledged the month’s turmoil. But Hughes said a recent survey shows that the campus climate is positive overall and that he believes that things will smooth over after classes begin. That’s despite open criticism of Gateway and the entire state community college system late last month at a state chamber of commerce meeting by attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway as well as other state business leaders.

“All you need to do is come out one evening and see the wonderful things that are going on here,” Hughes said. “And I made it very clear to the students at that meeting and to everyone that they can contact me directly with all their concerns.”

But Jay Box, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, said that the local board only has “an advisory role” and that Groob and the rest of the board “was way out of line” in allowing public comments about personnel matters at the Aug. 6 board meeting.

Instructor’s release generates concerns

At the Aug. 6 meeting, about 50 students and current/former faculty crammed into standing room only space at Gateway’s Covington offices.

After most of the meeting had concluded, Groob allowed for public comments. And the board along with Hughes heard an earful, mostly about the release of Joe Shearer, an anatomy and physiology instructor who was one of the most popular at the school. (Shearer did not return an email seeking comment).

In addition to sticking up for Shearer, several students complained about a lack of communication from Hughes and Gateway’s administration as a whole.

“When you can decide solely who gets hired and who gets fired, that’s a dictatorship,” said student Ray Snedicor, 48, directly to Hughes.

Groob told the crowd that since they believed they couldn’t talk to the school’s administrators, “I will stay as long as I need well past midnight if need be to hear anyone who wants to talk.”

Hughes did not respond to the comments during the meeting, but met with individual students afterward.

If the Aug. 6 meeting raised emotions, that was nothing compared to what happened after it.

Jim Parsons, a well-known local attorney and former civic administrator who chairs the Gateway Foundation Board and sits on several other civic boards including TANK, was heard by this reporter calling Groob “a complete a******” before storming out of the building.

“It really wasn’t much of a conversation,” Groob said. “I don’t know how he (Parsons) got so angry.”

Ironically, Groob’s political consulting firm helped Parsons’ wife Gayle Hoffman land an appointment as a family court judge in Campbell County in 2010. She later lost an election for that seat after winning her primary.

Parsons declined comment on the confrontation with Groob, as did Hughes. In an interview with The Enquirer, Box also declined to discuss that confrontation.

But Box criticized how Groob handled the meeting.

“The action of having the students testify at that board meeting was out of order as was a board to getting into personnel issues,” Box said. “

Box added that Groob and the board should have directed those students to make their comments to Hughes.

And despite its role in approving the school’s budget and evaluating the Gateway president, Box said “this is an advisory board with no authority over the running of the college.”

Friday, local board members received a certified letter from KCTCS’ general counsel J. Cambell Cantrill III, who wrote that the board was out of line of allowing students to discuss personnel matters in open session. the letter also stated that such actions, along with the board’s refusal to follow procedure in reviewing Hughes’ overall performance, “place each of you at considerable risk for personal and legal liability.”

Did board evaluate

president or not?

As for that evaluation, one of the roles of local boards within KCTCS is to provide an evaluation of its college president to Box. The board has no power to hire or fire the president, and does not make final decisions on compensation or even the final evaluation.

But the board reviews are intended to give the state president insight into the performance of local college officials. Gateway started its evaluation process last fall at the same time that KCTCS was changing the process for such evaluations. State officials have ruled that the evaluations cannot be done behind closed doors in executive session, based on recent case law and opinions of the state attorney general.

In addition, Box has asked each board to approve a single evaluation in a motion made in open session even if the final vote doesn’t need to be unanimous.

But this spring, Gateway’s board submitted a series of individual reviews done by board members, some anonymously, with a letter and resolution from the board stating that this was the way it had decided to do the review.

But neither Box nor Hughes have accepted the reviews or looked at them, sending them back to Groob and the rest of the board.

“The board has not conducted an evaluation and has not acted on that evaluation,” Box told The Enquirer.

Groob said that the local board’s process does indeed meet the letter of the law and that the board unanimously approved the process.

“To say that we shouldn’t go into executive session ... no one is comfortable having discussions in an evaluation situation in public,” Groob said. “For them to say that this is not an evaluation is ridiculous.”

Faculty upset over

contract situation

Another point of contention at the meeting is one that has been bubbling under the surface of the school for awhile, based on several interviews with Gateway faculty members. Most of the school’s instructors are hired on year-by-year basis, given one-year contracts in the summer. None of the instructors or professors are on tenure, and Gateway does not have a tenure track, a holdover from the school’s history as a technical college.

Starting in 2013, the Gateway administration also started letting instructors on such one-year deals know whether they had a position or were being let go on July 1, just a month and a half before fall classes began. That didn’t leave enough time for those laid off instructors to find other positions elsewhere, Gateway faculty told The Enquirer.

The board’s faculty representative, oral communications instructor Michelle Deely Wilhite, wrote in an email last week to Hughes stating that such a late date violates school policy and that notice should be done by May 1.

“It is also clear that faculty are disappointed that multiyear contracts are not offered and the new interpretation of the policy has been proposed,” Deely wrote.

She declined to elaborate on that email, but Groob said that the process treats instructors as “disposable fast food workers.”

Hughes, however, said that the policy in question that requires notification by May 1 is only for those instructors/professors with multiyear contracts (and the college has very few of those). He said that he can’t notify other instructors on one-year deals of their status until July because that’s when he knows his final budget, which is approved by the Board of Regents in June.

“Some places will issue letters before the board meets and budgets get finalized and then go back and change afterward, but we felt that was duplicative work,” Hughes said. “But we have always been open to improving that process ... if there is another way of thinking when it comes to doing this, we’re all ears.”

Gateway underwent a major restructuring in April, reshuffling divisions. In addition, the school lost the director of its nursing program, and as Groob pointed out at the board meeting last week, there has been major turnover amongst the top administration.

But Hughes pointed to a recent survey of campus climate and morale taken by 59 percent of the school’s staff which listed Gateway above the median score of 69 other schools.

“This gives us a good baseline to start from,” Hughes said. “But what I feel it did confirm is what the experience is here and that is people really do care about students.”

Box reiterated a point he’s made several times in public appearances: the General Assembly cut $38 million in state funding out of the KCTCS budget since 2008 and that the system lowered its current budget by $32 million this year as opposed to last year, forcing the elimination of 262 jobs.

He also said that’s justification for the one-year contract system.

“Any reasonable businessman would see that giving out guaranteed long-term employment to people at this point in time with the financial situation what it is and with the reduction of funds that has been constant is not a good idea,” Box said.

About Gateway

Founded: 1998 (part of the statewide merger of Kentucky's technical schools and community colleges)

Accredited: 2008 as a comprehensive school able to issue associate's degrees by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Location: Downtown Covington; Edgewood; Florence (manufacturing center).

Enrollment: About 4,300

Tuition: $147 per credit hour; equates into about $3,500 annually for an average full-time student based on about 12 credit hours per semester.

Employment: 237

Annual budget: About $37 million

Gateway’s board

The Gateway Board of Directors consists of 10 members, including seven appointed by the governor. The other three are representatives of the college’s faculty, staff and students, each voted upon by that constituency.

Gubernatorial appointees: Jeff Groob, chair; Ken Paul; Joseph Craighead; Chad Day; Julie Ann Smith-Morrow, secretary; Paul Whalen; Iversy Velez, attorney

Michelle Deely Wilhite, faculty representative

Daniel Ridley, staff representative

Felicia Wilson, student representative

Note: This story has been updated from a previous version that listed a position in the Gateway Board of Directors was vacant. Attorney Iversy Velez was appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear in May 2014.