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College Chaos: Medgar Evers College's Mission in Question

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By Herb Boyd, Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News –

As Eric Daniels was grieving for his surrogate father, professor William Daly, last October, he went to lunch with William L. Pollard, president of Medgar Evers College.

Pollard had recently become president of the college after replacing Edison Jackson, the longtime leader of the college whose larger-than-life personality left a large imprint on the school.

Daniels went to the lunch with an open, if not somewhat skeptical mind. “I thought that was a generous gesture on his part,” Daniels said during a recent interview, “but I had some other things on my mind.”

After some pleasantries about Daly, who was a librarian specialist in the college’s archives, Daniels got down to brass tacks, grilling the president on why he was dismantling certain programs. “I wanted to know why he was supposedly fixing things that weren’t broke,” Daniels began. “It was like dismantling the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan was there.”

Daniels, 45, was particularly incensed by the turmoil swirling around the NuLeadership program, where he has been a student for two years.

“To think that this program was in jeopardy was one of the things I pressed the president on,” Daniels continued, “but he kind of blew me off. He practically admitted to me that he had no plans for that program or any others related to Black males on campus.”

In a recent full-page ad in the New York Amsterdam News, Pollard, while not directly addressing Daniels’ charges, offered another take on his plans for the college, which include strengthening the quality of education at the school. “We must make academic and administrative decisions based on careful, honest evaluations of how our programs impact our students,” he wrote.

Moreover, he continued, “We are proud of the good work of many of the college’s approved centers and institutes. Supplementing instruction by means of research and community service is a vital part of a quality educational institution. Centers and institutes will only be born after rigorous review and approval by the college’s governance process, the president and chancellor’s endorsements, and finally the CUNY (City University of New York) Board of Trustees’ affirmation.”

But, despite this apparent public support for centers, the directors of some of the most high profile centers on campus worry that Daniels has the president’s number, and that he is less than forthright with them, and that neither he nor CUNY’s central administration are really behind their efforts. The directors say that since the current administration’s arrival, they have never received a definitive response as to how they view centers. In fact, when the administration was reminded that the centers were an integral part of the core mission of the college, the directors were told that the mission needed to be changed.

“Changed” is the operative word for several programs that have been at the center of the academic maelstrom at Medgar Evers. Along with the eviction notice from the college to the seven-year-old Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, which is directed by Eddie Ellis and Dr. Divine Pryor, the college’s Senior Vice President and Provost, Howard Johnson has also reportedly eliminated the Writing Center and the Center for Teaching and Learning. The directors of the Dubois Center and the nationally recognized Center for Black Literature have also come under fire.

The charges leveled by faculty members include the refusal of the administration to sign off on grants for faculty and students’ research, and the denial of job reappointment of faculty and staff members.

Dr. Brenda Greene, a full professor at the college, heads up the prestigious Center for Black Literature, which hosts the annual National Black Writers Conference, discussed her sudden lack of institutional support under the Pollard administration.

“I wrote a proposal for an NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] for the National Black Writers Conference, a conference which has attracted writers such as the Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Walter Mosley, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, Cornel West, and Kamau Brathwaite. The provost initially refused to sign off on it, and eventually did so, but only after extensive negotiations.”

The administration seems to downplay the value of having such notables on campus and much of the work that the centers accomplish. In fact, the provost’s refusal to sign off on this proposal, as well as several other cases, seems to stem from his belief that the centers and the work they accomplish directs professors away from the classroom.

Recently, according to a faculty member who wished to remain anonymous, Johnson refused to sign off on a grant that would provide $15,000 in stipends to student research projects and other grants related to faculty and student research.

When the administration was asked to respond to some of the faculty’s claims, the reporter was referred to a college spokesperson, which dispatched several memorandums that were an apparent attempt to clarify their position on several of the more controversial issues.

In a statement released by the college’s Office of Communications on the day after Christmas, Pollard said, “We will not allow special interests to deter this administration from making the necessary changes designed to ensure the academic integrity and fiscal soundness of Medgar Evers College. … We will continue to serve the needs of this diverse population through our academic programs and relevant centers.”

The memorandum seems to take direct aim at the Center for NuLeadership, which the administration was forcing to vacate its office space as of Dec. 30, 2010. The Center for NuLeadership has been working to facilitate the re-entry of the formerly incarcerated into society through the education process. The provost’s letter gave a vague explanation for his lack of support for the much-needed work done by the center for the Black community. “This decision,” the request stated, “arose out of legal, substantive, and procedural concerns about the actions of NuLeadership.”

Furthermore, the college took steps to recover what they claimed were computers that belonged to the college. Pryor and Ellis challenged that claim, insisting that the computers were theirs. That argument was settled recently when the college admitted that they did not own the computers that were seized in December during an after-hours raid by the administration on the center.

A check of manufacturers’ records confirmed that the computers belonged to Pryor and Kate Kjung Ji Rhee, and that they were purchased long before their affiliation with Medgar Evers.

“We always knew the computers were owned by us and were confident that the law would ultimately be on our side,” Pryor said in a statement to the press. “This is another step towards justice for us against a Medgar Evers College administration with an utter contempt for civility and law.”

And as the administration seems to bungle their relationship with the Center for NuLeadership, and misses out on an opportunity to help a much-needed segment of the Black population, there are also complaints about how the administration has handled other faculty issues. One instructor at the college noted that Medgar Evers, though being one of the smallest colleges in CUNY, has the most contract grievances filed against it.

“They can’t be trusted,” said Ellis, when asked about the administration’s integrity and sensitivity. “It’s not about sensitivity; it’s about integrity, which they don’t possess.” Feeling they are not getting a fair hearing from the administration, and wanting to stop the eviction, Ellis and Pryor took their case to court, and a date has been scheduled for early February, according to an e-mail from Ellis.

“Without a single piece of tangible evidence, the administrators have proclaimed that formerly incarcerated students are a ‘threat to the security of the college and an insurance liability.”

In an earlier and related press release, Ellis said, “In an unprecedented series of events, Provost Johnson has refused to recognize the Center for NuLeadership as a legal entity within the college. He has blocked the center from receiving future funding for re-entry programs, refused to process and disperse their existing approved funding and defied the MEC College Council’s instructions to forward to CUNY Central their recommendation that NuLeadership on Urban Solutions be recognized as a fully functioning center.”

In their own defense, the college’s leaders have said “there is not, nor has there ever been, a Medgar Evers College policy enacted that penalizes any prospective or current student who has been incarcerated. Our issue is the steadfast resistance of NuLeadership to adequately address the legal, substantive and procedural requirements of the college and the university.”

NuLeadership has been a campus presence since 2004. It began its operation during the tenure of former President Edison Jackson, who invited them to set up the program in 2003 to work, ostensibly, as a project under the auspices of the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice. After five year of showing its viability on campus, the Executive Committee of the Medgar Evers College Council approved the official establishment of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, according to a statement from the center.

The collective policies and actions of Pollard and Johnson prompted the faculty to issue a vote of no confidence for both administrators. Out of 66 members of the faculty, 59 voted no when given a choice of backing Pollard’s policies, abstaining or supporting them at a late December meeting of the college’s faculty at Medgar. This was one of the largest faculty votes in recent years. Recent faculty votes were 35 in (’08), 35 in (’09) and 24 in (’10) for the faculty senate. The fact that 59 faculty members of the relatively small permanent faculty gave the administration a vote of no confidence shows the dissatisfaction that the faculty feels towards the administration.

In late December, faculty, students, and community leaders formed the Medgar Evers Coalition for Academic Excellence and Mission Integrity. The coalition has taken positions on the leadership, student support services and the Center for NuLeadership, and called for a number of actions, including the resignation of Johnson, the restoration of student support services, the redistribution of resources from consultants to students, the rescinding of the eviction of the Center for NuLeadership, the restoration of open enrollment, the creation of a pipeline for students who need support, and the restoration of full support for the highly praised Medgar Evers Preparatory School’s Dual Enrollment Program, which would enable high school students to take college-level courses.

And, what has been the general reaction by students on campus to the turmoil? “Most students are not that aware of the situation,” said Cory Provost, a student trustee who attends Brooklyn College. “But, those who are aware want to be involved in whatever changes occur at the college.”

Those changes may be among several greeting the students when they return for the spring semester.

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+1 # Guest 2011-01-17 13:41
i also want to believe that the quality of education of the school is not compromised, i will advise the cuny authorities to look into the problem before it gets too big to be managed, i was a student of the school, graduated in year 1982, i have been proud of medgar evers college,and i would like to maintain it, be able to stand shoulder high for my alma mater, anyday, anytime, thanks
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+1 # Guest 2011-01-17 13:30
this is a very serious issue affecting mec (cuny), this school has an integrity that needs to be maintained
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