Roger Jones, spokesperson for Hudson County Community College, told members of the County Freeholder Board at their meeting on Tuesday that it is next to impossible to evaluate the validity of charges made regarding a recent report issued by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
The Middle States Commission gave HCCC a warning that the institution failed to comply with one of 14 accreditation standards it needs to meet. The college failed to comply with the Integrity category, which covers areas including conflicts of interest, ethical standards, and policies regarding support for academic and intellectual freedom. According to the recently released report, “The team interviewed a number of employees who felt intimidated by Human Resources and recalled a number of instances when they were publicly berated by the vice president for Human Resources [John Shinnick].”
“I’m not 100 percent in agreement with the Middle States report,” said Jones, telling the freeholders that the college is taking steps to find out what the problems are so they can be corrected.
Middle States – which would not comment on the report directly – apparently interviewed employees of the college and people outside of the college to come up with the conclusions in the report.
In addition, the report said interviews with faculty and administrators indicated inconsistent treatment in resolving grievances.
“The unions do not feel empowered to protect their members,” the report said. The heads of two unions have independently said that political and personal connections often affected who gets hired at the college.
The Middle States report went on to claim that some of the practices at HCCC had “a serious chilling effect.”
“There were numerous allegations from faculty, administrators, staff and students that contribute to a perception of a climate that fosters fear and intimidation,” the report said. The interviews with people close to the situation indicated a perception of that John Shinnick, who serves as the vice president of Human Resources and Communications, may have had undue influence because of his association with HCCC Board Chairman Bill Netchert.
Both Shinnick and Netchert serve on the Hudson County Improvement Authority, a county agency that funds improvement projects. Shinnick is the HCIA’s president, which is a volunteer position, and Netchert is the agency’s general counsel.
Shinnick is also a councilman in Secaucus.
Jones as well as others familiar with both the HCCC and the HCIA claimed that no conflict of interest exists.
“It may seem like Netchert serves as Shinnick’s boss at the college and Shinnick is Netchert’s boss at the HCIA, [but] the situation is much more complicated than that,” said one public official with close ties to both the college and the HCIA. “Neither one can do much to help the other without approval from the rest of their boards.”
When contacted for comment last week, Shinnick said the HCCC Board of Trustees has restricted individuals from making comments, and referred all requests to Jones.
Jones, both in remarks to the freeholders and in a separate interview, pointed out how vague the report was, noting lack of specific detail in many areas.
He said it relied upon interviews with unnamed people within and outside the college, making it difficult to determine the accuracy of the accusations.
Several people close to the college claim the anonymity of those interviewed (designed by Middle States to prevent retaliation) allows for misinformation and the settling of personal vendettas by staff and union members.
Although Middle States said more than 400 people were interviewed, Jones said it is uncertain how many of these contributed to the negative aspects of the report.
One freeholder privately compared the accusations of “McCarthy-era” tactics, alluding to anonymous tips in the 1950s that accused people of connections to Communism.
Although serious, a warning is not the most severe action the commission could have taken, since it is empowered to put the college on probation, suspend accreditation, force the college to show cause as to why it should not be punished, or remove the accreditation entirely.
The warning cited four areas of concern and said an improvement plan should “restore an atmosphere of mutual respect within the institution, establish an administrative structure that facilitates open consultation free of intimidation for all members of the college community, implement a complaint procedure that guarantees due process and protects the complaint against perceived or real retaliation.”
The report said, “Whereas civilized discourse is the norm in an academic community, at HCCC there appears to be an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that permeates all levels of the administration and members of the faculty. Whereas the college complies with most fundamental elements in written documents, it is in the implement of the procedures that there seems to be a serious breach of collegiality.”
Other avenues to report a grievance
But several college officials questioned the Middle States finding in regard to intimidation, pointing out that employees are represented by two of the state’s strongest education unions, and that there are many avenues that can be used to file grievances. “These unions have a lot of power in Trenton,” Jones said. “If someone was intimidated, they could easily complain to someone on the state level.”
Other college officials point out that grievances against school officials are not filed initially with the school, but with the union, and then these are reviewed by the college, always in the presence of a local union official, and often with a state union representative as well. School officials can also file anonymously to protect against perceived retaliation.
Personnel recommendations such as hiring, firing, promotions, and tenure are also reviewed by the college president, who then makes recommendations to the college board.
Although people such as Shinnick often preside over some hearings and even make recommendations, the final decisions are made by the board.
Shinnick has been relieved of several dual roles in order to comply with the recommendations of Middle States. At one point, he handled some of the Affirmative Action paperwork, although he apparently was never assigned the role as a affirmative action officer.
“It is common in small colleges for people to hold a number of positions,” Jones said. “But Middle States wanted one person assigned to that position.”
Difficulties in finding the truth
Jones said the lack of specifics in regard to Middle States report has made rectifying and confirming the existence of the problems difficult.
“This is because the report is so vague,” Jones said.
But Freeholder Bill O’Dea said as vague as the report was, the language was strong. He said the college needs to give regular progress reports to the freeholders to determine what is being done.
To address the concerns, the Board of Trustees set up an ad-hoc committee that includes former or retired well-respected educators from around Hudson County. This committee has hired an outside consultant to review the issues raised by Middle States in order to implement a corrective action plan.
Netchert has picked four people for a committee to deal with the certification issue. If HCCC does not comply with Middle States requirements, the college could lose Middle States accreditation, a potential blow to future enrollment.
This committee has taken steps to seek out and verify some of the issues brought out by the Middle States Report, including bringing on an investigator and conducting a survey. “We have 7,000 students and more than 1,000 employees,” Jones said. “We don’t know who they talked to and what their specific concerns are.”
Jones said the college is reaffirming its affirmative action plan, assigning a new affirmative action officer, and taking other steps to address some of the report’s recommendations. The school’s code of ethics will also be prominently displayed.
Distress at school
“This has created some distress through the whole institution, and comes at a time when we have seen a 10 percent increase enrollment,” Jones said.
James Fief, one of the members of the committee, said the school has been running an anti-discrimination workshop.
“About 80 percent of the employees have attended,” he said. “By the end of September, all of our employees will have attended the workshop.”
HCCC has until September 2009 to file a report on actions done to meet the requirements to remove the warning.