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Class Struggle

The Embattled President of Harford Community College Announces Retirement Amid Investigation of Her Expenditures

Jefferson Jackson Steele
I Support my President: Former Harford Community College Trustee Ralph Jordan says that despite the controversy during her tenure, president Claudia Chiesi has been a good administrator.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 10/6/2004

For the last year, a heated power struggle has quietly been taking place at Harford Community College. The fight has pitted the school’s Board of Trustees and its president against faculty members and state legislators, and has resulted in the announcement that President Claudia Chiesi will retire in December.

Many faculty members and some students will not be sad to see her go. They say that morale is down at the college because Chiesi, who has been at her post since May 1995, rules with an iron fist, has no regard for faculty and staff, penalizes faculty members who do not fall in line with her views, and overspends college funds. Since she has been at the school, a two-year public community college in Bel Air, her detractors say they have suffered under an oppressive atmosphere in which closed meetings are held, punitive action is too common, and academics and free speech have suffered.

This summer, Harford County state legislators, who have filed complaints that the school has violated the state’s Open Meetings Act and proposed legislation that would force the Board of Trustees to include at least one student and one professor among their membership, enlisted the help of the Maryland state prosecutor to scrutinize Chiesi’s every move—and expenditure.

“I can confirm the investigation,” says James Cabezas, chief investigator for the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor, adding that the school president has been under investigation for several weeks. “We are attempting to determine if there was any impropriety in the use of Chiesi’s expense account.”

Though some faculty and students claim that there have been rumblings of discontent at Harford Community ever since Chiesi took the helm in 1995, the real problems appear to have begun in 2002 when she changed the governing structures that gave faculty members a hand in the school’s operations.

After a yearlong review by a campus-wide committee, Chiesi abolished the school’s longstanding Faculty Council through which faculty members provided input on how the college was run. In its place, Chiesi established an assembly comprised of faculty, administrators, staff, and students. She also barred the American Association of University Professors, a professional organization that promotes the values of higher education, from meeting on campus and created what some professors have called an oppressive environment at the college.

Disgruntled faculty members wrote letters to Harford County state legislators, including Republican state Sen. Nancy Jacobs (who former Board of Trustees member Ralph Jordan says “jumped at the chance to bring grief to Dr. Chiesi and HCC”) and Republican Del. Joanne Parrott. The delegation, which helps obtain funding from the state legislature for the school, took an interest in the goings-on and began looking into some of the faculty members’ complaints.

Things became particularly bad last fall, after the local newspaper The Aegis began investigating some of Harford Community College’s troubles, revealing that the Harford County legislative delegation was asking for files and information from college trustees and administrators and investigating complaints about Chiesi. An anonymous letter was printed in the paper on Dec. 1, 2003, which noted that “normal avenues for faculty to express [their] concerns have been eliminated. . . . I am a faculty member who knows that our administration has lost its way in communicating with its faculty and in promoting morale to deliver the best possible education to our students.”

More recently, Chiesi has come under scrutiny for alleged inappropriate spending of college funds. For example, she was criticized for purchasing artwork for the college, including a 2002 expenditure of $4,853 at an art gallery, which trustees defended by noting that the college could be considered the cultural center of the community. She is also under fire for spending $12,000 of the school’s money in supermarkets, bars, and restaurants between 2000 and 2003.

“Her charges were never outlandish,” former trustee Jordan says. “She underspent on average every year.”

Still, on Aug. 4 of this year, the Aegis reported that Sen. Jacobs had sent a letter to the Office of the State Prosecutor asking it to “determine whether . . . Chiesi has used her expense account for legitimate purposes” after the newspaper demanded that the Chiesi surrender her auto expenses and expense-account reports for public review.

Jordan and other Chiesi supporters say that the charges being leveled at the school’s head administrator are baseless and feel that Chiesi, who holds liberal views at odds with those of her detractors, has been singled out by a handful of Harford County Republicans.

Under Chiesi’s leadership, Jordan says, the college has fared better than it had in its previous four decades-plus of existence and that, despite the complaints about Chiesi’s spending, the school is fiscally solvent. Jordan says Chiesi took the job as president of Harford Community College nearly 10 years ago with the knowledge that she would be an agent of change; as such, her defenders say, she has met the needs and expectations of the board, faculty, and staff with compassion and strong leadership.

“She is a Renaissance woman,” Jordan says. The trustee was one of the board members on the committee that originally selected Chiesi for the job. “She thinks outside of the box, speaks several languages, is very creative and an intellect,” he says. “There was no doubt in my mind that she was the candidate of choice.”

Sen. Jacobs, who has taken the lead on investigating Chiesi, did not return calls for comment on this story. However, Del. Susan McComas, also a Republican, says she does not agree that there has been an organized effort to tarnish Chiesi. “There is no vast right-wing conspiracy,” she quips.

Del. Parrott says the legislators decided to look into Chiesi’s leadership at the school only after being confronted by a cluster of professors and their spouses in August 2003. She says they were “so desperate to express themselves about the situation on campus that they bought tickets to someone’s fund raiser with the hopes that they would get to meet one on one with elected officials regarding what was going on at the college. It was an indication that they were really searching for someone to listen to them about the turmoil.”

Stanley Kollar, an HCC biology professor and the president of the school’s American Association of University Professors chapter, says it has become extremely difficult for faculty to air their disagreements with the college’s administration, so they have had no choice but take them to a higher power—the state legislature. He does not regard the legislators’ actions as an attempt to oust a liberal administrator.

“It’s true that the legislators in Harford County who have taken up our cause are largely Republican,” Kollar says. “There was legislation in the Maryland legislature to completely remove the board because they were not responsive to our requests to meet with them.”

That legislation died, and Kollar says that dissatisfaction and low morale plague the college. In fact, he notes, in 2003 the American Association of University Professors shared with the Board of Trustees a survey in which 87.5 percent of the faculty expressed dissatisfaction with Chiesi’s administration—“tantamount to a vote of no confidence,” he says.

“There has always been a collegial interaction between faculty, the administration, and the board [at HCC], even though there were differing opinions,” Kollar says. “What marks this current time is a lack of respect for the faculty. This administration has not received well dissenting opinions. Those with dissenting opinions have been penalized, often severely.”

But Jordan says it ought to be pointed out that of the 280 full-time staff members then working at Harford Community College, only 80 of them were professors. “And not all of the 80 were angry,” he says, estimating that only about half of the tenured faculty had serious grievances with the administration.

Carl Henderson, dean of the school’s Educational Studies division, says Jordan “speaks the truth” and has “the best interest of this institution in the forefront of his professional being.”

“I’m very happy at the college,” Henderson says, acknowledging the swirl of media hype surrounding Chiesi and the board. “I’ve had a wonderful career. I’m entering my 33rd year.”

When asked about the ongoing investigations and complaints about her, Chiesi could not comment due to pending legal matters. However, she defended herself by pointing out some of the accomplishments of her tenure at the school.

“Harford Community College is a fully solvent organization that has used its money wisely and prudently, and over a period from fiscal year ’97 to fiscal year ’04, [we have] enjoyed more than a 38 percent increase in enrollment,” she says. “Our college has been privileged to enjoy good support from its county and its trustees, we’ve been able to maintain the third-lowest tuition in the state and in some categories, the highest or nearly the highest salaries in all categories of employees for a college our size.”

When asked about her time spent at the college and her pending retirement, she expresses no complaints or regrets.

“I could tell you without any hesitation at all,” she says. “It’s been a privilege to serve our students and to watch increasing numbers of graduates go on to be successful in their chosen careers. I would go on to say, the alumni foundation benefactors, the trustees, and employees have been wonderful to work with and have been very much responsible for the progress of the college over the past 10 years.”

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