Students, Others Rally around Congressman Major Owens as Interim President
Students at Medgar Evers College were prescient regarding the eminent leadership crisis at the school. Mere days before President Pollard announced his resignation, a group called Students for Owens called for Congressman Major Owens to lead the college on an interim basis. “Yes, I would do it,” Owens said when asked. “It ought to be done.” Owens said new interim leadership is vital because the school is in danger. “I care a lot about this institution. I helped establish it,” said Owens. “I will cooperate with anybody who is selected and qualified to do it, but in the absence of anybody else I am certainly willing to do it.” He added, “It will be a lot of hard work for a short period of time, but Medgar Evers College is worth it.”
Students for Owens cite the congressman’s distinguished service to the college since its inception as a founder, state and federal legislative advocate, federal grants sponsor, distinguished lecturer and faculty advisor for the Medgar Evers College Society for Public Administration and for ADAFI, the MEC Student Newspaper. Students for Owens view his record, as well as intimate knowledge of key stakeholders, as critical to correcting Medgar Evers College’s greatest threat: a warning from the Middle States Commission on Accreditation for non-compliance under the leadership of President Pollard.
Last autumn, Medgar Evers College failed accreditation standards related to institutional planning, resources and institutional assessment, and assessment of student learning which impact the cCollege’s overall accreditation. The clock is ticking on remediation. “The appointment of an interim successor must be done with all due haste,” wrote Dr. Sallie Cuffee to Chancellor Goldstein on behalf of the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate. “Dr. Pollard has resigned, and must go, now.”
The letter is a message of strength. “We know what is possible if we all work collectively to ensure the survival of our institution. Our response to Middle States must be comprehensive, one that will involve the entire college community in an assessment of its goals, initiatives and programs,” Cuffee wrote. “The college needs an interim successor and interim academic team that possesses leadership qualities and competencies which will inspire and raise the morale of faculty, staff and students as we collectively work to strengthen our accreditation and our institution, an institution that has left a legacy for thousands of students and one that must be preserved to ensure an continuing legacy.”
Local elected officials concur with Medgar Evers College students and faculty.
“I share in the community’s concerns about this transition period in the life of the Medgar Evers College community and strengthening the role in the education of our students. I wholeheartedly support any effort to identify an interim president who would help ensure this academic institution retains its accreditation under the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and provides the much-needed stability to the campus,” stated Congresswoman Yvette Clarke. “It is imperative that the leadership at the City University of New York and college community use this time to identify and assess qualified and committed candidates who will be considered to serve in this capacity..”
“I, too, support an interim president at Medgar Evers College,” said Councilwoman Letitia James. In a statement, James recounted a litany of issues. “Under the leadership of Dr. William Pollard – who became president of Medgar Evers College in August 2009 – Medgar Evers College cut back on spending for student services. Specifically, media reports cite that professors stated a writing center for students was eliminated, and tutoring services cut back. The dismissal or demotion of professors was also sharply criticized. This followed a ‘no confidence vote’ – made in December 2010 – in which a significant number of CUNY’s tenured professors expressed serious concerns about the state of the college following the elimination of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, a think tank run by academically pedigreed, formerly incarcerated experts focused on prison reform policies.”
Councilwoman Letitia James and other elected officials have supported students and faculty in their efforts to address existing issues with the Medgar Evers Administration. In 2011, the students presented a petition to the administration. The students were primarily concerned with actions they believed were contrary to “the mission of the predominently Black institution of higher learning” and that sought “to dismantle the college’s community-based centers.”
“I am confident that Medgar Evers College will be able to refocus full attention on providing their students with the tools they need to succeed,” said James.
“I am optimistic that Medgar Evers College will leave this dark, turbulent period behind and will move on to the next chapter of building an educational institutional that central Brooklyn deserves,” said Assemblyman Karim Camara. “I am in support of an interim president. Certainly, that is the only way the College will be able to move forward and get back student and faculty morale that is needed as they go through the accreditation process.”
During a recent interview with radio veteran Rennie Bishop, state Senator Kevin Parker said he was so concerned about the Pollard Administration that he put a bill in the Senate that would have eliminated the CUNY Board and merged CUNY into SUNY. “I wanted them to see and understand how important it was for me,” said Parker. “I felt like, ‘If you are not going to take what I am saying to you seriously…’. As a member of the Higher Education Committee, a member of the Finance Committee and a member of the Senate, every single board member on the CUNY Board I voted for three times in each one of those committees. I approved their budget every single year. If I am approving people for their jobs and giving folks money, they certainly ought to be taking that seriously, and initially they were not taking it as seriously as they needed to.”
“I think we have gotten their attention,” Parker said. “I expect a different behavior from the CUNY Chancellor and the Board going forward.”
Regarding the Center for NuLeadership and the symbiotic relationship between the community and the college, Parker said, “People need to understand that there is a certain historical context in which Medgar Evers got created. It is the only Historically Black college in the City University of NY system created by legislators. Principally, Assemblyman — now Councilman – Al Vann and Assemblyman Roger Green were a part of that process of bringing the college here. We are not talking about something that got done and we don’t know what the intention was. We know what the intention was. The people are still around who did it.” Parker added, “I think part of what Dr. Pollard failed to recognize is the community link.”
Senator Parker explained that “Part of the educational process for students at Medgar Evers has been learning outside of the classroom and creating a synthesis between community work and classroom understanding. It is that paradigm which has made Medgar Evers the kind of college many people wanted to go to. What you are seeing with the Center for NuLeadership was a lack of understanding the link between institutions like the Center for NuLeadership and Medgar Evers College. That is something we are mindful of as we pick the new leader of Medgar Evers College.”
Two questions remain: How can a lame-duck president, pressured to resign, manage the short- and long-term administrative decisions at issue without being inherently in conflict with the well-being of the institution? How can he be trusted not to do irreparable harm?
The community has made its decision: An interim president must be installed at Medgar Evers College immediately. The stakeholders have decided that interim president should be Congressman Major Owens. Both community and stakeholders are monitoring to see if Chancellor Goldstein and the CUNY Board are listening.