Ocean County College faculty vote no confidence in OCC president

Published on Thursday, May 17, 2012

 Kathy Tietge
FAOCC President Kathy Tietge spoke to members of the NJEA Higher Education Committee at the Higher Education Conference on April 20.

The president of the Faculty Association of Ocean County College (FAOCC), Kathy Tietge, knows that this is not the first time her boss has earned a vote of no confidence from a county college staff. In fact, for Ocean County College President Jon Larson, being on the receiving end of such votes is something of a pattern.

In October 1999, the support staff union at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania, where Larson was then president, passed a no-confidence resolution stating that his leadership had led to the “worst state of morale in the history of the college.”

In April 2000, the faculty union at Luzerne passed a resolution charging Larson with causing “irreparable damage to the College’s reputation in the community by the consistently negative media reportage of his fiscal improprieties.”

Now, it’s Ocean County College faculty’s turn to weigh in on Larson’s leadership.

“This guy is not fit to be president,” Tietge said in an April 20 interview. “His inability to lead this college has galvanized the faculty against him.”

On April 23, Tietge presented to the school’s board of trustees a no-confidence resolution calling for the board to “take immediate steps to respond to this crisis by whatever means necessary, up to and including the dismissal of Jon Larson from his position as president of Ocean County College.”

Of the 67 FAOCC members who voted, 60 indicated no confidence in Larson and six abstained. Only one voted in favor of Larson. The association, which represents that full-time faculty at the college, has 102 members. The secret-ballot vote was conducted through the mail by the American Arbitration Association.

Tietge cited the dismissal of the school’s purchasing manager, Larson’s refusal to recommend tenure for an exemplary staff member, and controversial administrative actions stretching back to 2006 as key factors in the staff’s negative opinion of the college president.

Alleged fiscal impropriety

Among the key charges made against Larson in the no-confidence resolution is that he fired the “whistle blower” who tried to put a stop to questionable accounting and procurement policies at the school.

That whistle blower was Joseph Reilly, the manager of purchasing at OCC from June to December 2010. Reilly came to the position with an impressive resume. He was a New Jersey deputy attorney general from 1985 to 1999. He had also been the deputy director of the State Division of Purchase and Property from 1999 to 2003.

Filling a position that had been left vacant for five years, Reilly found that purchasing and contract awards at OCC were not being conducted in accordance with procurement law and school policy. He set about rectifying his concerns by bringing them to the attention of the school’s senior staff and college counsel.

In July 2010, Reilly proposed improved purchasing and policy procedures, and in August stronger terms and conditions for standard college contracts. Reilly also alerted state officials, including the office of Gov. Chris Christie, to concerns he had raised that had gone unaddressed at the college.

That November he was notified that due to a projected $1.5 million budgetary shortfall, his position along with 13 others was to be eliminated. Reilly was assured that the decision was not based on any negative work performance, but to “create greater efficiency of college operations” and that his was a “function that could be eliminated and done without.”

Reilly questioned this in a detailed letter to the board of trustees, asking them to reinstate his position.

The board nonetheless affirmed Larson’s layoffs and Reilly was dismissed.

In February, Reilly filed a civil lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey alleging that his dismissal violated the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), commonly called the “Whistleblower Statute.”

On Feb. 15, Tietge, Reilly, and NJEA UniServ field representative Chris Berzinski held a press conference to highlight Reilly’s allegations and to call for Larson’s resignation as well as the resignation of board members and administrators who had allowed alleged illegal practices to continue at OCC.

In response, the OCC Board of Trustees issued a resolution demanding retractions and apologies from Tietge and Berzinski authorizing the board attorney to explore lawsuits against them. The board characterized Reilly as a “disgruntled former employee.”

Freedom of speech

“Larson started here in 2000, but the 2005-06 school year is when the honeymoon was over,” Tietge said.

That was the year that the college’s board decided to deny tenure to two faculty members who had received five years of positive evaluations and to not renew the contract of a third teacher not yet eligible for tenure. Two of the three had signed an FAOCC-initiated petition in support of Karen Bosley, a tenured professor who had been removed from her role as advisor the student newspaper, the Viking News. The third, who had not signed the petition, was the son of a tenured professor who had signed the petition.

At New Jersey’s county and state colleges, full-time teachers may apply for tenure during their fifth year of employment and earn it upon receiving a contract for a sixth year.

Many faculty members believed that the tenure and renewal decisions were made in retaliation for signing the petition.

While Larson insisted that the advisor was removed for not adequately performing her job, Bosley countered that she was removed because Larson took a dim view of Viking News articles that were critical of him. The Viking News had questioned the $78,000 set aside for Larson’s inauguration, a $3,200 per month billboard campaign to attract students, a new school logo designed under Larson’s watch, and a change in the college’s activity period made with minimal input from students.

An April 9, 2006 New York Times article on Bosley’s dismissal reported that the Viking News editor-in-chief and another student who had written an article critical of the activity period change were summoned to a meeting with Larson. The Times reported that the editor, Scott Coppola, left the meeting “shaken and concerned,” believing that Bosely was dismissed because Larson was “intent on controlling the newspaper’s content.”

Bosely sued the school in federal court. In a subsequent settlement, she was reinstated as faculty advisor to the Viking News.

Shifting lines of accountability

“What happened to Maria was the last straw,” Tietge said.

In her five years teaching sociology and political science at OCC, Professor Maria Flynn had received excellent evaluations from her superiors and rave reviews from her students. No one was surprised when both her supervisor and the OCC tenure committee recommended her for tenure. Only the final approval of Larson and of Vice President of Academic Affairs Richard Strada remained.

Larson and Strada denied her tenure application. In a meeting with Flynn, Larson told her that she was not receiving tenure because she did not live in Ocean County. Flynn said that Larson told her that “as a sociologist, only by living in the community you were teaching in could you understand the institutions that make up the culture.”

With FAOCC support, Flynn is appealing Larson’s denial of her tenure application.

Tietge noted that since Larson came to OCC, there have been numerous restructurings making it difficult for staff to understand what is expected of them.

“Since beginning his tenure as president in 2000, President Larson has carried out four major reorganizations, involving fourteen different academic deans, with frequent shifting of the lines of accountability,” the no-confidence resolution reads.

“In that time, 27 faculty members were in line for tenure,” Tietge pointed out. “And each of them had two to three different deans.”

A “good politician”

Within four months of the no-confidence vote from the faculty at Luzerne County Community College, Larson was gone. Whether a similar fate awaits him in the wake of the no-confidence vote at OCC remains to be seen.

“Larson is a good politician who knows how to keep the board of trustees and the county freeholders believing that he’s the right man for the job,” Tietge said. “He always tells them that it’s only a handful of the faculty who do not support him.

“But a no-confidence vote that passes by a margin of 60-1 says otherwise,” she concluded.

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