OCC chancellor, faculty at odds

A power struggle between the chancellor and instructors at Oakland Community College flared up in a public way Friday, but it actually has been in a slow burn for some time over staffing and control of college academics to reflect the demands of the job market.

Long before a no-confidence vote Friday on Chancellor Timothy Meyer, the administration and leaders of the Oakland Community College Faculty Association have clashed on broad strategic matters, like how OCC defines its mission and performance targets, and seemingly picayune business, like how many faculty positions the college keeps in ceramics.

Meyer, OCC’s chancellor since 2008, said the college is making administrative changes to adapt to the latest needs of local employers and universities that accept OCC transfer students, while coping with new budget realities amid reduced enrollment, property values and per-pupil state aid.

Meyer said he was a “little surprised” by the faculty’s action, which cited “lack of leadership and absence of vision for student success.”

“Most of the constituents of the college are reasonably satisfied with the direction we’re taking,” Meyer said. “But a group of individuals are sometimes very threatened with change. In any group, some will be early adopters and some will resist it all the way.”

OCC, the state’s largest community college with nearly 27,000 students, is not the first to lock horns with faculty or get a vote of no-confidence for its top executive.

The Jackson College faculty voted no confidence in President Daniel Phelan in January, as did the faculty of Centreville-based Glen Oaks Community College in President Gary Wheeler in late 2012 and Scottville-based West Shore Community College against President Charles Dillon in 2009. Tussles over control have taken place at others.

“Community colleges are known for being nimble and quick to change, and sometimes it happens quicker than the pace that faculty is comfortable with,” said Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.

Points of dispute

At OCC, there isn’t agreement on the core issues of the dispute, but they include faculty complaints about lack of communication, staffing decisions and disagreements about an Education Master Plan OCC adopted last May.

The master plan was developed in the wake of a two-year, $500,000 contract for Sacramento, Calif.-based College Brain Trust to review and evaluate college programs and practices and furnish reports with recommendations on performance.

The plan set forth 12 objectives for the college to achieve. (See box, above right.) Meyer has performance objectives tied to the plan.

Mary Ann McGee, president of the faculty association, said the faculty has no formal position on the master plan, but had some issues about the cost of the College Brain Trust contract and that faculty members got short notice whenever the consultant was planning to visit the campus.

In June, the faculty sued OCC over declining to provide a complete report from College Brain Trust and associated expenses under a Freedom of Information request — but settled the case in November.

“We’re always a little standoffish when we feel that someone who is not an expert in our particular field tells us what we should be doing (for instruction),” McGee said. “Now I’ve read the master plan, word for word, and it’s pretty vague and has a lot of mother and apple pie in it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the devil’s in the details, and it doesn’t have a lot of details.”

The college contends that the litany of concerns the faculty raised in its no-confidence vote are rooted in union leaders’ unwillingness to embrace structural changes the college is making — including curriculum changes in carrying out the master plan.

Those include establishing a developmental education program to make OCC students from various educational backgrounds proficient in basic subjects at a college level and also being able to set curriculum direction to meet community needs and interest.

Developmental education, in particular, spurred a blowback from union leadership last fall when the program affected other departments, said Vice Chancellor of External Affairs Sharon Miller.

The program itself began quietly during the 2012-13 academic year, and OCC took seven voluntary faculty transfers to staff it. But when it transferred in more vacant positions, including some from the college’s ceramics program, union members turned out in force to oppose the move before the board, said Miller and Daniel Kelly, chairman of the OCC trustees and partner at Troy-based Giarmarco Mullins Horton PC.

Ceramics has a large following but produces relatively few degrees compared with other schools. Two remaining faculty positions in ceramics were re-categorized in fall 2013 as full-time temporary positions, which are subject to review every six months and do not count toward the union’s 290 members.

Michael Vollbach, former faculty association chairman at the Royal Oak and Southfield campuses, said the faculty wanted to maintain contract positions in ceramics.

But after hearing comments from students who take recurring classes in ceramics without a clear career focus, it became harder to gather support for the program.

A board decision to increase the tuition for English as a Second Language for non-county residents also met faculty resistance, Kelly said, although Vollbach said the instructors were mostly concerned the move would hurt diversity at OCC.

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