On September 17, CUNY central administration announced that Bronx Community College President Carole Berotte Joseph was leaving her position. Her three years as president had seen an exodus of college administrators; conflict with faculty over hiring processes and selection of department chairs; and complaints that her management style left faculty and professional staff afraid to speak their minds.
Neither the CUNY press release nor Berotte Joseph’s own statement offered any explanation for her departure, and neither statement said that she had resigned. The press release was sent to all BCC employees as an email from CUNY Chancellor J.B. Milliken, who said “I wanted you to hear the news directly from me.” Milliken named Eduardo Martí, previously CUNY’s vice chancellor for community colleges and former president of Queensborough CC, as BCC’s interim president.
The announcement – barely three weeks into a new semester – was made five days after BCC’s Faculty Council voted to create a select faculty committee to investigate areas of “widespread concern amongst the instructional staff regarding the administration of President Carole Berotte Joseph,” and to either substantiate or refute such concerns. Franklin Moore, the chair of both the College Senate and the Faculty Council, told Clarion that the resolution had been prompted by a range of issues.
“She removed key players, leaving entire administrative departments essentially vacant.... Within a few months, the provost, the senior vice president of academic affairs and all of the deans within academic affairs were gone, either removed or resigned or retired at her urging,” said Moore. The departure of so many senior administrators in a short time, became a subject of criticism and concern within the college. Some BCC employees interviewed by Clarion said that in certain cases Berotte Joseph had gotten rid of an ineffective senior administrator – but that she had also driven out others who did their jobs well.
Moore emphasized that whatever one thought of any individual personnel action, the scale of the turnover was itself a problem, especially when important positions remained vacant: “It left a vacuum, and there was no institutional memory. You need to have somebody who remembers, at least for a transition period.” By this semester, Berotte Joseph’s cabinet included only one person who had served on it before she arrived. Many left for positions elsewhere within CUNY, including CUNY Central, BMCC, City Tech, Gutman, John Jay, Lehman, LaGuardia and Medgar Evers.
In addition to high turnover and vacancies among senior administrators, BCC faculty told Clarion that Berotte Joseph had sought to micromanage faculty hiring decisions, giving less weight to faculty authority and taking so much into her own hands that she became a bottleneck in the hiring process. Steps that in the past would have taken 10 days stretched out to 6 and 8 weeks.
Professor James Freeman, who served as chair of the social science department and as chair of the council of chairs until this fall, said that Berotte Joseph created a “cumbersome process” that was difficult to implement. Freeman and other faculty leaders said she had diluted faculty search committees’ role in the hiring of faculty. Committees were told to send the names of three unranked finalists for the president to interview, and the president would decide who to hire, said Debra Gonsher, longtime chair of BCC’s Communication Arts and Sciences department. But with more than sixty finalists for this fall, she said it was impossible for the president to meet with each candidate in a timely way much less with adequate preparation.
Berotte Joseph removed Freeman as department chair this fall, via an abrupt announcement she made in a meeting of his department that she called on with less than one day’s notice. A dozen department members walked out of the meeting in protest, department member Peter Kolozi told Clarion. Freeman is one of three department chairs at BCC who are fighting their improper removal through union grievances.
Amidst growing turmoil, “the atmosphere on campus grew more and more secretive,” Moore told Clarion. “There was a lack of transparency. And in the past year, some faculty members expressed fear about their jobs. It’s in that context the College Senate and Faculty Council looked into what actions to take.”
Among those who voiced that fear was Peter Kolozi, an untenured faculty member in the social science department. He spoke up at a union chapter meeting held the same day that the Faculty Council voted to form a select faculty committee.
“I got up and made a statement,” Kolozi told Clarion. “I said that I felt intimidated and that I was scared for my job, as an untenured person. But I felt that it was important to speak about this, because if this kind of intimidation is allowed to go forward, people would just be silenced. As faculty members, how can we serve the academic mission of the college, how can we advocate for our students, if we are afraid to speak out?”
About 40 to 50 faculty and professional staff attended the union meeting, Kolozi said. He credited the chair of BCC’s PSC chapter, Sharon Persinger, for “creating a space where we can talk about intimidation in the workplace.” Another member who spoke said that they had come to BCC in part because it is a unionized workplace, which makes it more possible to resist this kind of intimidation, Kolozi recalled.
This past Spring, the chancellery had conducted an “early” review of Berotte Joseph’s performance as president, with selected faculty, staff and students asked to fill out anonymous surveys. But at the start of this semester, faculty did not know the results of the review or if it had had any effect. In that context, Moore said, BCC’s Faculty Council wanted to start its own independent investigation and separate fact from rumor – “in a rather quick fashion.” Depending on the results of that inquiry, Moore said, a vote of no confidence was seen as a possibility.
At the faculty council meeting, Moore said, a couple of speakers came to Berotte Joseph’s defense. Two department chairs who he described as historically supportive of the former president were repeatedly contacted by Clarion, but chose not to comment. Attempts to contact Berotte Joseph for this article drew no response.
In the wake of Berotte Joseph’s departure, rumors have circulated over a $10 million budget shortfall, an amount that would be well over 10% of BCC’s operating budget. “If there are financial difficulties, we need to know about them as soon as possible,” PSC Chapter Chair Sharon Persinger told Clarion. “The college will need to find a way to make up that money without reducing the quality of teaching.”
Moore told Clarion that some rumors circulating on campus about Berotte Joseph’s actions have been exaggerated. But he said that overall, the vast majority of BCC’s veteran faculty and staff had become “very, very disappointed” in her leadership of the college.
On her last day as the college’s president, Berotte Joseph sent a “farewell letter” to the BCC Community. “As I leave this precious emerald of a campus, I look back on all we have accomplished,” she wrote, citing a comprehensive orientation program and securing millions of dollars in grants that she said will boost the local Bronx economy. “I personally have done all I can to make Bronx Community College a place where all voices are heard and everyone’s contribution to our success is noticed and appreciated.”
But faculty and staff interviewed for this article consistently said that the former president was difficult to work with. Some added that their working relationship was “cordial”; in the words of one HEO, who had worked at the college for more than 35 years before taking an early retirement, “I got along with her. It was just impossible to work with her.” For this article Clarion interviewed a number of HEOs and faculty members who had worked closely with Berotte Joseph; their accounts were consistent, but none would agree to be quoted by name.
One faculty member still at the college said that he would often sit with others to craft emails to the former president. “You had to measure every email you wrote, every conversation that you had, and she was quick to rebuff any dialogue,” he told Clarion. “You just spent so much psychic energy on how not to get her mad.”
Others described her yelling at people in meetings, or verbally berating them if they voiced disagreement. She went through five secretaries in her three-year tenure, one staff member said.
“It was a great community and a fantastic place to work, and it turned into a campus with a really stifling atmosphere,” commented one HEO who worked at BCC for more than a decade. “When you take things apart, you have to put them back together. It’ll take a long time to repair and rebuild BCC.”
BCC was not the first place where Berotte Joseph’s leadership had sparked campus-wide discontent. In 2007, while she served as president at the commuter college MassBay, she received a 93-44 no-confidence vote from faculty there. When Joseph was a finalist for BCC, a plenary meeting of the College Senate urged then-Chancellor Matthew Goldstein to add more candidates to the finalist pool. That request was ignored.
“When she was hired, the administration knew what her background was and what the faculty at her previous school thought of her,” said Sharon Utakis, professor of English and a member of the PSC chapter’s leadership. Utakis notes that Joseph’s appointment was not the only controversial presidential appointment at CUNY over the past several years. “So I expect CUNY central administration to take faculty views into account in the hiring of the next president,” she told Clarion.
“Hopefully the chancellor will give more credence to campus input in that search for the next president,” agreed the Faculty Council’s Moore. That, he said, would be the best way “to move forward in all of this.”
Kolozi said he was proud of the way that BCC’s faculty, its governance bodies and the union chapter had come together this semester. “It was a great moment, at both the September chapter meeting and the Faculty Council earlier that day,” Kolozi said. “It was really nice to see that the senior faculty, junior faculty and staff came together and were supportive of each other. It was one of the first moments where we all spoke with one voice.”