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College in Revolt 

CR employees say their president is a tyrannical bully. Now they're fighting back.

College of the Redwoods President/Superintendent Jeff Marsee makes $222,602 per year, plus a benefits package worth another $11,432. That salary places him in the top 20 percent of community college presidents in the state, according to the Association of California Community College Administrators. He gets 16 paid holidays, 20 vacation days and 10 days of professional leave each year. He's using some of the latter right now, touring Russia on a Fulbright Scholarship to exchange ideas with Russian community college administrators.

Since taking the helm at CR in July 2008, Marsee has proved to be something of a firebrand, making bold decisions to acquire new instructional sites, reshape the administrative structure and shuffle schedules and calendars. Not all of his efforts have been successful: He recently backed away from a proposal to purchase the vacant Jefferson Elementary School building in Eureka after citizens made it clear the college wasn't welcome in the neighborhood. Still, from the outside Marsee's tenure looks soundly effective. Enrollment jumped 13 percent this academic year. There are new educational sites in McKinleyville and Arcata and one in the works for Garberville. Marsee saved the Redwoods Community College District more than $10 million by rescuing the main campus' student services building from the wrecking ball. And most importantly, in January CR was removed from warning status by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).

The inside view, however, provides a bleaker panorama: faculty leaders who say Marsee is a tyrant, paranoid staffers convinced that their phones are bugged and a pervasive climate of fear and festering animosity. (For the early stages of this infection, see "Stress Fracture," July 30, 2009.) An employee satisfaction survey of 121 faculty members, 100 staffers and 19 administrators, conducted in February by higher-education consulting firm Noel-Levitz, painted a picture of an institution on the precipice of disaster. Or perhaps mutiny.

The raw data hinted at a certain discontentment; the anonymous respondents gave the school low marks for planning, cooperation and transparency. But these employees' true feelings came flowing out in the second part of the survey, in which they were invited to answer open-ended questions. Their responses filled 34 pages with nearly unanimous vitriol, resentment and despair -- most of it directed squarely at Marsee.

"Dr. Marsee has pretty much single-handedly created a work environment that is mean-spirited, corrosive, secretive and downright scary," reads one representative example. "The President has a management style that is authoritarian, erratic and alienating," reads another. Morale is repeatedly appraised at an all-time low. Campus culture is described as "hostile," "toxic" and "disgraceful." Marsee is called autocratic and vindictive. "It is really a dictatorship," one person surmises. "Fear of retribution is pervasive," observes another. "People who do speak up are 'blacklisted' ... and publicly chastised," agrees a third.

Nearly every page includes one or two sweeping appraisals of almost apocalyptic proportions: "Many of us sincerely believe that the President will destroy this institution." ... "This used to be the greatest college I've ever worked at; now it is simply a place of widespread misery." ... "We are traveling down the wrong road at a high rate of speed and the bus is heading for a cliff." Several confess they're considering leaving. One simply says, "This is the most screwed-up place I have ever worked."

Ironically, the survey itself apparently prompted an example of Marsee's retribution. On Wednesday, March 17, word spread around campus that CR's institutional researcher, Dr. Martha Davis, had posted the Noel-Levitz survey results on CR's Web page. Two days later the results had disappeared. According to English Professor and Academic Senate Co-president David Holper, Davis arrived at work that Friday morning to discover her computer access to the company system had been blocked. She told Holper she expected to be escorted off campus at any moment. (Word had recently circulated that Chief Financial Officer Ruth Bettenhausen had been "frog-marched" off school grounds after trying unsuccessfully to reveal a $1 million budget shortfall at a Board of Trustees meeting, though Board President Bruce Emad disputes that characterization.)

The Journal called Davis' office at 10:30 a.m. on the morning of the 17th. Sounding shaken, she said she couldn't talk, "because I'm not an employee here anymore." To someone else she muttered, "Just a sec," then came back on the line. "Um, somebody's in here for a meeting. Bye bye." And she hung up.

The Journal later learned she was placed on administrative leave. She's scheduled to retire later this month. Marsee declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a busy schedule, though he did submit written responses to a series of e-mailed questions. Regarding the Noel-Levitz survey he said it was taken offline because "the raw data had not been evaluated." He's legally prevented from discussing personnel issues, he said, but he made it clear that Bettenhausen no longer works at CR.

In the survey and elsewhere, Marsee has been accused of bending the truth to support his version of reality. The Journal found evidence of just that. Read on.

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Late last year, CR librarian Ruth Moon told the Journal that many on campus were feeling paranoid and anxious. "We have concerns that our phone conversations may be listened to," she said. "Information is coming out -- stuff about union activities that was only talked about over private lines. I don't have any proof. ... But people have just decided to start using cell phones."

Members of the CR Faculty Organization, the college's teachers union, became convinced that their e-mails were being monitored, so they stopped communicating over CR's Web server. A tenured faculty member from the Mendocino educational site, who also asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said people have started referring to CR as "Jeffland" because Marsee rules with an iron fist. "You don't cross this man ... or he will have your head on a plate," the instructor said. "How long will it will take for the outside world to recognize this and come rescue us?"

If this all sounds sensationalized, it's not, according to union leaders. Music Professor/CRFO President Ed Macan and chief union negotiator/Professor of Mathematics Todd Olsen recently sat down for an interview. They said it was their intention to "blow the whistle" on Marsee before the ACCJC returns in October to evaluate the school's progress. They're convinced that not only is CR's accreditation at risk this fall, but the very future of the school is in jeopardy.

"In my 16 years at CR, this is the most apocalyptic threat to the institution's future that I have ever seen," Macan said. "I say that with complete confidence and with complete seriousness."

The threat posed by Marsee is threefold, he said. First, Marsee believes himself to be above the law, frequently making unilateral decisions without regard to contracts or the state's Educational Employment Relations Act, which grants employee organizations a voice in policy decisions. Second, when he does reach out to faculty, it's just for show. "One of Marsee's primary M.O.s is to set up sham processes that look good, that look democratic ... but that go nowhere," Macan said. The third threat is Marsee's corporate-style vision for the school. "He wants to Phoenixize CR," Macan said, referring to the popular University of Phoenix, a vast, for-profit higher learning institution that critics say cares more about profits than academic quality.

Olsen said this last characteristic is exemplified by Marsee's controversial expansionism, his frequent use of expensive private consultants and his push for more online distance learning courses, moves that Olsen considers fiscally irresponsible. "Marsee is a money waster," Olsen said. "When he decides he wants to do something, it doesn't matter what it costs the District."

On Jan. 8, the union filed a complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) alleging that Marsee broke the law with two recent decrees. One was his sudden swap-out of the school's software management system -- under false emergency pretenses, they say -- while most faculty were away on summer break. The other was a scheduling mandate dictating that 25 percent of CR classes be scheduled at night. "Both decisions were made suddenly with no prior warning, no consultation and no negotiation," Macan said.

Members of CRFO and the Academic Senate say they have a right to participate in any decisions affecting them, as outlined in the tenets of "interest-based bargaining," or IBB, which is standard practice among public institutions of higher learning. Macan and Olsen say Marsee violated the spirit and letter of IBB again this semester when, after nine consecutive calendar negotiations at which Marsee submitted identical proposals, the District simply deemed negotiations to be at an impasse and instituted Marsee's calendar.

Marsee says negotiations remain ongoing, and that his administration simply "has a different interpretation of the roles and responsibilities of the Academic Senate." But Art Professor Cynthia Hooper sides with union representatives, saying Marsee sidesteps collaboration and data-based decision-making "because [such things] inhibit his unfettered ability to spend money however he wants." Hooper believes the purchase of the Garberville Elementary School building -- using bond monies from 2004's voter-approved Measure Q -- will prove a particularly foolish investment. "It's going to be a huge money pit. No rational, real analysis was done for demands or costs."

CR already offers classes in Southern Humboldt at South Fork High School. Of the four classes scheduled there this semester, one was canceled, another has 12 students enrolled and the other two have just 10 students apiece. Meanwhile, the CR main campus has more than $20 million in deferred maintenance, and -- as was just revealed last week -- the District has a $1.5 million budget shortfall this year.

Are these real estate purchases a legitimate use of Measure Q money? The language presented to voters in 2004 included a list of 11 facilities projects, some specific and others -- like "renovate and repair college buildings" -- more vague. The Board of Trustees was charged with "ensur[ing] that the funds [are] expended only on the project list set forth" in the measure. Many faculty and staff members argue that those projects have never been completed.

But Marsee says expanding the campus to new sites is a valid use Measure Q funds, calling such expansion "an investment in the future." District lawyers have validated his view, pointing to language in the measure calling for new classrooms and training facilities.

Regardless, Hooper's primary complaint, like that of union reps, is not about expenditures so much as Marsee's overall management style, which she describes as autocratic and duplicitous. She accused Marsee of discarding a curriculum planning model that had taken faculty months to research and prepare, then inexplicably sending that very model to the ACCJC as evidence of CR's shared governance. The accrediting agency was apparently quite impressed by the model: Shortly after receiving it, they removed CR from warning status. But Hooper said that in the months since, that model has been completely ignored.

Vice President of Instruction Marjorie Carson disputed this, saying that the faculty's planning model was little more than a draft and that it "required further refinement."

Even more frustrating than Marsee's dogmatic rule, many employees say, is the Board of Trustees' unwavering support of him. And indeed, Board President Bruce Emad, in an interview last week, seemed unconcerned about the signs of rebellion, which he dismissed as bargaining tactics. Every three years, the school renegotiates employee contracts, and 2010 happens to be a negotiation year. "It's grandstanding," Emad said of the complaints. Furthermore, he said, employee complaints are hardly a reliable measure of the District's health. "During the [Casey] Crabill reign, enrollment went to absolutely terrible numbers, finances went to absolutely terrible numbers and accreditation went out the door," Emad said. (CR didn't actually lose accreditation, but the ACCJC issued sanctions.) Yet faculty hardly said boo.

"My theory is that complaints are inversely correlated with how tough the president and his agenda are," Emad said. In other words, employees are just being melodramatic whiners. Emad's convinced that once negotiations are complete, everyone will kiss and make up. "We're a family," he said. "We've got Hatfields and McCoys, and right now we're going through one of those water fights."

Marsee struck a similar note, saying dissidents are simply "struggling with the many changes that CR is experiencing."

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That may be so. Or it may not. Several people with whom the Journal spoke for this story complained that it has become necessary to fact-check everything Marsee says. The Journal did just that with his written responses. Turns out their doubts are justified.

For example, regarding CRFO's filings with the Public Employment Relations Board, Marsee asserted that "PERB rejected the faculty union's initial complaints." Not exactly. PERB merely asked CRFO to amend their complaints. Marsee left for Russia before the Journal could ask for clarification, but Mike Wells, CR's director of human resources, spoke on his behalf, arguing that a request for amendments could be interpreted as a form of rejection. But Wells acknowledged that PERB had yet to issue a ruling on the matter.

On Monday, that ruling came: PERB upheld the union's complaints, concluding that the District "failed and refused to bargain in good faith." A settlement conference will be held soon. [Correction: PERB did not, in fact, rule on this complaint. The board simply agreed to hear the issue. The complaint was withdrawn in Jan. 2011.]

Marsee also supplied dubious answers regarding his employment history. From 2003 through most of 2005, he served as provost/vice president of operations at the Katharine Gibbs School, a for-profit community college in New York that's frequently been described as an unscrupulous diploma mill (hence the fears of a corporatized, University of Phoenix-style makeover of CR).

Regarding his tenure there, Marsee wrote, "When I left the school it was accredited and 95 percent of the graduates were either placed in their careers of choice or were continuing towards a baccalaureate degree." What he didn't mention is that at the time of his departure, Katharine Gibbs School and its parent company, Career Education Corporation, were under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Justice and several consumer protection agencies for allegedly defrauding students, investors and the federal government by overstating enrollment and manipulating financial statements.

In January 2005, while Marsee was still provost, CEC and the Katharine Gibbs School were the subject of a 60 Minutes hidden-camera investigation. An associate producer for the show walked onto the Katharine Gibbs campus and asked about its graduation rate. She was told that 89 percent of students graduated. The actual figure, obtained from the New York Department of Education, was 29 percent. "Everything was a lie," one former CEC student told the CBS newsmagazine. When correspondent Steve Kroft asked what the biggest lie was, several graduates said it was the very figure Marsee cited -- post-graduation job placement percentages.

The Department of Justice investigation ended in 2007, with the DOJ declining to prosecute. CEC attempted to sell off the Katharine Gibbs School, along with six other campuses, between fall of 2006 and February 2008. The attempt was unsuccessful, and those seven schools were shuttered in December.

Going further back: From 1992 to 1996 Marsee worked as a vice chancellor for the Ventura Community College District. In February 1996, the district's Board of Trustees, acting in a hastily called special session, voted unanimously not to renew Marsee's contract. When the Journal asked why, Marsee said that a new chancellor had recently been hired who "wanted his own administrative team, a common occurrence at community colleges."

This description bears little resemblance to Marsee's account at the time. Speaking to the L.A. Times on Feb. 24, 1996, Marsee said he'd been given his "walking papers" thanks to what he called an underhanded attempt to destroy his career. "Someone has made allegations in closed session, and they don't have the courage or the guts to let me know in person, but they do have the guts to terminate my career," he said. According to Times reporter Kelly David, Marsee's critics accused him of maintaining "a centralized approach to running the district" and said he "was not a consensus builder and often ignored the recommendations of faculty." A handful of teachers gathered outside during the board's meeting. "Some hugged after the trustees announced their decision," the Times reported. A district instructor was quoted saying, "I have never heard of a single faculty person or administrator be supportive of him."

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Faculty leadership says they'll be faced with a difficult decision in October, when the ACCJC accreditation team returns: Either lie and pretend that decisions are being made collaboratively, or tell the truth and risk being put back on warning status. "My colleagues and I have researched, and we understand what the ACCJC is looking for -- a clear and transparent process from the program level to the end decision," Olsen said. This process is called integrated planning, and Olsen said it has become a farce. "When ACCJC comes back, unless we lie it's going to be clear that the integrated planning [process] is dysfunctional."

The Mendocino teacher agreed. "At some point this house of cards is gonna fall."

Marsee's original term of employment was three years, beginning July 1, 2008. But curiously, his contract renews automatically every year unless the Board deems his job performance unsatisfactory. In other words, every July 1 Marsee's contract starts anew. If the board ever elects to terminate him without cause, they would be required to pay him $333,903 -- 18 months salary. Asked if the Board retains complete confidence in Marsee, Emad said yes. At their last meeting, in fact, they took a vote -- nine to nothing in support of Marsee.

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Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Bio:
Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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