As Essex County College Teeters, a Call to End Turmoil

A group of New Jersey religious leaders is calling for change at a public community college in Newark that is teetering on the brink of losing its accreditation after years of mismanagement and turmoil.

The religious leaders, outraged by the disorder at the school, Essex County College, plan to hold a news conference and rally before a board of trustees meeting Thursday night calling for an end to what they say is political interference by entrenched officials at the school that has undermined efforts to save it.

“We have to speak out now because we become complicit if we keep our mouth closed,” said the Rev. Ronald L. Slaughter, the pastor of Saint James AME Church in Newark. “We are the voice of the community, we have to be the voice for the voiceless. We have to speak up for the students, who will no longer have access to the quality education that they need, or even a shot at a better life, if the college fails.”

Essex County College has about 15,000 mostly black and Hispanic students, and serves as a bridge to four-year institutions like Rutgers University and New Jersey Institute of Technology. But its leadership has been roiled with controversy since the 2010 resignation of its longtime president, A. Zachary Yamba.

The first leader appointed to succeed Mr. Yamba, Edythe Abdullah, left in 2013. The next president, Gale Gibson, was fired in 2016. She and her general counsel, Rashidah Hasan, are suing the college, alleging that they were retaliated against for pointing out potentially criminal levels of financial mismanagement. The ministers allege that the college’s new president, Anthony Munroe, the former president of Malcolm X College in Chicago, is being blocked in his reform efforts by the same internal forces.

“We cannot and will not sit idly until the truth of these shenanigans, which are designed to destabilize this president and his service to the community, finally reveal themselves,” the group of eight leaders, representing about 20,000 congregants in Essex County, wrote to Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County executive, in a letter on Aug. 25.

At the center of the controversy is Joyce Harley, the school’s vice president of administration and finance. She was formerly the Essex County administrator, appointed by Mr. DiVincenzo. Prior to 2013, Mr. DiVincenzo publicly backed Ms. Harley to be president of the college, but she lost that bid. The ministers charge that the support of the county executive gives Ms. Harley outsize influence at the college despite her middle-management title.

Controversy has swirled around Ms. Harley since at least 2015, when the former head track and field coach at the college, Michael Smart, was investigated by the state for stealing more than $150,000 in school funds between 2012 and 2015, a crime for which he ultimately pleaded guilty. An internal college investigation found that Ms. Harley had failed to exercise proper oversight over financial matters, and called for disciplinary action against her, according to the lawsuit filed by Ms. Gibson, the former president. Instead, Ms. Gibson and Ms. Hasan were fired. At least seven former college employees are suing the school over their 2016 firings, some calling for whistle-blower protection.

As a result of the turmoil, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which grants accreditation to area colleges, warned in November that the college’s accreditation may be in jeopardy because of concerns over the school’s governance, conflict of interest rules, and student retention policies, among other issues. The college’s official reply to the commission is scheduled to be adopted at Thursday’s board meeting, and submitted to the commission on Friday. In October, the commission will send monitors to the school.

If the school were to lose its accreditation, it would be at risk of closure, as the degrees would not carry official weight. As the risk looms, local officials have begun to speak out. On Tuesday, the president of the county Board of Freeholders, the local legislative body, wrote to the president of Essex County College’s board of directors demanding answers to the ministers’ allegations.

"The freeholders have received numerous complaints, letters of concern, and grievances from citizens at our board meetings,” Britnee N. Timberlake, the Freeholder president, wrote. “Each citizen has been deeply unsettled about the future of the college.”

The college officially operates independently, but Mr. DiVincenzo, who has been county executive since 2003, selects most of the members of the board of trustees and controls some funding for the college, Ms. Timberlake said.

In a statement, Mr. DiVincenzo said, “We are in complete support of President Dr. Anthony Munroe and the board of trustees and look forward to them making Essex County College a model educational institution.”

He did not respond directly to the ministers’ allegations.

Ms. Harley did not return a request for comment.

The ministers also allege that Ms. Harley and members of the board of trustees that support her are blocking Mr. Munroe from hiring a competent chief financial officer, a key demand of the accreditation commission. They say that Ms. Harley is insisting that the chief financial officer report directly to her, instead of to the president, as would be expected.

On Monday, as the school year got underway, the faculty met to discuss the current state of affairs at the college, according to a letter from the faculty provided by the ministers. The leaders of the faculty association wrote that morale at the school is improving slowly but steadily since Mr. Munroe’s appointment about three months ago. The meeting concluded with a unanimous vote of confidence in Mr. Munroe’s ability, the letter stated.

Mr. Munroe was hired unanimously by the board because of his reputation as a turnaround leader.

“I recognize the challenges involved and we are working as a team to address and resolve any accreditation issues we may have. We are confident that we will exceed the expectations of Middle States,” Mr. Munroe said.

“You will be amazed at how much the community does not know concerning this community college, and the plight thereof,” Mr. Slaughter said.

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