Leadership & Governance

Fearing Dismissal, College President Blasts His Board in Campuswide E-Mail

May 31, 2011

The president of Hocking College called his own bosses on the carpet Tuesday, blindsiding trustees by sending out a campuswide e-mail that said he'd been micromanaged and is now facing dismissal.

In a "special edition" of a regular newsletter, Ron J. Erickson, the college's president, said the board regularly engaged in "inappropriate interference" with his administration. Meeting 50 times a year, the trustees have taken control of many day-to-day operations and inserted themselves into personnel decisions, he wrote. They also want him out, Mr. Erickson said.

"Word has now reached me that a new plan is under way to soon remove me from my current position as president, reassign me to the role of a 'consultant,' and to appoint an internal, interim president for the remainder of my contract," Mr. Erickson wrote.

This is not the first time Mr. Erickson has aired his grievances with the board of the technical college, which is based in Nelsonville, Ohio, about 60 miles southeast of Columbus. In May of last year, he sent an e-mail to trustees that said he was "personally and professionally devastated" and would quit if the board didn't cease its "relentless challenge" to his authority.

Joe M. Murtha, chairman of the board, said Tuesday that he was "aghast" that the president chose to publicly debate trustees rather than approach them directly with his concerns.

"My experience has always been that if you've got problems, you don't air them in the press; you sit down and resolve them. He made no effort to talk to me," said Mr. Murtha, a retired superintendent of the Logan-Hocking School District.

But Mr. Erickson said that he went public as a last resort, feeling that he could not trust board members seeking his ouster to have an honest discussion about his future and his concerns.

"I don't think I would have had much success being able to open that dialogue," he said. "These are individuals who aren't interested in being supportive."

The college's trustees recently completed evaluations of the president, which are slated to be discussed at a Friday meeting. The board had previously had no stated plans, however, to discuss whether the president should remain in his position, Mr. Murtha said. That issue may be on the table now, though.

"I'm not going to say it won't happen. I won't say it will happen," Mr. Murtha said.

Criticism of Evaluation Process

Mr. Erickson also takes issue with the evaluation instrument, which he says consists of nine "yes or no" questions about his performance. He said he was not given an opportunity to provide a self-assessment or a statement of goals, both of which are common in presidential evaluations.

Mr. Erickson's contract ends June 30, 2012, and he has already declared his intention to step down at that point. He has also openly pursued other positions, and he was a finalist for the chancellor's post at the Yuba Community College District, in California.

Mr. Erickson became president at Hocking in 2009, after serving as vice president for academic affairs and institutional planning at Dakota County Technical College, in Minnesota. He succeeded John Light, who retired after 41 years, several months before a state audit found that he and three other college officials, including his wife, had improperly spent the institution's money.

When Mr. Erickson took over, he said, the college was "essentially in ruin" and plagued by a "culture of cronyism" that led to the hiring of senior administrators with personal connections to the former president. Mr. Erickson said his efforts to hire and fire individuals in those areas have been repeatedly resisted by their supporters on the board.

Mr. Murtha denied any such intervention. He would not discuss how he evaluated Mr. Erickson, but when asked whether the president still had credibility as a leader, Mr. Murtha said, "No."

The Chronicle submitted a public records request for the evaluations Tuesday, but the college had not responded as of Tuesday evening.

According to Mr. Erickson's letter, board members have not honored their own agreements with him. After he confronted trustees with his concerns about micromanagement last year, the board pledged to seek professional-development training on university governance and support his leadership, Mr. Erickson wrote. They did neither, he said.

"Just days after that June meeting, several trustees were overheard by another patron at the Hometown Tavern in Logan, discussing strategies to remove me from my position," Mr. Erickson wrote.

By July, the trustees had produced a rough draft of a new set of "communication guidelines" for the president. Mr. Erickson said the original document granted "sweeping powers" to the board over "day-to-day affairs of the college, and established stringent restrictions on my decision-making authority." Mr. Erickson ultimately agreed to the guidelines, after offering some of his own revisions.

The guidelines, which were provided to The Chronicle, are five pages long and call on the president to give weekly briefings to the board, among other requirements. With regard to personnel, the guidelines stipulate that any full-time hires not included in the annual budgetary planning process require full board approval.

Plea for Support

Mr. Erickson closed his letter to the campus with a request that any concerned recipients call or e-mail trustees and system-level officials.

But he may not get the backing he expects, said Cheryl Mansky, a math professor and president of the Hocking College Education Association's professional staff unit, a union representing faculty and professional staff.

"He seems to be expecting some kind of outpouring of support from faculty and employees of the school. I can't say this for sure, but I believe he'll be very disappointed," Ms. Mansky said.

Ms. Mansky described Mr. Erickson as a "very hands-off" president who had pledged to assist in recent contract negotiations with the union, only to "pretty much abandon us."

As for Mr. Erickson's newsletter, Ms. Mansky called it "very unprofessional."

Van Cardaras, vice chairman of the board, said he thought trustees would have the same objections to Mr. Erickson's newsletter as they did to his public airing of grievances a year ago.

"We were pretty disappointed with his performance, the way he handled that," Mr. Cardaras said. "I can't think it would be any better this time."

Asked why he did not simply resign and spare the college potential public embarrassment, Mr. Erickson said "the embarrassment is really on the part of the board."

"Resigning would seem as if I was simply surrendering, and I wasn't interested in surrendering," he said. "If this is the way it ends, it's the way it ends."