“Where’s the board?”
That was the recurring mantra at Tuesday’s meeting of the Essex County College Board of Trustees, where the school’s vice president of administration and finance was placed on paid administrative leave following months of calls for her resignation.
Nine board members voted to place Joyce Wilson Harley on paid administrative leave for an "undetermined" amount of time, with one abstention from board member Safanya Searcy.
But it was the absence of the board that was most noted, with board members finally rolling in close to three hours late to chants of "shame on you," as a frustrated, standing-room-only crowd waited to find out Harley's fate.
Harley lies at the center of a controversy that has catapulted the beleaguered college into the spotlight. In November, the school was warned by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which grants accreditation to area colleges, that the school's accreditation was in jeopardy due to concerns over governance and student retention policies, among other issues.
Although rare, the loss of accreditation would mean the end of federal aid to students and closure of the school.
The commission will be sending monitors to the school next month.
The Rev. Ronald Slaughter, the pastor of St. James A.M.E. Church who has been an outspoken critic of Harley and a strong supporter of new college president Anthony Munroe, along with faith leaders representing more than 80 churches, all have called for the resignation of Harley, along with college board chair Bibi Taylor and Searcy.
“One of the things that’s prolonging the meeting is that two board members are in conflict because they should not be voting tonight,” Slaughter said at the meeting. “We know where their allegiance stands.”
Taylor apologized to the crowd for the lateness of the hour as she and the other board members finally filed in.
“This evening’s deliberation was a lot more intense,” she said, noting that a resolution had been added to the agenda to place Harley on administrative leave with pay.
Taylor’s announcement received angry catcalls.
“What do you mean ‘with pay’?” people shouted.
Harley, a former county administrator appointed by DiVincenzo, has reportedly been in constant conflict with Munroe since he took the college’s helm just 112 days ago and has been accused of attempting to undermine the president and take over the college herself.
Munroe wrote a letter to board members on Sept. 6, recommending Harley’s suspension, stating he was obligated to report serious allegations and performance issues and asking that the board “act to immediately place Dr. Harley on an indefinite, paid administrative leave” pending a full investigation.
Munroe has directed the college’s general counsel and the Human Resources Department to investigate Harley's conduct.
In 2015, an internal investigation found that Harley had failed to exercise proper financial oversight after Michael Smart, former head track and field coach at the college, was investigated for stealing more than $150,000 in school funds, a crime for which he ultimately pleaded guilty.
Former Essex County College President Gale Gibson had called for disciplinary action to be taken against Harley but instead found herself on the wrong side of a pink slip when she brought attention to Harley's alleged mismanagement.
Gibson is suing the school over her firing, alleging that she was retaliated against for speaking out against Harley, one of several former employees suing over firings in 2016 alone.
The school has been in turmoil since the 2010 resignation of former college president A. Zachary Yamba, with four different presidents at the helm in just seven years.
Slaughter cited Harley’s recent prayer vigil, held outside the Essex County government complex near a statue of Rosa Parks, stating that the gathering degraded the monument and alleging that women have been “destroyed” by the college.
Slaughter asked where new hiring contracts were going, as well as the number of contracts going specifically to women and minorities.
“We want to know,” he said. “We’re talking about $20 million.”
He also criticized Taylor and Searcy for taking part in the evening’s vote.
“If they had integrity, they would recuse themselves,” Slaughter said. “Tonight, we must stand fast as a community, we must stand with our students and staff…we must keep Essex County College accredited. This is a serious matter, politicians and other entities must put college first.”
Rev. H. William Rutherford, of Irvington, said he came to support Munroe.
“He’s doing the best job he can under the circumstances, but there are persons in this house who are obstructing academic justice as he tries to move this institution forward,” he said of the president. “Munroe is trying to drain the swamp so this institution can get back to what it once was. Tonight, we are standing tall and we are standing strong, we are not afraid.”
Munroe’s letter to the board cites a laundry list of allegations against Harley.
“The College's records demonstrate that for years, Dr. Harley has been receiving special reimbursements, which are coded as payments for “cell phone expenses” which total over $3,000 a year,” Munroe wrote. “It appears that Dr. Harley has directed her subordinates to process these payments through payroll and thereby bypassing the approval of the president.”
Munroe stated that reimbursement for personal cell phone services was “inconsistent with college policy and practice, a violation of the college's code of conduct, and potentially represents a misappropriation of college monies for personal gain.”
Harley is also accused of circumventing college procedures by going through subordinates in the school’s finance department, instead of the Human Resources Department, to process a 100-percent tuition reimbursement for one of her “direct reports,” when only 75 percent reimbursements are permitted.
“Ironically, Dr. Harley criticized the prior administration for granting employees 100-percent tuition reimbursements,” Munroe said in his letter.
Insubordination and conduct undermining college operations are further accusations made against the administrator.
“Dr. Harley defied my instructions and undermined my efforts on multiple occasions during my tenure,” Munroe wrote, citing several examples. “Her attempts to undermine my authority are ongoing.”
Bullying and harassment were amongst other allegations, Munroe wrote, citing a 2012 report issued by the law firm, Lum, Drasco and Positan, LLC.
“…She has repeatedly chastised and engaged in personal attacks directed against the very individuals for whom she was directed to support through her position and has assumed authority in areas beyond her office,” states the report of Harley. “The latter is evidenced in part by her unilateral attempts to promote employees without the President's or the Board's consent.”
The firm concluded that Harley's conduct was “insubordinate, intentional and exposed the college to litigation and bad publicity.”
“During her tenure she has been the center of complaints of hostile work environment, bullying, and intimidation which resulted in the recommendation that she attend a course in workplace civility several years ago," Munroe stated in the letter.
One second-semester student called the college’s student body “the children of a divorce.”
“I’ve been reading stories,” he said. “It’s concerning. That means that every degree would be worth less than the paper it’s written on. Settling this in an open forum creates bad press for faculty and students. We’re here for education, not for fights.”
Tracy Leonard, the college’s new student representative, attempted to calm students by assuring them that the college would stay open.
“The school is not closing,” she said. “There are too many people invested to let that happen.”
When asked about Harley's salary by several members of the crowd, board attoney Juan Fernandez said he was unaware of how much the administrator made and that the board was unable to discuss the matter.
“There are certain things we must follow procedurally and I’m telling you we cannot discuss it,” Fernandez said.
Slaughter said that Harley’s placement on administrative leave is a step in the right direction.
“It sends a powerful message to Middle States that things they cited are taken very seriously," he said. "Dr. Munroe has taken the college in the right direction. The reason the attendance was so great at the meeting is because this is what happens when people get fed up. Middle Sates has cited political interference. These people want to be celebrities, but they are supposed to be servants. It’s not about the board members, it’s about the institution.”