Replacing the head of a college district can take some time. The Long Beach Community College District (LBCCD) has been searching for a replacement to former Superintendent-President Eloy Oakley since last July, when he was unanimously selected as the next chancellor of the California Community Colleges System.
Last week, nearly seven months after the announcement of his departure, the list of possible successors was narrowed to five. However, one of those names has created a stir among some faculty and those keeping a close eye on the developing situation at LBCCD Board of Trustees meetings, as the board inches closer to a decision expected to be made in the coming weeks.
Melinda Nish, who currently serves as an executive advisor to the president of the College of the Marshall Islands and has previously served in leadership roles at Southwestern College in Chula Vista and at Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa, is at the center of those concerns. Nish is also a current finalist for a similar position overseeing the Ventura County Community College District.
Concerns and complaints dating back to 2008 leveled against Nish and Bob Dees, then-president of OCC, were detailed by faculty at the Costa Mesa campus, where Nish had previously served as vice president of instruction, according to an 80-page document provided to the Post by a source requesting anonymity due to concerns of possible backlash.
A letter dated March 19, 2008 and signed by 55 faculty members requested a new process to review administrators on a biannual basis, with the procedure beginning immediately with Nish.
“At present, there are serious concerns about the manner in which VP Nish has chosen to implement her vision for our college,” the letter read. “There is no clear avenue to present these concerns to the board and to be able to do so without repercussions. We are asking for a fair, safe, and transparent system for communicating our concerns.”
Those concerns ranged from management style to creating a divisive atmosphere between staff and faculty.
Gary Hoffman, OCC English Department’s former co-chair, noted an instance when he proposed an alternate block scheduling of classrooms to better utilize limited classroom space on the Costa Mesa campus. After presenting a room efficiency study and advocating for changes to accommodate the influx of new class offerings Nish had pushed for, Hoffman said he found out that Nish had used him as a “fall guy” in discussions with other schedulers.
“It became clear to me that I had been used by Melinda as the ‘bad cop’ who was aggressively pushing for the change,” Hoffman wrote. “This is just one example of how Melinda will resort to ‘divide and conquer’ tactics—pitting faculty against one another in order to achieve her goals, engendering a divisive atmosphere rather than a collegial one.”
Ernest Maurer, then an aviation professor at the college, wrote that Nish had missed many opportunities to solve problems in the area of instruction and that having attended meet-and-greets hosted by Nish, he felt the memos following up on subjects discussed did not address the issues that were raised.
“I was very disappointed afterward to have our questions and concerns ignored, in a memo which seemed to be more about her that [sic] anyone else,” Maurer wrote. “She has consistently ignored input from faculty and division deans and has imposed her view of the universe on middle management. It is very difficult for a division dean to serve students and enable faculty to do their jobs, when Ms. Nish imposes her preconditions.”
Ann Harmer, then a professor emeritus of biological sciences, noted that even basic communications had become an issue, citing an instance when computers in the large lecture hall where she was set to instruct had been changed out with no warning leading to a scramble to find the right hardware to load her lecture and several phone calls to warn other instructors of the issue.
“A simple email from Melinda would have saved a lot of folks a lot of grief and a great deal of time,” Harmer wrote. “Why are we not receiving this sort of communication? Is this not in the job description of our VP of Instruction?”
The testimonials included in the packet stated that the claims were dismissed by Dees and others as a “small group” of faculty. OCC currently has 530 full-time and adjunct faculty, meaning that the 55 co-signers, plus members of the faculty who “supported the spirit of the letter,” but did not sign due to its focus on Nish, would have constituted over 10 percent of all faculty.
Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Hoffman said that only full-time faculty signed the letter, meaning that the total likely accounted for more than 20 percent of that total based on current figures. He also pointed to the scope of departments involved, stating that many were respected campus figures and the signatures were not a result of enlisting anyone who was willing to sign.
He noted that Nish was “very intelligent” and knows the community college system “inside and out,” so she is qualified.
He also acknowledged that during the time captured in the complaints the school, like countless others, was undergoing budgetary cuts and resources were strained but added, those resources were often granted to those who did things Nish’s way.
“If you talk to people at Orange Coast College, there are people that loved her,” Hoffman said. “And then there were people that no matter how reasonable they were and how much they were doing things, they were dismissed. They could not stand her, and so she created divisiveness between the faculty.”
He said there certainly has been time for everyone involved to reflect and grow since 2008, but when asked if he would be excited to learn Nish was a candidate for a similar position at OCC he jokingly requested to answer that off the record.
During her time there, OCC was also threatened with loss of its accreditation, as was Nish’s next stop, Southwestern College, where she served as superintendent before an abrupt resignation last summer.
Her resignation came after a slew of issues that plagued the campus toward the end of her tenure, including racial tensions that escalated to the point of necessitating the hiring of an outside consulting group to study the issue.
In another incident, campus police released a student detained on suspicion of battery, because the campus police said that the incident did not fit legal parameters for sexual battery. The student was arrested days later on sexual battery charges at nearby San Diego State University.
The sexual battery issue arose in Fall 2015 while the racial tension (April 2016) and accreditation issues (February 2016) came just months before the announcement of her resignation.
A joint statement from Nish and the school’s governing board said it was a mutual decision as Nish “pursued a sabbatical for personal and other professional development opportunities.”
In an email received Friday morning, Nish pointed to several achievements she had at both campuses, especially in the area of faculty engagement. She added that she was once a part-time faculty member.
Regarding her resignation, Nish said the campus police issue did not play into her decision and the racial issues, though efforts were made to address them, still exist as they did before she began her stint at Southwestern.
Nish said the accreditation issues were not attributed to her, pointing to a public statement by the governing board deflecting blame from her.
She described herself as “extremely faculty-oriented” and that her work at OCC and Southwestern reflected that.
“My leadership style is one, first and foremost, of inclusivity,” Nish wrote.“This means that all stakeholders will have their voices heard and their recommendations will be considered prior to any decision. I always work to craft plans and decisions that will address the needs of as many as possible, but at the same time, I always ask how this decision will impact students first, the college as a whole second, and the community we broadly serve, third.”
LBCCD Trustees will choose their next superintendent-president in the coming weeks, and when reached by phone this week, Board President Virginia Baxter said she was unaware of the issues alleged at OCC, adding that she’d like to see the document for herself.
“Obviously we don’t want somebody that can’t get along with people,” Baxter said. “But sometimes administrators have to make decisions that faculty doesn’t like.”
LBCCD Board Vice President Jeff Kellogg said that “it would be inappropriate to comment on any of the finalists at this time as background checks are currently underway for each individual.”
Similar rifts between faculty and Oakley were present at the school before his departure to Sacramento last year. It was not uncommon for faculty members to air their grievances before the board during their Tuesday night meetings, with multiple faculty members expressing concerns that their voices were not being heard by the board.
Karen Roberts, president of the part-time faculty union at LBCC, said that morale on campus has improved despite current enrollment being down, which has translated to more part-time faculty cuts.
She said that her ideal candidate would be one that’s innovative in terms of keeping part-time faculty on campus to provide opportunities for more classes to be taught. Roberts said that person should also be somebody who listens, hears faculty concerns and brings a sense of fairness to those discussions.
“After listening to her at the forum, I just think, ‘why would we want a president that’s been controversial,’” Roberts said. “Why would we do that? We have so many things going for us.”
Above, left photo courtesy of LBCCD.