At MassBay, a lesson in transition

Outgoing president defends her tenure

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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As Carole Berotte Joseph prepares to leave Massachusetts Bay Community College after six controversial years as president, she defends her tough approach, saying it allowed her to elevate a struggling institution.

“I could have come and decided to be a rubber stamp president. That’s not me,’’ Joseph said in an interview last week. “When the board hired me, they hired a change agent.’’

In forging her legacy at MassBay, which has campuses in Framingham and Wellesley and an automotive technology center in Ashland, Joseph stepped up private fund-raising and raised the college’s profile, championed minority and at-risk students, and expanded its study-abroad program. She also ousted six deans during a sweeping administrative reorganization that angered many on the faculty.

“MassBay needed a certain quality here for things to turn around,’’ she said of her tenure.

Joseph recently accepted the position of president at Bronx Community College in New York, a job she starts in mid-July. Trustees are searching for her replacement as MassBay, like many community colleges, wrestles with funding problems and the challenge of holding onto at-risk students in its certificate and two-year associate’s degree programs.

“My successor is going to come and find a much better college, a college that is much better organized,’’ said Joseph. “I got here and there were computers eight years old for our students studying computer science.’’

Joseph, who is the first Haitian to lead an American college, became president in March 2005. When she arrived, accreditation authorities wanted improvements in several areas, including finances and planning. She said she is proud of the five-year planning process she put in place, and her record of clean audits and balanced budgets.

In the summer of 2007, however, state regulators froze MassBay’s nursing program due to understaffing. Critics blamed Joseph for leaving some faculty and administrative positions vacant during the reorganization.

Later that year, faculty delivered a vote of no confidence in Joseph, accusing her of causing “institutional chaos.’’

Then in 2008, Joseph was criticized by faculty leaders for spending $450,000 on marketing and consulting studies, an unusually high amount compared with MassBay’s peer schools, the Globe reported. At the time Joseph said the criticism was “shortsighted,’’ and said the college hadn’t spent sufficiently on marketing for several years and so was playing catch up.

During last week’s interview, Joseph defended her treatment of the six deans. She said she gave them a year’s notice, and let them reapply for their jobs. All of them landed new jobs elsewhere, she said. “I didn’t fire deans. That’s the way it was portrayed,’’ she said. “I reorganized the college academically. I had deans here who had never taught.’’

Joseph LeBlanc, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, the union that represents the faculty at the state’s 15 community colleges, said morale among the school’s staff is “horrible.’’

“It has been a very hostile place for quite a while,’’ LeBlanc said in an interview after Joseph announced her departure. “I’ve never seen such a climate and culture of absolute fear in all my years of this work.’’

He hopes Joseph’s successor is able “to respect our contract,’’ LeBlanc said, and “have the skill set to work with instead of against the unionized staff.’’

But Joseph has supporters on the faculty as well, including Jeanie Tietjen, an assistant professor of English who cochairs the school’s Diversity Council, which Joseph founded.

Tietjen, who has been at the college for two years, said she missed most of the controversies. She praises Joseph for taking risks and for making changes that reflect MassBay’s evolving role as part of an international community.

Traditionally, community colleges have served the needs of their surrounding communities, educating students for local jobs. MassBay has done this through its courses in biotechnology and nursing, among others.

But Tietjen pointed out that the international student population is growing fast at MassBay, and Joseph has responded. Tietjen also commended Joseph for expanding the study abroad program, which she said was risky because community colleges aren’t expected to provide such opportunities.

“I would like a president who has the ability to do the impossible, which is to nurture and stabilize all the amazing things that are happening here but also somehow squeeze the blood out of the economic stone and support the kind of experimentation that has to happen for our institution to match the needs of the 21st century,’’ said Tietjen.

MassBay’s board of trustees has stood behind Joseph. Its president, Jonathan Bower, said she was hired to make the school better, and she succeeded. Now her successor will have something to build on.

“I’ve never seen a change agent who made everybody happy,’’ said Bower. At the time of Joseph’s hiring, he said, “the college was in a shaky financial position. We didn’t see strong leadership in the administration. Now she’s done, I hope, the hardest part of the work.’’

Bower also praised Joseph for reinvigorating the MassBay Foundation, which raises funds as state support fails to keep pace with expenses. While 20 years ago the state covered about two thirds of costs, today it covers about a third, Bower said. The graduation rate among minority students has also improved, he said, adding that he expects more gains in years to come as a result of her efforts.

“I feel badly about the disruption and anger that occurred on campus,’’ Bower said, “but I felt and I still feel it was a necessary process.’’

The search committee, which includes faculty, staff and students, set up to find Joseph’s successor is working on a profile for likely candidates.

The list includes backing for a strategic planning process, building on what Joseph implemented. It also calls for supporting diversity and improving the outcomes of at-risk students, efforts she championed. People of color make up slightly more than 30 percent of the student body.

Several students interviewed on campus also offered suggestions for the new president. They included keeping costs down; finding ways to unify the three campuses, and promoting more clubs and activities.

Nick Venne, a 21-year-old who is involved in student government, said that after graduating from Wellesley High School in 2008, he went to Bridgewater State briefly but then transferred to MassBay in part because he wanted to be closer to home.

Venne, who is also president of MassBay’s Gay-Straight Alliance group, said he had a negative impression of the school before he enrolled, and now wants to do anything he can to boost the school.

“It had a sketchy reputation,’’ he said. “That’s not what I think at all now. . . I’m very proud of this school.’’

Venne suggested the new president have someone sit in on all student government meetings, and also hold office hours in order to be more accessible to students.

As she looked back on her tenure, Joseph said that it hasn’t been an easy six years. She recalls a lot of negativity, particularly two anonymous blog postings containing a racial slur and a remark that she go back to Haiti.

“It was not easy, let me tell you,’’ she said. “People wanted me out. It really got nasty.’’

“I am tough, I know that,’’ Joseph continued. “I make no apologies for that. It’s just because I’m focused on the goal.

“If I think there is something that is not quite right and I think I can make a difference and change it, I will do it.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at