Dr. Nicole Esposito, CEO of Manchester Community College, recently received a national award for her leadership and her work as a community college president/CEO.
The American Association for Women in Community Colleges (AAWCC) awarded Dr. Esposito its Woman of the Year Award for 2022 on May 1st in New York at their annual convention. This is a prestigious national award, so please join me in congratulating Dr. Esposito on this landmark achievement.
It’s worth spending a little time reflecting on this moment — because Dr. Esposito earned this award while on “administrative leave” imposed on her by the Board of Regents and the system office.
Dr. Esposito received this award, as the AAWCC noted at the ceremony in New York, for fighting for what she believes in and serving as an example of courageous leadership.
In response to the puzzling decision to place her on administrative leave, Dr. Esposito filed a federal lawsuit against a number of the highest-ranking officials in the system office and the Board of Regents, alleging acts of discrimination and retaliation, along with other breaches of ethical conduct.
The case has gone forward in federal court and one of the primary defendants in this suit, an individual also linked to a suit filed by two community college labor unions, does not appear to be working for the system office any longer. All of this suggests there may be substance to the claims made in this lawsuit.
If these claims prove to be true, what we will have discovered—or perhaps more accurately, uncovered—is that we have allowed a toxic, bullying, authoritarian management culture to blossom in Hartford.
Unfortunately, other than by filing a lawsuit, there appears to be nothing any of us can do about it.
Is this how we want our community college system to be run?
Under Dr. Esposito’s leadership before she was placed on administrative leave last year, MCC was named the Best Community College in Connecticut by Intelligent.com. In her time actively serving as MCC’s CEO, Dr. Esposito submitted a balanced budget, provided crucial leadership during the first tumultuous year of the covid pandemic, and found many ways to support MCC students during this crisis.
Dr. Esposito still has not been officially evaluated on her performance as CEO.
When her “termination without cause” was announced last spring, 90 faculty and staff at MCC signed a letter supporting her. This letter was officially submitted to the BOR last May.
In addition, State Representative Geoff Luxenberg (12th District Manchester) issued a statement of support for Dr. Esposito, praising her “dynamic” leadership:
“Nicole Esposito is a dynamic leader and Manchester Community College, its students, faculty, staff and the community at large have flourished under her leadership of the College. Her tenure has even included a budget that included a surplus during the COVID-19 crisis – and MCC being named the top Community College in Connecticut. To learn, now, that her contract to lead this institution will not be renewed, and to not be given any information as to why, raises a red flag of suspicion around the Board of Regents decision making process and lack of transparency.”
In a turn of events that should be troubling for anyone who cares about community colleges in Connecticut, former Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, who is now chancellor of the University of Maine higher education system, recently received a no-confidence vote for his conduct as chancellor. Concerns about ethical breaches appear to be a key reason for this vote. During his terms as governor, of course, Malloy was also criticized for ethical breaches, including an attempt to delay funding for the Office of State Ethics.
This should be troubling because “Students First” is Malloy’s initiative, and it has been created and run by some of his closest associates. These include his chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, who was president of the CSCU system for many years, and Ben Barnes, who is now the system’s Chief Financial Officer.
Malloy built this system so that it could operate free from legislative oversight. Instead of the necessary checks and balances that a legislature traditionally provides, we now have a Board of Regents. Unfortunately, the Board of Regents is made up entirely of political appointees, putting the system office beyond the reach of all but the most extraordinary legislative and legal actions.
Consider the current process for ensuring integrity and independent oversight of the CSCU system: Members of the Board of Regents are appointed by the governor. The process and criteria for filling these positions is unclear. The system and the public are informed about who the new board member is after they have been selected and appointed by the governor.
How can we build a healthy, honest system when it is overseen by a group of political appointees?
Who gets selected? What are the criteria used? Why are some individuals chosen and not others? This is especially important right now because many BOR members are stepping down this year.
This design — which actively seeks to position the system office beyond any real accountability — in itself could be regarded as an ethical breach.
Connecticut has a long history of political corruption, much of it quite recent. One former governor, John Rowland, spent time in a federal prison for fraud, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. In 2015, federal law enforcement authorities formed the Connecticut Public Corruption Task Force “to investigate corrupt public officials, the misuse of public funds and related criminal activity.” In the press release announcing this initiative, the U.S. Department of Justice noted that “Connecticut’s unfortunate recent history with corruption is well known.”
Power and financial resources are now being consolidated in a system office that answers to no one. One or two individuals will be in control of the combined resources of 12 community colleges — amounting to hundreds of millions of tax dollars. The power to hire, fire, and hand out lucrative consulting contracts is now also in the hands of a few individuals.
Given all we know about the structure of the system office, Connecticut’s deeply entrenched system of political ties, friendships, and cronyism, is this how we want to safeguard one of our state’s most important public institutions — our community colleges?
I am happy for the professionals in Maine. At least they have an organizational structure that allows them to have governing bodies and to take votes of no confidence if they feel so moved.
The current system being built in Connecticut does not include such a governing body. Faculty and staff have no real power to even vote on curriculum. Faculty and staff are encouraged to provide “feedback” and share their thoughts, but there is no structure in place that puts any force, power, or authority behind these statements — or these votes.
These are advisory only, and the system office will decide what it wants to do regardless of what the professionals who actually work with students might or might not support, recommend — or vote on.
In her acceptance speech for her leadership award, Dr. Esposito noted that “few things are more potent than the power of a good example.”
I urge legislators to take this advice to heart and enact legislation that will increase transparency and accountability for the system office and the BOR and provide real oversight—and much need checks and balances — for our state’s community college system.
Patrick Sullivan teaches English at Manchester Community College. His book, 16 Teachers Teaching: Two-Year College Perspectives, received the 2022 Conference on College Composition and Communication Outstanding Book Award.