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Departing Rio Hondo President Loses Battle Over Scholarship

August 27, 1989|TINA DAUNT | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — At first it seemed like a simple request, one of the last official acts of a departing president.

Herbert Sussman, the leader of Rio Hondo Community College for seven years, wanted to create a scholarship in his name.

But like many other efforts in the waning years of Sussman's controversial tenure--the request caused turmoil. Sussman, whose contract was not renewed last fall, asked that the recipient of a scholarship bearing his name be announced at the annual commencement ceremony.

Some board members and college staff described Sussman's effort as one last act of defiance, an attempt to force his foes on the board to listen to his name being read when the scholarship is presented every year. Sussman denies the assertion.

On Wednesday night, the board voted 4 to 1 to reject Sussman's scholarship proposal, which was being funded by donations largely from Rio Hondo faculty and staff. Trustee Isabelle Gonthier cast the only vote in favor of Sussman's proposal.

Only One Is Presented

About 40 scholarships are awarded every year at Rio Hondo Community College and only one, the valedictorian award, is presented at the ceremony. Sussman's scholarship, which would have been given to a graduating biology student, was not on a par with the valedictorian scholarship, according to the board members who voted against the proposal.

They also expressed concern that a graduation ceremony would be lengthened considerably if all scholarship sponsors made the same request.

Sussman questioned the board's priorities. "Let's talk about scholarships for students," Sussman said Wednesday night after the board meeting. "Let's not talk about shortcutting a commencement for 15 minutes. Let's talk about students."

Before the meeting, college staff members tried to persuade Sussman, who will teach anatomy at the college in the fall, to compromise. Pamela Cox, the college's public information officer, said she offered to place a special insert in the graduation program to recognize Sussman's scholarship.

Sought Announcement

Sussman refused. "It's the announcement to the audience that's the critical thing," he said after the meeting.

"I think it is appropriate for (the name of) every student that graduates from this college and gets a scholarship . . . to be announced at commencement so that their parents and friends can hear," Sussman said.

Sussman said he had wanted Rio Hondo officials to place the donations, which so far have totaled $1,300, in an interest-earning account. At the end of each year, the interest would have been given to a student transferring to a four-year college or university, he said.

Sussman said he will give the money to another community college. "It will make students at another community college very happy," he said. Those who donated to the fund and disagree with his plans can have their money back, he added.

Motives Questioned

Board member Ralph Pacheco accused Sussman of being selfish.

"If he thought that strongly about announcing all scholarships during commencement, why didn't he implement that during his tenure as president?" Pacheco asked. "You have to question the motivation.

"If you are doing it out of generosity, you give without expecting recognition," he said. "The person with the humble and contrite heart would not be concerned if his name is mentioned."

Pacheco and board members Hilda Solis, Bill Hernandez and Marilee Morgan voted against Sussman's proposal.

Criticism from 3 Trustees

It has not been unusual for the three Latino trustees to spar with Sussman. The three have accused the departing president of not doing enough to hire minority staff members and of failing to recruit promising students in the heavily Latino communities that surround the campus just north of Whittier.

In addition, the three trustees didn't like Sussman's personality, they said. Pacheco once called Sussman "brash, capricious and arbitrary."

Cox said: "The situation had broken down to the point where they could no longer work with him. It made for a very tense seven months."

In October, 1988, the three Latino trustees approved an offer to buy out Sussman's contract, but the president asked for more money than the board members were willing to pay. Instead, Solis, Pacheco and Hernandez voted not to renew Sussman's contract for the 1989-90 school year, even though he had announced that he was retiring in June, 1989.

Throughout the contract dispute, Morgan and Gonthier supported the president and defended his leadership style. Morgan also organized a going-away party for Sussman and solicited funds for a scholarship in his name at the college. She said she did not invite the three Latino trustees at Sussman's request.

As a result, Morgan's decision to vote against Sussman's scholarship proposal Wednesday night caught some board members by surprise. After the meeting Morgan sat quietly, dabbing tears. She said she was sorry that the board could not reach a compromise with Sussman.

"I'm very sad, very disappointed," Morgan said. "I did not think it (the scholarship proposal) was a legitimate request." She said there was "no way to accommodate his wish" because all scholarship sponsors would have wanted their awards announced as well.

But, Gonthier, who voted in favor of Sussman's proposal, said she was willing to make the sacrifice, if it meant money for students.

"I don't want the students to lose, no matter what the conditions are," Gonthier said. "I want us to find another way to work it out."

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