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Outrage Over 'Outsider' : The selection of Massachusetts' Secretary of Education to head Santa Monica College has some faculty members seething. They had favored a veteran administrator of the campus.

June 01, 1995|TOM JENNINGS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Piedad Robertson is no stranger to controversy. And controversy is what has ensued since it was announced last week that Robertson, the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, will be the next president of Santa Monica College.

The decision by the school's Board of Trustees to choose her over local favorite Darroch F. (Rocky) Young, a Santa Monica College administrator, has deeply divided the Pico Boulevard campus.

While some at the school are praising Robertson's selection, others are condemning it.

Today, the college's faculty is scheduled to meet on whether to give the seven-member board of trustees a vote of "no confidence" for its decision to name Robertson to the $115,000-a-year post. Dozens of faculty members who favored Young have said they would support the "no confidence" vote.

"We don't have anything against Piedad Robertson. We don't know her," said Karin Costello, an English teacher at the college. "We felt [Young] was someone here who had earned our respect, trust and loyalty. He had earned the position and the board invalidated the opinions of this faculty and communicated the message that service to this college doesn't count."

Costello and other Young supporters feel that after a lengthy search process to replace Richard Moore, who departed last year to head a community college in Las Vegas, their input was ignored.

Merle Arnold, chairman of the Physical Sciences Department, terms the board's decision "an absolute mistake."

"I am just outraged over this decision, as is most of this campus," Arnold said. "Rocky Young was the clear choice. The board is spitting in the face of the faculty."

But Lillian Jones, a teacher in the social sciences department and vice president of the faculty association--the teachers' union--said she was "thrilled" with the choice of Robertson.

"Dr. Robertson brings great resources, skills and talents," said Jones, who served on the search committee that recommended Robertson and three other finalists for the post. "I look forward, as do many of the faculty, to working with her. There are a number of faculty who not only support the decision of the board, but feel the divisiveness going on is destructive to the entire selection process."

Robertson said she has had experience in being the unpopular choice. When she became president of Bunker Hill College in Boston in the late 1980s, there were three candidates from within the school, one of whom was the campus favorite for the job.

"I was not the favorite choice of many people there," she said. "But I worked hard to make sure that I and the woman who was the internal favorite became a team. And we formed a great team. She had the internal know-how and I brought the capacity to look at things differently."

Robertson, who is scheduled to start work July 1, said she wants to help lead Santa Monica College through a "'healing process," not only over her appointment, but also to help the school rebuild from the Northridge earthquake, which damaged many school buildings.

"We need to put the divisiveness behind us and get on with our lives," she said. "It's time to reposition this college for new opportunities."

A native of Cuba, Robertson received degrees from the University of Miami and was awarded an Ed.D from Florida Atlantic University. Before moving to Boston, she held administrative and faculty positions at Miami Dade Community College, Broward Community College and the University of Miami.

She was named to head Bunker Hill College in 1988. According to newspaper reports on her tenure there, her critics charged her with "empire building," while her supporters applauded her for strengthening the school's ties to the community.

In 1991, she was named Massachusetts' Secretary of Education by Gov. William F. Weld.

"To President Robertson, education policy is not just an intellectual exercise," Weld said when he named Roberston to the post. "She has been on the front lines of our education system and will guide our efforts to restructure and revitalize that system in Massachusetts."

But skirmishes with state education leaders soon followed. Three months after the appointment, Weld was criticized by a co-chairman of the state Legislature's Education Committee for attempting to merge the budgets of the secretary of education with that of the state's chancellor of education.

A year later, faculty members at two campuses of the University of Massachusetts and seven state colleges gave Roberston a vote of "no confidence" in the wake of cuts in the state education budget. Robertson said the criticism was the inevitable result of much-needed fiscal restraint.

"They wanted to blame someone," she said.

Earlier this year, Robertson was a candidate for the presidency of Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass. Steve Wollmer, communications director of the Massachusetts Teachers Assn., said when faculty members there found out that she was being considered for the post many of them were not happy.

"I don't think she was terribly popular here," Wollmer said.

Northern Essex Community College officials said they could not discuss their school's presidential selection process, which is still under way.

At Santa Monica College, trustee Ilona Katz said she feels badly that so many people are disturbed by Robertson's selection, but she questions how much support there will be for the no-confidence vote.

"I'm sorry so many people are disturbed by this," she said. "The board made its decision and we stand by it. On [the faculty] vote, let's put it this way: It hasn't been taken yet."

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