Campus rebellion: Should McClellon stay on as president of RCTC?
Pressure is mounting on Leslie McClellon to restore faith in her administration at Rochester Community and Technical College or step down as college president after less than two years on the job.
In conversations with students, faculty members and former employees, McClellon is described as an insulated leader who rejects collaboration and routinely ignores concerns from subordinates and student leaders.
The problems began early in her tenure with controversial firings and program closings. But in recent months, the frustration has taken on a life of its own with more and more students and staff speaking out about what they view as irresponsible spending and decision making.
"We are deeply concerned about the closed-door, clandestine manner in which decisions are being made," student president Michael Wenzel wrote in a five-page critique of McClellon's administration. Her actions, he said, have led to a "climate of fear which has virtually paralyzed the college."
The public first got a sniff of the problems at RCTC last month when McClellon came under fire for purchases made during the school's 100th anniversary celebration. The most visible examples were a $6,800 academic mace and $3,200 presidential chain.
"They are talking about cutting budgets, yet they are spending money on emblems and other things that the college doesn't need," student life treasurer David Hanson wrote in the October edition of the student newspaper, The Echo. "There are other, more serious concerns facing the college right now."
In a phone interview on Friday, McClellon stood by the purchases of the mace and chain, calling them "important academic artifacts" for the college. She noted that the items don't actually belong to her, but are "symbols for whoever holds the office of president."
There were also complaints from student leaders about the RCTC Foundation's decision to spend $20,000 on a New Orleans jazz band for the centennial gala.
The foundation tried to use $10,000 from a student endowment on the performance. But student leaders resisted, arguing that it was unfair to spend that kind of money on a performance most students couldn't attend.
RCTC put out a press release calling the gala "one of the most successful fundraising events in our 100 year history." McClellon later told student government the event raised $77,000 after expenses for scholarships.
However, multiple sources — including some who were in that meeting — said that number is not even remotely accurate.
From bad to worse
Things got more complicated earlier this month after the college announced the hiring of Anthony Brown as the new vice president of student affairs. A bio sent out by RCTC failed to mention Brown's time at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.
That's relevant because in 2013 an investigation found the school's security staff, which Brown was responsible for, failed to properly investigate more than a dozen sexual assaults. Both the campus police chief and university chancellor resigned in the wake of the scandal. Brown's "retirement" was announced soon after a new chancellor took over the position.
The Post-Bulletin caught wind of Brown's complete history and published an exposé. Soon after, Wenzel wrote a letter to McClellon on behalf of the student senate demanding Brown's contract be terminated immediately. It read, in part:
Under no circumstances is an individual with this sort of record a viable candidate for a position in this system. The damage to this institution which will result from the mere appearance that this administration tried to hide Dr. Brown’s troubling history, and from its continued support of his record and suggestion that his record is not a matter of concern to this administration, will likely be catastrophic.
Less than 24 hours later, Brown withdrew his acceptance for the job. McClellon said the intention was never to "hide his background or mislead the public."
She said the search committee was impressed with Brown — who most recently served as the interim VP of student services at a technical college in Jamestown, N.C. — and his handling of the difficult events in Elizabeth City.
McClellon also pointed out that Brown was never personally implicated of any wrongdoing. "I still think he was the right choice for the job," she told us.
Calls for dismissal
Frustrated by what they see as repeated missteps, faculty members are now organizing efforts to force McClellon out.
"The workplace culture has completely deteriorated," said one faculty member who has worked at RCTC for nearly 15 years. "We've lost all faith in the hiring process and, overall, just her ability to make good decisions."
For reasons which should be obvious, all current and former employees spoke to the Med City Beat on the condition of anonymity.
Perhaps surprisingly, each person told us McClellon was their top choice for the job out of the four candidates who came in for interviews. They described her as "energetic," "charismatic" and "positive."
But within just months of her hire, McClellon's relationship with the college's existing leadership began to deteriorate. She became intent, sources say, on doing things her own way.
"McClellon demonstrated a tendency to bully and to put down her direct reports," said a former employee who had close contact with the president. "She seemed intent upon clearing out as many employees as possible, and she demonstrated her bullying tactics by picking on very small, inconsequential actions — and then exaggerating their impact."
Now, with things spiraling down, unions representing RCTC faculty are asking the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System to get involved.
Steven Rosenstone, the chancellor of MnSCU, did not respond to our request for comment. But in a statement released to the Star Tribune on Friday, the chancellor indicated he was aware of the problems on campus.
“From my perspective, the campus community is engaging in open and honest discussion about some very important and very sensitive issues, and I support the ongoing dialogue,” said Rosenstone.
McClellon said she is aware of the concerns raised by students and faculty. But despite offering opportunities for discussion, she said faculty members are choosing to go to the press instead of her.
"Folks are not coming to speak with me or the leadership first," McClellon said.
She said despite the disagreements on campus, she stands committed to improving communication and moving the school forward. "Students should know that they can still come to RCTC and have a good experience."
About Sean Baker: Sean is the founder and editor of the Med City Beat. Under his direction, the site has transitioned from a small news blog to one of the most widely-read publications in the city. Prior to launching the site in 2014, Sean spent about two years producing television news in Green Bay and Rochester. His office is above a brewery, so please excuse any typos. Twitter.
(Cover photo: Leslie McClellon / RCTC)