Faculty criticism of Frederick Community College President Elizabeth Burmaster came to a head last week, ending with Burmaster receiving a contract extension and apologizing to faculty.
The college’s board of trustees officially approved a one-year contract extension for Burmaster, which it announced it was offering her last month, at its monthly meeting Wednesday, but not after a tense and slightly awkward conversation among faculty and staff regarding Burmaster’s behavior.
The trustees met Wednesday to discuss the possibility of hiring an ombudsman in response to a vote of no confidence from the college’s faculty association last month, which was affirmed by the administrative support association and support personnel association.
Board conversations typically take place strictly between board members and presenters, but faculty and staff attended the meeting hoping they would get the chance to speak.
After pleading their case, Burmaster offered the board the floor to hear the employees’ concerns.
The Frederick News-Post interviewed more than a dozen current and former FCC faculty and staff members regarding Burmaster’s behavior. Many of the concerns in those interviews surfaced Wednesday night.
Over the past month, faculty and staff have reported a “toxic” and “fear-based” climate at the college that has stemmed from the president’s behavior.
Every current employee at the college asked to remain anonymous or refused to talk on the record to The Frederick News-Post for fear of retribution or being fired.
Mick O’Leary, the college’s former executive director of the library, affirmed that faculty and staff fears were warranted, saying the president would view speaking as an act of “defiance,” and target those employees “in whatever form that might take,” he said.
Employees declined to give specific details to behavior they have encountered around Burmaster, though several mentioned that she would often slam her hands on tables, wag her fingers in people’s faces and publicly yell and berate them in front of their peers.
Mary Mogan-Vallon, who spoke at the meeting, cited similar behaviors that have created a climate of fear around campus. While Mogan-Vallon said she had not personally experienced those acts, co-workers have come to her in confidence.
“People have witnessed you bully your staff,” Mogan-Vallon told Burmaster. “... The people who work here are not afraid of each other. It’s Elizabeth Burmaster that people are afraid of.”
Chuck Hanfman, who was employed at the college for more than 20 years before having his job eliminated last April, recalled in a letter to the board of trustees provided to The News-Post an incident involving a gas leak at the college in which the president berated him in front of the crisis management team.
Hanfman was the safety officer overseeing a project when a contractor struck the main gas line and broke it. Hanfman called for the evacuation of the buildings and moved students and staff away from the gas line and called 911, he wrote in the letter.
In the Crisis Management Team Meeting that followed, Burmaster told Hanfman he was negligent for not calling or notifying Burmaster first, he wrote.
“She was up in my face, even pointing her finger in my face,” Hanfman wrote to the board. “It was unprofessional and humiliating in front of the Crisis Management Team, comprised of my supervisors and colleagues. I did what I, or any other emergency management person, would and should do. I would do the same thing again in a similar event. My actions were 100 percent by the approved college’s crisis management plan, one that I helped create.”
Burmaster then went around the room one by one telling employees they were negligent, according to Hanfman’s letter.
In late May, Marshall Botkin, a professor of sociology, posted a video on YouTube speaking on behalf of faculty and staff to state the concerns of college employees.
Botkin called for Burmaster’s resignation as the “least painful solution.”
“The current administration is not salvageable,” he said.
If Burmaster did not resign, Botkin requested she take an extended leave of absence to give the board “time to put together a new leadership team.”
Botkin said if immediate action was not taken, the board of trustees would likely receive a letter of no confidence that would be sent to the board and Gov. Larry Hogan. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education — an organization that performs evaluations and accreditations of public and private universities and colleges — would be contacted to perform an inspection of campus climate at the college, Botkin said.
After the faculty association delivered a vote of no confidence in the president, the board of trustees responded by offering her the extended contract. The contract extension was not well-received, Botkin said.
While Botkin said he thought lines of communication from faculty to the board had been blocked by Burmaster, the faculty association released a statement on the video, saying the board was not engaging with faculty members to hear their concerns.
“Given the totality and intensity of employee complaints against the President’s abusive behavior, the campus community respectfully requests the information and rationale to extend President Burmaster’s contract to 2023,” the faculty association said in a statement. “The Board’s ongoing reluctance to engage directly with Faculty leadership — to include inadequate written responses addressing the most pertinent issue of hostile work environment and avoidance of face-to-face meetings with Faculty — is further grounds for our persistence.”
Last month, the faculty association affirmed a vote of no confidence in Burmaster by a vote of 66 in favor of no confidence, four against and nine abstentions. The college responded by saying the vote may not be indicative of the faculty or subsequent association as a whole because there were many employees who did not attend the association meetings and therefore did not vote. The Faculty Association, for instance, has a total of 109 members, and the college has nearly 500 adjunct faculty members.
The faculty association, however, took issue with the college’s response, releasing a statement that called it “inaccurate.”
“The Faculty Association has a voting membership of 103 professors. That number includes 102 full-time faculty and one adjunct (part-time) faculty representative,” the statement reads in part. “Seventy-seven percent of the Faculty Association’s voting members participated in the vote of no confidence in president Burmaster’s leadership. Not including the nine members who participated in the vote but abstained from voting ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ 94 percent affirmed a vote of no confidence. Therefore, the College’s official statement is an inaccurate representation of the voting body of faculty.
“We share this statement to preserve the highest level of civility, professionalism, and integrity at Frederick Community College.”
Shortly after Botkin’s video was posted, Ted Taft, a retired English professor at the college, sent the board a letter backing the faculty.
“My last few years at FCC I watched the unhappiness and fear grow on the part of many employees,” Taft wrote. “My personal answer those years was to keep my dealings with President Burmaster minimal and withdraw from nearly all college activity outside the classroom.”
Taft and O’Leary said in letters to the board that they will pull any financial support from the institution until there’s a resolution to the president’s behavior. O’Leary typically contributes about $250 to the college’s scholarship foundation each year, he said.
While current staff members unanimously requested to speak anonymously, several have filed complaints against Burmaster. The Frederick News-Post requested copies of those complaints but was denied because the college views the reports as personnel records that are not considered public.
But the college did say that six grievances had been filed against Burmaster and one filed against a member of her senior leadership team since June 1, 2017. All six grievances against Burmaster were filed between April 17 and May 7, according to the college, and all have since been resolved, though the college would not comment on any specific resolution.
The complaint against a senior leadership member was filed on May 26 and has since been reviewed and resolved as well, according to the college.
A potential resolution
Along with the contract extension, the board of trustees expressed interest in hiring an ombudsman as a response to the concerns surrounding Burmaster.
At its most recent board meeting, the board agreed to consider a decision on hiring an ombudsman at its retreat in July after receiving a positive recommendation from legal counsel.
Hiring an ombudsman could be problematic if the employee reports to the president, because faculty could be fearful to report concerns to the ombudsman, Mogan-Vallon said. Instead, the ombudsman should report to the board, she said.
Several employees said the board was jumping to a solution before it accurately understood the problems.
“I’m not sure [an] ombudsman is necessary,” Mogan-Vallon said. “I think it’s the wrong dressing for the wound that’s being experienced. I’m not sure two sides understand what is being said.”
Not all employees think punishment is necessary. Jeanni Winston-Muir, who has been at the college for 28 years, recommended Burmaster take on leadership coaching instead of the ombudsman, to which Burmaster seemed amenable at last month’s meeting.
“I’m not looking at getting rid of Elizabeth Burmaster. What I want to do help Elizabeth Burmaster find a better way to communicate with people,” Winston-Muir said. “We need to practice virtue and practice forgiveness and allow others to forgive.”
Burmaster, who is from Frederick, said she would look to get some coaching, and that she was unsure of where the complaints were coming from.
“I didn’t know I was that scary,” she told faculty in last month’s meeting after apologizing to faculty.
After trustees met with chairs of the affinity groups, the recommendation for an ombudsman came up, and seems like it might be a good idea, Burmaster said. Regardless of the solution, however, she agreed that some changes need to be made.
“If my leadership style or who I am is what causes this visceral reaction that videos are made to try to get me to resign without any due process, I don’t understand why I evoke that,” she said. “I’m certainly not trying to. I will do everything I can to be a better communicator. ... If wounds are that deep, then something does need to be done.”