Elizabeth Burmaster grew up aiming for perfection. Raised a musician, she listened to her errors and strived for better from herself — a trait she said has made her more critical of herself than anyone.
She carries that quality to this day as president of Frederick Community College. Burmaster speaks in musical metaphors, saying she imagines herself as a choir director. She selects a piece of music and places it in front of her senior administrators, faculty and staff. From there they must figure out how to perform the piece, how the instruments will weave to form a symphony.
Since being hired in 2014, she has overseen the overhaul of 46 college policies and increased the college’s dual enrollment partnership with Frederick County Public Schools to be a leader in the state.
Yet, faced with enough faculty members to affirm a vote of no confidence in her leadership, Burmaster remains unwavering to criticism while addressing the May vote.
When she jokingly suggests appeasing faculty by cutting her hair to appear less stern, she smiles wide and with her eyes — playing her second role: musician, grandmother. It’s a moment that calls back to the faculty convocation in September, when she joked while pulling raffle tickets that she might have just found herself another job for when she’s not president anymore. The words of faculty members describing yelling fits and physical altercations hang around her uncomfortably.
Accusations of bullying and harassment toward faculty members at FCC began to snowball across the college, culminating in a protest and vote of no confidence in her leadership in recent months. Though Burmaster said she was surprised by the no-confidence vote, she has in fact been receiving similar criticisms and accusations since as early as 1994, an investigation by The Frederick News-Post found.
Now, Burmaster is facing the version of herself painted by faculty and administrators she said she doesn’t recognize.
“I don’t know. I was kind of surprised by all of this. I am still decisive. I still talk with my hands,” she said, speaking softly. “It’s weird when people start saying things about you that you don’t really understand or don’t really recognize.”
At 60, she decided to return home to Frederick. She could have retired. Instead, something lured her back to work.
“I have a lot of sentimental attachment. That’s probably why I came back,” Burmaster said. “I decided, ‘No, something’s calling.’”
Surrounded by framed photos of her grandchildren, Burmaster slips into emotion between recollections of implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, fighting the achievement gap and her efforts to get people back to work in Wisconsin. She capitalized on big manufacturing business in the state by refocusing training and programs at Nicolet Area Technical College and cutting back liberal arts offerings.
Now, caught between career successes and growing criticisms, Burmaster calls herself an agent of change.
Years before Burmaster came to Frederick, faculty members at Nicolet Area Technical College, a small college in Wisconsin where Burmaster was president from 2010 to 2014, complained of nearly identical issues to those of Frederick faculty members: raised voices, throwing things, threats, banging on tables, unwanted hugs, grabbing clothing and pulling people close to whisper aggressive statements in their ears.
And two years after assuming the role of principal at Wisconsin’s Madison West High School in 1992, the Madison School District launched a six-month investigation of Burmaster, the Wisconsin State Journal reported in 1994. The investigation was the result of parent and staff complaints about her leadership style and unwillingness to listen to feedback or concerns, though it ultimately found no misconduct and instead asked that Burmaster improve her communication skills.
Articles from the 1990s describe Burmaster’s personality as “forceful” and say her transition to the role of principal was “rough” during the years she was running for state superintendent. She was accused of being a “bad administrator” who “shouts and screams” at co-workers.
“My whole role,” Burmaster said, “has always been taking really complex challenges and trying to bring people together, but to get through conflict to the other side and to see change.”
Community colleges nationwide have seen a decline in enrollment since 2010 and face an uncertain future regarding their federal funding. As community colleges and small colleges across the country tighten their belts and make big changes to match an evolving economy and mitigate falling enrollment, Frederick Community College is grappling with the question: Do the ends justify the means?
It’s true that Burmaster brought big changes and victories when she arrived in Frederick. But the same kinds of complaints continue to follow her. The Frederick Community College board of trustees created a strategic plan that aims to address faculty complaints, though the board chose to extend Burmaster’s contract one more year despite the vote of no confidence by faculty. The contract puts her annual salary at $215,000, the highest in the college’s history, and extends her contract to 2023.
Even with the allegations of Burmaster’s abuse, board Chair Debra Borden said it’s about the big picture.
“I think it’s very important that she maintain a professional management style, and it’s an aspect of her performance that is important. I’m not minimizing that at all,” Borden said. “I’m just saying there are other aspects of her performance that are important.”
It’s not just the board of trustees that continues to support Burmaster. Some FCC administrators and faculty tout her long record of achievements, and these conversations turn toward the fundamental changes occurring in higher education at large.
“A lot of people don’t want to think of academia as a business, but it really is,” said James Hatch, a faculty member at FCC. “[Burmaster] sees what the future has in store for the school. You have to make sure that policy and procedure is in place. Now, things that were neglected are being addressed.”
Written by David Kast, a then-math professor who spent over a decade teaching at Nicolet College, a 2012 letter obtained through an open records request by The News-Post describes Burmaster’s difficult tenure, in Kast’s view, as president of Nicolet College.
“No. It doesn’t make me want to change who I am,” Burmaster said about faculty complaints. “It makes me want to understand why people are saying that.”
In his complaint, Kast described the first time he tried to address concerns of bullying and harassment with Burmaster. Kast said he invited Burmaster into his office and calmly voiced his concerns about what he viewed as her unfair treatment of faculty members.
According to his account, Burmaster became “irate” and began shouting, accusing him of personally attacking her and trying to get rid of her. Then, he says, she threw a clock designed by Frank Lloyd Wright meant for the occasion of his retirement at him, knocking over a cup of coffee, and stormed out.
“There is anger and frustration,” Kast’s 2012 letter continues. “This is due to the way in which President Burmaster has treated faculty and staff and even driven some away, either through harassing them into early retirement or parceling away their position, or because people have decided they would rather not work in a hostile environment. ... During her tenure as president, Libby Burmaster has exhibited a pattern of bullying through outbursts at faculty and staff, often at meetings whey they have disagreed with an idea of hers, or, on occasion, when they have asked for clarification.”
The complaints about Burmaster made at Nicolet College are nearly identical to those made by faculty at FCC. Kast called it “déjà vu.”
But Burmaster has another theory: Each faculty member has a personal agenda, she said. It might be an international trip, it might be certain benefits, it might be a collective bargaining victory. Though she said she did go to Kast to give him a retirement gift, she firmly denies Kast’s description of events.
“It’s all hearsay,” Burmaster said. “It isn’t unusual, this kind of thing. I can’t tell you over 42 years how many letters I’ve gotten as a supervisor. When people have an intent or they are angry or they are just disillusioned, they will write things like this. This one I know what the intent was. Every supervisor in the college, that would be true of.”
In response to faculty concerns about Burmaster’s leadership, the FCC board of trustees is considering creating an ombudsman position. Burmaster said she won’t pass judgment on the possibility of an ombudsman until the college’s study is completed, but generally she is “a little leery of magic genies,” she said. “I think our problems are deeper-rooted.”
Kyle Gruening, an administrator at Nicolet College who retired this past February, said she experienced the most humiliating moment of her life with Burmaster.
“Staff members who could hear the whole thing said they were ready to call security,” Gruening began.
Gruening worked alongside Burmaster as the college registrar. Burmaster made her feel incompetent, Gruening said. It wasn’t just faculty. Those working closest with her — deans and administrators like herself — were regularly subjected to brutal verbal attacks, Gruening said.
“She almost basically slammed my door shut, sat down, and for almost an hour and a half she totally lit into me,” Gruening said. They had just met about a new software purchase, which Burmaster had decided would not go forward.
“It started out as a conversation. I simply listened and if she ever took a breath, if you had something to say, you tried to say it. I asked why the concerns hadn’t been brought forward until now, but she just became loud, screaming, belligerent, said there was not a single person on that campus who knew how to run a meeting but her,” Gruening said. “That’s how her temper always was. She could be calm, cool, and collected and even in a meeting with 25 people, someone would say something and she’d be slapping the table, screaming and acting like a 2-year-old having a temper tantrum out of the blue.”
Multiple current and past faculty members at Nicolet College confirmed reports of Burmaster’s alleged abusive behavior during her four years at the college. Some of these faculty asked that their names not appear in this report, but they confirmed these accounts of events. Steve Laskowski, then the president of Nicolet College’s faculty union, said he received an average of two or three complaints a month about Burmaster’s behavior during her tenure as president.
“Primarily it was bullying behavior,” Laskowski said. “It’s a pattern of behavior that has been long documented.”
Complaints at Nicolet also went to Josh Skubal, who served as labor relations practitioner during Burmaster’s tenure at Nicolet College as the UniServ director with the Wisconsin Education Association Council. They received at least six complaints of physical and verbal abuse of faculty members by Burmaster, Skubal said.
“There were more than a half dozen individuals with direct experiences of abuse: physically grabbing their arms, pulling them close and whispering dominating things in their ears. There were physical exchanges where things were thrown,” Skubal said. “It was a very dark time here.”
In separate interviews, Laskowski and Skubal described the lasting impact Burmaster had on Nicolet College, which they said has not recovered from the damage she did. Skubal said faculty members were so disheartened and distraught because of the way Burmaster treated them it was “like the land of the walking dead.”
“They are just now recovering as an institution,” Skubal said. “There just is no drive left in a lot of folks. None of these folks would say it’s as good as it was pre-Libby.”
Despite these complaints about her behavior, Burmaster said she was never asked to seek another job.
“I’ve chosen where to go and when to leave in every one of my jobs,” she said. “And that’s a blessing because for me what draws me is the next challenge, the next problem to solve.”
Burmaster said she is proud of her career and her work in Frederick. These faculty concerns, she said, come with the territory. And not all faculty members have had negative experiences working with Burmaster. Joseph McCormick, chief information officer, spends hours each week working with Burmaster and said when he entered his the position at FCC a year ago, Burmaster was extremely helpful in coaching and empowering him to grow. He described Burmaster as “confident, very patient and understanding.”
“She’s shown great empathy in difficult conversations,” he continued. “She by far, in my opinion, has been one of the best folks that I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. I’ve seen her in many conversations and she’s always been willing to sit down and listen, collaborate with others.”
Since returning to Frederick, Burmaster has aided the college in achieving its accreditation, a prospect members of the board and Burmaster herself say looked unlikely before she was hired. But in the years immediately preceding Burmaster’s tenure, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the agency responsible for the accreditation of public and private universities and colleges in the region, has no record of any noncompliance actions connected to FCC. Middle States confirmed the college received its accreditation in 2016 without any warnings or probation. Burmaster also updated the college’s policies, which previously had little or no practical instruction or concern for liability.
“She was recruited to come here to serve a purpose of being able to stabilize at a time when it was very unstable and also the world around us is changing,” said Michael Baisey, FCC executive director of marketing and web management. “It’s reflective of one of the shifts in education, it’s about the outcome for the student. We’re in a period of change. It’s inevitable, it’s also scary, but having the right people in the right positions that can adapt and understand and propose solutions, some of them might seem obvious like have policy and procedures, others might be more geared toward innovation, but it’s all about recognizing change is necessary.”
Burmaster — the musician, the grandmother — faces a third role: alleged harasser. As it follows her from job to job, she grasps for answers. She blames a larger societal anxiety. Or it’s the faculty’s stubbornness to change. Portions of Kast’s 2012 letter marked in yellow highlighter were laid out in front of her as she spoke: He said in the letter he never previously experienced this behavior with Burmaster directly. It’s almost as if “something converged,” she said, not entirely able to say what, “and then it was off and running.”
Access. Affordability. In the ever-competitive higher education landscape, Maya Angelou quotes advising people won’t remember what you said or did but rather how you made them feel aren’t factored into the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. And so, at the end of the day, it’s Burmaster’s fundamental understanding of the job that remains most unwavering.
“I think my record speaks for itself: I’ve been 42 years in public education and tried to do the best job I can, and I am very thankful to all of the good people who I’ve had the great fortune to work with,” Burmaster said. “Does that mean some people get mad or angry?
“Of course it does.”