(Opinion) Letter: Former VP warns college about bleak future due to OCCC administrative brutality

To the Editor:
From January 2007 until July 2015 I was honored and privileged to serve as Vice President for Academic Affairs at Oklahoma City Community College. It was the best job I ever had and OCCC was the best institution I ever worked at in a career that had taken me to six institutions in four states. 

A highpoint of my time at OCCC was taking a lead role in the compilation of our self-study, a necessary step in the reaffirmation of OCCC’s accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, our accrediting body.

 I thought we had a very good story to tell about our college’s accomplishments and institutional culture. The visiting team apparently agreed because in November 2011 they recommended that we get a clean 10 year reaffirmation. My contacts at HLC indicated that only about 20% of institutions up for reaffirmation get such a clean bill of health. 

Usually, self-studies and subsequent team visits reveal one or more issues that need to be addressed, requiring follow-up reports or, if especially concerning, follow-up team visits. I took this as a testament to the outstanding leadership exhibited by then president Dr. Paul Sechrist.

Dr. Sechrist retired July 1, 2015. On July 2, at approximately 9 a.m. the new president, Jerry Steward, informed me that my services as VPAA were no longer required and that I would be put in the faculty. 

Aside from the consternation caused by my having to clean out my office within 24 hours, this decision had no practical impact on me. Given that my salary was contractually guaranteed, until June 30, 2016 I was the best paid community college faculty member in Oklahoma. 

My plan, about which I had always been open, had been to retire the following July so my wife and I could move to Spain, which we did. I did not know at the time that of all the OCCC employees impacted by Mr. Steward, I got off the easiest.

I must say that I was not entirely surprised by Mr. Steward’s action. While he served as Executive Vice President, Mr. Steward acquired a reputation as a micromanager who insisted on making every decision himself. 

In any institution as large and complex as OCCC this is a recipe for institutional paralysis. He also acquired a reputation for treating his subordinates brutally. More than one person who were interviewed by him for a job indicated to me that one of Mr. Steward’s first interview questions revolved around their feelings about firing subordinates.  

Some years earlier a colleague, who reported to him, broke down in tears in my office when talking about working for him.  

From a remove of some 5,000 miles OCCC was not foremost in my mind, although I continued to hear from my former colleagues. What I heard was troubling: administrative paralysis, outstanding employees jumping ship at the first opportunity, summary firings of very competent and dedicated people, and a pervasive climate of fear. 

There was an apparent revolving door at the President’s Cabinet with vice presidents being changed with the same frequency that people change their socks. There were organizational changes that, in a community college, can only be regarded as bizarre; what on earth is a Chief of Staff? 

Mr. Steward’s naming his wife as First Lady, with her own office was also very troubling.  It had become an altogether toxic environment. 

In June 2019 on my first visit to Oklahoma City since my retirement I saw a large number of current and former OCCC employees who confirmed the aforementioned, and then some. Throughout all of this, the Board of Regents either did nothing or enabled Mr. Steward.

Now, the proverbial fecal matter is hitting the fan. 

Mr. Steward’s recent removal from the day to day operations of the college is very telling. I do not buy for a minute the cover story that in his remaining days in office he will devote himself to legislative affairs. 

Let me be clear: the Board of Regents wanted him out of the way. I can only speculate on why the Board took this action. One possibility was his inane decision to put $800,000 into revamping his office in a time of extremely straitened circumstances.

Someone must have brought to the Board’s attention the upcoming HLC visit in November 2021. Someone must have reminded them that there is no way to control with whom the visiting team will meet and that the meetings always take place behind closed doors. 

Given the current environment at OCCC, it will not be pretty. I will remind the reader that reaffirmation of accreditation is an existential mandate for any higher education institution.

The Board has recently named a troika, two of whom have two years or less at the college, to lead OCCC. This is an implicit admission that things at the college are very broken and that the Board cannot trust Mr. Steward to lead the college until the end of his contract.

This troika has the unenviable task of trying to show that the college is addressing how broken it is. People have begun to speak out. The last issue of the Pioneer is chock full of current employees’ thoughts and opinions about the state of the college. And it will get worse.

There are reports that an investigative reporter for a local station is compiling a piece or pieces on the state of OCCC. One way or another, this will make its way to HLC.

Given all of the above, I am not sure that, come November 2021, the HLC team will give OCCC the clean bill of health that it got in 2011. 

The ultimate accountability will rest with the Board of Regents, which hired Mr. Steward and stood by.

Felix J. Aquino, Ph.D.

Valencia, Spain