EGCC faculty members speak out

Photo by Christopher Dacanay Faculty members at Eastern Gateway Community College are not optimistic about what the future holds for the school.

STEUBENVILLE — Faculty members at Eastern Gateway Community College say it’s becoming increasingly clear to them that the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s mid-week takeover of the school wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“I think it’s been the plan all along,” said 21-year teaching veteran Tammy Graham, currently director of the dental assisting and expanded functions dental assistant programs. “They’re not even letting our president make any decisions — he’s been shut out of all the meetings. My question is, we had to have a teach-out plan for all our programs for the Higher Learning Commission. We went through and browsed through all of them, and Youngstown State University wasn’t even mentioned, it wasn’t in the teach-out plan. Yet all of a sudden (YSU President) Bill Johnson is being quoted in the Ohio Department of Higher Education press release.”

Officially billed as a “pause” in student enrollments, ODHE said it was EGCC’s board of trustees that pulled the plug during Wednesday’s meeting. The trustees, however, did not make it public — the education department did that for them, issuing a news release later in the day describing the “pause” as a “prudent decision” and saying YSU had “recently begun” working on backup plans to ensure academically eligible students “could enroll at YSU or collaborating community colleges” to complete their degrees.

Barely 24 hours later, YSU Interim Provost Jennifer Pintar told her own faculty that the university “intends to pursue an additional location in Steubenville, through HLC, to serve students (there) and EGCC Youngstown students will be served on the YSU campus.”

Pintar also asked her faculty to “identify programs currently taught by EGCC that we can integrate seamlessly into our curriculum.”

“Additionally, your input on potential new programs–programs currently offered by EGCC but not by YSU — that we could add to our current portfolio will be invaluable,” Pintar added. “The Higher Learning Commission and ODHE are actively working alongside us to ensure a swift and accurate transition for all parties involved.”

EGCC faculty members figure the handwriting is on the wall and see it as an ignominious end for an institution that served its community well for nearly 60 years.

“It’s sickening, disheartening and disrespectful to all the faculty and staff that they (ODHE) would use the word ‘pause’ in the announcement and then say they’re putting all our students in other places,” said Elizabeth Zoccole, a full-time faculty member in EGCC’s criminal justice department. Zoccole also led a team that, during the last eight months, had developed criteria dealing with ethical conduct for members of the board of trustees.

“We have faculty and staff ensuring we offer a quality education, we push for that and make sure it’s happening — we feel we’ve been shut out, that we don’t matter,” Zoccole said. “We’re the backbone of the college, it’s our job to ensure students are successful and our professional capacity has been extremely disrespected.”

There’s no disputing Eastern Gateway was in trouble long before Wednesday’s announcement: It’s been on the HLC’s accredited-probation list since November 2021, largely because of concerns associated with its meteoric online growth; it has fought a nearly two-year battle with the U.S. Department of Education over alleged misuse of Pell Grant funds, a needs-based program intended to help income-eligible adults get college degrees, and continuing delays in getting their student aid reimbursements; and, most recently, a January raid spearheaded by the state Auditor’s Special Investigations unit, culminating with the seizure of computers and records.

“You don’t go on probation with HLC, you don’t have DOE after you or ODHE after you unless there’s something bad going on,” said Kathleen Rogers, EGCC’s nursing chair and faculty chair of EGCC’s accreditation committee.

Faculty members lay the blame squarely at the feet of higher ups who, they contend, were ill-equipped to do what needed to be done to fix the accreditation issues and satisfy DOE and unwilling to work with faculty members who did. They also allege that those who spoke out against the administration as far back as 2015 were threatened with termination and, if they continued to buck the system, were shown the door.

The EGCC Education Association complained that the administration – from former President Jimmie Bruce and soon-to-be-retired President Michael Geoghegan on up to board Chairman Jim Gasior and the president’s advisory cabinet — consistently turned a deaf ear to their suggestions and concerns and refused to collaborate with them to fix the problem. In November, members of the EGCC Education Association returned a vote of no confidence in the college’s Associate Vice President of Financial Aid Kurt Pawlak, Interim President John Crooks and the board of trustees.

Last year, faculty members said administrators were finally allowed to see a secret DOE preliminary report alleging 80 employees had been “dismissed for unjust reasons, just because they pushed back against senior leadership” since 2015, the start of the Bruce era. Bruce served as EGCC president until January 2020, when he was terminated and ultimately replaced by Geoghegan, who passed the reins to Crooks as interim administrator last year.

They also say the auditor’s special investigations unit, the same entity responsible for the January raid of administrative offices, is now requesting information “on every separation from Jan. 1, 2015, to the present — every firing, every layoff, every cut, every resignation.”

In a conversation Thursday, Crooks confirmed the state now wants all of the school’s employment records.

“That is correct,” he said. “There has been a request from the Auditor of State for additional information on terminations and resignations.”

“It’s about 80 employees,” Crooks said. “There was a preliminary program review report by the DOE, I believe those were the numbers they quoted from. I believe (they’re going back) to 2015-16, but I’ve only been with the institution since 2020. There may be aspects of that report that are true, but our goal is to change the culture and make sure if it did happen, it does not continue to happen.”

Faculty members say they’re not surprised.

“I know for a fact that numerous people who spoke out about irregularities with financial aid, those people were either transferred or fired,” Zoccole alleged. “It was all documented – it’s not like we can’t figure it out, we’re all very capable people.”

Faculty members also complained that before Geoghegan left, at a time when the college’s fiscal stability was crumbling because of the withheld student aid reimbursements and faculty members were being let go, the board of trustees gave senior leadership, including the president’s cabinet, pay raises and picked up the tab for their retirement and insurance.

“That is being reviewed,” Crooks said Thursday. “That’s a decision the board of trustees would make, and that has been shared with ODHE.”

Graham said she’d been planning to retire in a year but wanted it to be on “her terms,” not because of “somebody else’s mistakes, somebody else being greedy.”

She said it’s students who are truly panicked, some of them just a class or two from graduating and wondering if the classwork and clinicals they’ve done are going to count for anything when the dust finally settles.

Graham said many of them can’t afford higher tuition that a school like YSU will charge or long drives they’d face if they have to transfer to other institutions.

“I have nursing students in clinicals who are crying because they don’t know what their future is,” Rogers said.

Zoccole said she’s just as worried as any student about what comes next.

“I’ve tried applying at other places and can’t get a job,” she said. “I hate to say it, but I feel like we as EGCC employees are being blacklisted because of (what’s going on.) I’m 34 and a single mother. My daughter relies on me. If I don’t have a job, what am I going to do? I have a year left in my doctorate, so I’m in a weird position to move forward — I’m not supported by my own college, let alone the college I have two degrees from. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s from YSU and I can’t get a call back.”

No one is optimistic about what the future holds.

“To do it behind closed doors, to pause the summer semester, that says you’re closed,” Graham said. “If you don’t have a summer semester to enroll students for fall you don’t have a fall semester and you’ll never be able to catch up.”

Rogers said nine years of mismanagement and sweeping things under the rug has taken its toll. She said the problems should have been addressed years ago.

“Am I surprised with what’s going on?” Rogers asked. “Not really. I figured it was a matter of time. I think we all knew since we clearly cannot manage ourselves, someone had to do it for us — when the trustees went to the Controlling Board asking for more money, that was made crystal clear.”


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