Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Larry Stevens years, 1982-1986, Part 2: a hatchet man "heavy on the decisive action and light on the open, free exchange”

"Decisive"
     Before we get back to a chronological presentation of news articles about the district from 1982 to 1986—i.e., the “Larry Stevens years”—I wanted to present a bit of history from immediately before that period, namely, Stevens' tenure as president of Tacoma Community College from 1975 to 1982.
     Luckily, I have found a website dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of Tacoma Community College in 2015, and it focuses on TCC history. Essentially, the site presents the contents of a book:

“The Open Door: a History of Tacoma Community College"—by Dale Coleman

     The entire book is reprinted on the website. It appears to be excellent....

...One is left with the strong impression that Mr. Coleman, the author, presents an honest and unflinching appraisal of the college and its leadership over the years.
     What follows are excerpts mostly from Chapter 6: The Test of Time. It is edited to focus on the saga of Larry Stevens, a curious fellow indeed. (The numbers in brackets are footnotes, which are omitted here.)
     The excerpts:
. . .
The Colonel


     
On June 3, 1975, in an open letter to the campus, the TCC Board of Trustees announced the appointment of “Dr. Larry P. Stevens of Scottsdale Arizona.” … The board’s letter also issued a qualified felicitation to Stevens: “We extend congratulations and best wishes to Stevens as he assumes and accepts the challenges (and headaches) of a most demanding task.”….
     Larry Stevens was born and raised in Mount Vernon, Washington. After earning his undergraduate degree in biology from Oregon State University, Stevens worked as a science teacher in Oregon public schools. After earning his stripes as a teacher, Stevens went on to earn advanced degrees in education, facilitating his ambition to transition into administration. He was a former football coach and the commanding officer of a large U.S. Marine Reserve engineer unit. His resume lauded his service as “an educational consultant in eleven states in over 60 in-service programs for teachers.” His administrative expertise was in the assessment and design of effective educational programs. A deep believer in active civic engagement, Stevens supported a number of community and youth organizations throughout his career. Most importantly, perhaps, was his passion and belief in the community college system.
     Stevens came to the College during a period of stark reflection. .... The world of 1975 was radically different from that of 1965. In order to move confidently into its second decade, a lucid institutional reckoning would be required. Stevens’ penchant for effective institutional assessment and strategic planning undoubtedly weighed heavily in the board’s unanimous appointment. It would be these qualities that Stevens would employ to make an immediate impact as the president of TCC.
     The reorganization of TCC’s administrative structure was Steven’s [sic] first priority. His goal was to create a system that increased accountability and minimized waste. In his initial assessment of the campus administration, Stevens was troubled by what he saw as systemic inefficiencies. For example, the College’s Food Service Operation had been running at a loss since 1968, in spite of state laws requiring FSOs to break even.[1] By shoring up operating losses such a[s] this, the College would have more money to reallocate into maintenance and expansion of the campus facilities. Commenting on the physical condition of the campus, Stevens reportedly told Challenge writer Robert Long that “the College was in sad shape.”[2]
     It wasn’t only administrative structures and campus facilities that Stevens was looking to shape up. Every administrator was to be assessed in terms of their contribution to the institution. In correspondence with college staffers, he announced that he would be “evaluating the efforts of all administrators, looking for those who are ‘shakers and movers’ and those who are not.”[3] It was his resolute conviction that “the administrative organization reflects the College’s Chief Executive Officer’s philosophy for achieving the objectives of the College.”[4] If [TCC's first President,] Tom Ford[,] wanted to be seen as a father figure, Larry Stevens very much wanted to be known as the CEO.

“Planning for the Future”
     
And like most good CEOs, Stevens had a clearly defined, unambiguous vision of the mission of his organization. Stevens’ five-fold vision of the community colleges’ mandate was as follows: 1) to adequately prepare students for transfer to four-year universities, 2) to provide contemporary job skills and vocational training, 3) to provide all students with a solid general education, 4) to provide guidance, counselling and remedial instruction commensurate with student needs, 5) to provide a healthy offering of social and cultural edification to the community, including athletics, arts and entertainment services.[5] It was this clarity of focus and self-assured sense of purpose that Stevens brought to bear in his new presidential role.

Soon developed a reputation as the Tacoma board's "hatchet man"
     He would channel this rigorous attention to systems into a comprehensive assessment and analysis of the College and its surrounding district. Stevens’ background as both an administrative consultant and military officer granted him a keen interest in quantitative data and actionable intelligence. In order to move forward as an institution in a deliberate and effective manner, it was vital to survey the landscape and evaluate the currently implemented strategies and tactics. This attention to data and statistical analysis would be a hallmark of the Stevens Administration.
     A self-assessment of the size and scope that Stevens had in mind was unprecedented in the history of the College. In fact, the most detailed data collection effort associated with the institution was done previous to the College’s founding, as the school district built their case to bring a community college to Tacoma. It is unclear whether this new attention to quantitative analysis was largely a product of Larry Stevens’ management style or just the natural trajectory of any developing institution. It is fair to assume that it was a combination of both.
     To accomplish this ambitious task, Stevens established the equally ambitious Long Range Planning Commission. This 99-member organization was divided into three sub-commissions, with representative members from each of the College’s stakeholders: students, staff, faculty and the community. Community representatives, drawn from local business, media, government, philanthropic, social and economic interests, were by far the largest contingent of the commission.[6]
     The goal of the Long Range Planning Commission was a top-to-bottom investigation and assessment of the College and community. Local demographics, economic and employment data, enrollment figures, student and community services, instructional programs, college funding and campus development were all topics of considerable interest, to be meticulously analyzed and evaluated. Unprecedented in its size and scope, this study would not only lay the groundwork for the College’s short and long-term planning, it also set a new standard in terms of data collection and analysis for institutional advancement.
     The findings of the Long Term Planning Commission were collected and released in a 1977 report entitled “Planning for the Future.” This 180-page document is Larry Stevens’ masterwork. It is an in-depth analysis of the College district, a comprehensive collection of institutional goals and objectives, a detailed strategic playbook and a full accounting of college finances. It was a blueprint and a roadmap and a way forward for the College, unprecedented in depth and clarity of purpose.
     The commission’s most significant findings concerned the shifting demographics of the College. “In 1966 two-thirds of the College’s students were male and under the age of nineteen,” read the study’s demographics report. “95 percent of all its student body identified as Caucasian.” By 1977, the average student was older (70 percent over 21); they were approximately evenly split between men and women; and ethnic minorities accounted for 19 percent of student body.[7] That number was expected to rise, as the region experienced net in-migration from East Asian countries like South Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia.[8] Additionally, an increasing number of students entered TCC without having a clear career path in mind, and the number of transfer students dropped precipitously.
     The primary thesis of the report was that the dramatically changing student population at TCC required an equally dramatic institutional response in order to continue serving the needs of the community, in furtherance of the College’s mission. This meant that everything was subject to “a prompt, critical and thorough review and evaluation.” This included “the College’s present organization, curriculum, student services and support services.”[9] Everything would be weighed in the balance.
     Early in his tenure Stevens began to earn a reputation as the hatchet man for the Board of Trustees. The College was entering an era of new growth, and, in order to mature as an institution, a full accounting, both literally and figuratively, would be required. In the second Challenge editorial of the 1975-76 academic year (the first was written by Stevens), editor Steve Kruse commented on the arrival of President Stevens.
     With the purse tightening attitude comes the hiring of the new president for the College (Dr. Larry Stevens). Dr. Stevens seems to be just what the doctor ordered. In just the short time that he has been with us, he has reorganized the administration structure, eliminated paraprofessionals from government [student government was using their allocated funds to staff student services paraprofessionals] and has instituted several studies and committees on areas that need a new look at their policies and procedures.
     Early gripes about Stevens were largely limited to questions of style. His self-described style of administration was “personal, open, with free exchange, yet decisive after the relevant facts are known and responsible decisions are needed.”[10] In actual practice, many felt Stevens was heavy on the decisive action and light on the open, free exchange. Once a decision had been made, the time for questioning was truly over. Stevens made it clear when feedback was welcome and when it was not. His military background granted him an affinity for a leadership style that favored efficiency, authority and the chain of command, often at the expense of finesse and common workplace niceties. Complaints began to surface regarding the rapid reorganization that was taking place at TCC. An impending financial crunch only served to exacerbate tensions, which, by 1979, threatened to boil over.

No Confidence
     
“I believe that you have the experience and insights necessary to be the most successful Dean of Instruction in the State’s system,” Larry Stevens wrote in a memo to former interim president Robert Rhule, shortly after his arrival in 1975. “I know, too, that you command the respect of the faculty, students, and members of the community, as well as the administrative staff.” Which of these factors was Stevens’ primary motivation for promoting the former interim president is unclear, but Rhule gratefully accepted the offer to join Steven’s administrative staff.
     What is also unclear is what led to the termination of Bob Rhule in January 1979. “It may be a matter of just a personality clash,” said Rhule, during an impromptu press conference in his office. “He just told me and I didn’t pursue it… I’m not happy about it.”[11] Surprised and frustrated by his unceremonious termination, Rhule, who remained popular among faculty and students alike, decided to air his grievances in the local press. President Stevens, true to his nature, refused to comment on the matter.

     For faculty and classified staff, the termination of Bob Rhule was the culmination of a problem that, according to TCCFT President Jerry McCourt, “had been building for a long time.”[12] TCC faculty harbored a festering resentment of President Stevens, and they collectively decided that the current situation was no longer tolerable. In early February TCC faculty and classified staff both submitted formal votes of “no confidence” against TCC President Larry Stevens.[13] The formal charge was a “lack of leadership” and dissatisfaction with Stevens’ penchant for unilateral decision making, especially in regard to implementing new programs and changing administrative structures.
     This was unprecedented in the history of the College. Even during the faculty strike of 1973, the relationship between faculty and the College president, though contentious at times, never devolved into a total breakdown of confidence.
     This placed the Board of Trustees in a tricky situation. The last thing they wanted was to get involved in personnel matters, but they could not ignore the growing mutiny at the College. “We have to be careful to protect everyone,” Trustees Chair Ellen Pinto told The News Tribune “We have to weigh and be deliberate.”[14]
     “The Board of Trustees supported him,” recalled Dan Small, who was working as TCC’s public information officer at the time. In spite of Stevens’ contentious relationship with staff and faculty, he was faithfully carrying out the mission of the College. In executive acumen and analytical ability, Stevens was a master. By a mountain of collected data and sheer force of will, he navigated the College through unprecedented financial difficulty (the likes of which the College wouldn’t see again until the 2007-13 budget crunch). Letting Stevens go was not an option. The only prudent course of action was to attempt to repair the relationship with faculty and staff.
     “He was told that he needed to do a better job of communicating with people on campus,” Small said. “So I worked with him to set up some forums for faculty and staff, in the student center, where he would go out and meet with groups of people and answer whatever questions they threw at him.” As public information officer, Dan Small often acted as a public relations liaison between administrators and the public. At the behest of the board, Small and President Stevens organized a series of brown bag lunches, where Stevens attempted to repair the lines of communication.
     Faculty and staff were largely receptive to this course of action. Internal strife aside, everyone was highly motivated to quickly correct course and get on with the business of teaching students. “One of the most important things is that the public didn’t suffer because of TCC’s problems,” Jack Hyde told local reporters.[15] Discussions were frank and forthcoming, conveying a feeling of genuine progress. Stevens agreed to adopt a more communicative approach. While he would never be beloved among faculty and staff, a serviceable détente was reached. “It seemed to help some. It kind of all settled down by the next fall,” Dan Small recalled with a laugh. “When people go away for the summer it seems to help.”

Satellites


     
During the 1979-80 academic year, Tacoma Community College embarked on an ambitious task. In order to better serve the “Tacoma-Pierce County areas of the Puget Sound” the College would launch a number of satellite education centers. After years of practicing community outreach in the form of service and distance learning, TCC would take their charge a step further, bringing the College itself into the various underserved neighborhoods of Tacoma-Pierce County.
. . .
The Big House. . .

We’re Moving for You. . .
     Stevens’ plan to expand Tacoma Community College into the community experienced mixed success, largely due to forces outside of his control. An economic recession would halt the College’s expansion efforts, and, once again, exacerbate tensions between TCC faculty and their beleaguered president.

The Crunch
     
In the early 1980s a global economic recession rocked most of the developed world. Low growth, high inflation and a series of economic crises resulted in a national budget crunch that left many state-funded institutions reeling….
. . .
     Notwithstanding that there is never an opportune time for budget cuts, the arrival of this crunch was particularly inconvenient. The College was in the midst of an expansion effort…. The number of students enrolled in these extension centers was not insignificant. “Before the budget cuts, 1000 students were enrolled in off campus programs,” President Larry Stevens told News Tribune reporters during his 1982 exit interview. “25 percent of those said they would not have come to the main campus to take classes.”
     Staff and faculty, who were already nervous about job security in the face of looming cuts, were often less than enthusiastic about being reassigned to TCC’s satellite centers. In fact some faculty were philosophically opposed to the idea of campus extensions altogether….
     President Stevens, who was still working to gain buy-in from staff and faculty after a 1979 vote of no confidence (campus expansion was among the grievances mentioned during the vote), was determined to navigate the budget crisis without resorting to lay-offs. By early 1981, however, it became apparent that some reduction in force measures would be necessary, as part of the contingency planning process. This put Stevens, who was already not winning any popularity contests among faculty and staff, in an increasingly precarious situation.
     On February 19, 1981 the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the tentative operating budget for 1981-82. ... The College faced the discontinuation and reduction of several programs, as well as reductions in staff, faculty and full-time students. Programs in drama, cooperative education and services for the developmentally disabled, among others, would be cut with an “add back” option in the event that funding became available. Several academic and vocational programs would see significant budget reductions. New and under-enrolled technical programs in optometry and dietetics were discontinued indefinitely. Administrative departments and positions were combined or eliminated. A 32% reduction in security services meant a few security guards would be let go. Outside of a handful of “essential curriculum” areas (English, Mathematics, foreign language and some social sciences) and the highly successful allied health programs (the radiologic technician program was to be expanded under this budget) few areas would escape these cuts untouched.
     Interestingly enough it was not the broad swath of these cuts that captured the public interest. Nor was it the fact that community colleges en masse were likely to be given short shrift by a legislature that was largely indifferent to its needs (this was a chief complaint of Stevens). Attention was instead focused on a single member of TCC’s faculty: a 65 year-old history teacher named Murray Morgan.

TCC’s Blunder
     
Murray Morgan was a lot of things. He was a journalist and a teacher, a stalwart social and labor advocate, a celebrated writer and historian. He was, and still is, regarded by many as one of Washington State’s finest historians....
     Morgan was bringing both Tacoma and the world to TCC in his popular Northwest history class in 1981. It was his twelfth year teaching history for the College. His penchant for dramatic storytelling and encyclopedic knowledge of the historic particulars of the Puget Sound made Morgan’s classes one of the most popular of the College’s offerings in any discipline. The wait list for his courses often rivaled the allotted enrollment.
     In early March 1981, Morgan was notified of the pending cuts in the College’s history program. In spite of his 12 year tenure at TCC, Morgan had the lowest seniority in the history department. Therefore, in the event of a reduction in force (aside from budget approval, no official measure had been taken by the College), his contract would not be renewed at the end of the academic year.
     News of Morgan’s potential dismissal spread quickly throughout the community....
     Throughout the month of March the Murray Morgan story floated about, generating a fair bit of bad publicity for the College. To the surprise of Stevens, the response was strong and overwhelmingly negative. Letters by current and former students expressing shock and disappointment were published in local newspapers throughout the Puget Sound region. On March 18, TNT editorial writer Richard Stansfield wrote the scathing opinion piece, “TCC’s Blunder: letting Murray Morgan go,” in which he lambasted Larry Stevens’ administration as short-sighted and disrespectful in their treatment of a “tremendous teacher” who “as an author, commentator and historian is without peer”[32]....
     On Tuesday, March 31st, 1981 the Daughters of the American Revolution honored Murray Morgan as Washington State’s “History Teacher of the Year.” The next day, Morgan announced that he would resign his position as history faculty at Tacoma Community College.[34] “The man who has lured hundreds back to college,” read an article in The Seattle Times, “has been told his three history classes must go.”[35]
     President Stevens did little to ameliorate tensions when he told The Times, “we made a list of essential and nonessential classes, and Morgan’s classes, unfortunately, fell into the latter category. We did say he could teach one history class, if he’d also teach journalism. He does have a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University you know.”[36]
     Morgan respectfully declined Stevens’ offer to teach journalism.[37] In spite of his distinguished career as a journalist, there was only one subject that Morgan was interested in teaching. “It’s just that I’m pretty good at teaching history,” Morgan told The Times....

TCC Foundation
     
By 1982 it was becoming increasingly clear that the College would need to employ creative solutions to solve its budget crisis. State funding was dropping precipitously with cuts and layoffs ever-looming on the horizon. Having already survived a no confidence vote in 1979 and a media shellacking over the departure of Murray Morgan in 1981, TCC President Larry Stevens was desperate to avoid any additional cutbacks or layoffs.
     “The time has come for the College to seek additional funding sources,” Stevens told The Challenge on March 5, 1982, “so more scholarships can be offered to deserving students, special programs can be implemented, worn-out equipment can be replaced and services to the community can be maintained at the highest level of quality.” By this time, TCC extension centers had launched throughout the district. Maintaining them all, while keeping the home front secure during a time of financial uncertainty, required a great deal of both human and financial capital.
     To assist with this effort President Stevens tapped former TCC student Lilly Warnick. After attending TCC during the 1965 inaugural year, Lilly went on to earn advanced degrees in education from the University of Puget Sound....
     Her new position was Assistant to the President for College Development. This was a new full-time gig, in which she would be tasked with “securing new and alternate funding sources from business, industry and community residents.”[42] She was also appointed to serve as director of the TCC Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization that had grown moribund since its inception in 1967.
     The Tacoma Community College Foundation was founded in June 1967, by a small group of local business and finance executives, college administrators, philanthropists and community leaders. ... In practical terms, the TCC Foundation is a non-profit corporation that was created to be the private fundraising arm of the College.
    The Foundation provided scholarships, gifts and endowments for students and college services....
    Reviving the foundation was Warnick’s first priority. It was slow-going initially, but she eventually assembled a board of directors that included twenty-five of the district’s most influential business and community leaders. This injected a renewed sense of excitement and purpose into the organization. ... It wouldn’t be long before Warnick was courting the City’s deepest pockets.

Tacoma Wine Festival. . .
First Generation. . .
Chapter 7: Management by Walking Around

Mel Lindbloom

     
On July 30, 1982 Larry Stevens announced that he would be resigning his position as President of Tacoma Community College. After seven years of serving at the College’s chief executive, Stevens notified the Board of Trustees that he was accepting the position of Chancellor of the Saddleback Community College District, in Orange County, CA. In spite of his rocky tenure as president of the College, Stevens insisted that his decision to leave was strictly a career decision. “The past seven years have been a most rewarding and gratifying chapter in my life,” Stevens said in a press release. “Now, my wife, Pamela, and I are looking forward to this opportunity to serve an exciting and growing multi-campus college district in a different setting.”[1]....[END OF EXCERPTS]

* * *

     —This bit of history, assuming it is accurate and objective, does not quite prove that Stevens' hire was ill-advised. Still, the obvious question is: who chaired the SCCD Search Committee that recommended Larry Stevens? Did they or the 2nd level committee check his references? Did they learn such worrisome factoids as that he was long an unpopular and beleaguered President, that he suffered faculty and classified votes of "no confidence," and that he was told to do a better job communicating with people? If so, why was he recommended? If not, why not?

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