WELLESLEY - Carole Berotte Joseph became president of Massachusetts Bay Community College in March 2005 amid high expectations, vowing to overhaul the small two-year school accustomed to being in the shadow of more renowned colleges.
But now Joseph's tenure at the Wellesley-based commuter college of 5,000 students is being overshadowed by a bruising battle with the faculty, in part over a sweeping administrative reorganization that ousted all six of the college's deans, none of whom has been permanently replaced.
Many supporters, including the board of trustees, say Joseph has reinvigorated the college and made it far more responsive to students' needs. But faculty union leaders, increasingly angry at what they describe as Joseph's heavy-handed and abrasive style, are considering holding a no-confidence vote on her this fall to voice their displeasure.
"This president has poisoned the atmosphere at MassBay," said Joe O'Neill, president of the MassBay Professional Association, the union that represents the college's faculty and professional staff. "The morale is as low as it's ever been."
Joseph said she has taken aggressive action since arriving to tackle the college's shortcomings, which she described as systemic, and will not be deterred by criticism.
"This is an institution that has been stagnant and needs strong leadership to improve," she said in a recent interview. "I am holding people accountable, and in the past there was none of that. Some people don't like it."
The tension on the MassBay campus underscores the difficulties Massachusetts community colleges face in improving the schools, such as hiring qualified faculty and administrators on lean budgets and in raising the quality of education where many students and instructors work part time.
The debate over Joseph's tenure has sharply intensified as students and faculty returned to campus this month. Over the summer, the state nursing board barred the college's popular nursing program from admitting new students over concerns that it lacked enough administrators and faculty to properly prepare students. The sanction, which critics blame on Joseph's reorganization, was a major blow to the school's reputation. On Wednesday, the board maintained the freeze until the college hires a program administrator and several faculty members.
The clash at MassBay is also reverberating through the state's higher education system. The president of the statewide community college faculty union, Joseph LeBlanc, sent a letter this month to the 15 community college presidents in Massachusetts accusing MassBay administrators of threatening personal legal action against union leaders for alleged slander. LeBlanc and union leaders said the threats represent Joseph's attempts to silence critics, an allegation she denies.
"I've never seen this level of breakdown of trust between a president and the rank and file on campus," he said in an interview. "There's not a case that comes close."
Patricia Plummer, chancellor of the state Board of Higher Education, and Fred Clark, chairman of the higher education board, will meet with Joseph and Jonathan Bower, chairman of the college's board of trustees, this month to discuss the discord, including the crisis over the nursing program.
Joseph, 58, the first Haitian to head a US college, was brought in with a mandate to lift the school out of mediocrity. But after a quiet first year, she incurred wrath for spending $90,000 in university funds for a weeklong inauguration May 2006.
Joseph has since instituted changes that overhauled the school's leadership and focus. She has reduced the number of administrators, using the savings to hire more full-time faculty members. She has created guidelines and a reporting system that holds teachers and administrators responsible for making progress. She has consolidated academic divisions so that deans work closer with professors, and hired more academic advisers and learning specialists to help struggling students.
"I'm putting things in place that directly impact student outcomes," she said. "If people don't understand that, I don't understand their agenda."
Supporters praise her as a blunt, uncompromising leader willing to bruise some egos for the good of the college and determined to fight the status quo. But detractors said Joseph's reorganization has left the campus bitter and unsettled.
Joseph said the faculty leaders who oppose her make up a distinct minority and their resistance is personal.
"The group that is in power now, they all have an ax to grind," she said. "The union is not the administration. They want to run the college, and that's not their job."
But critics say the opposition to Joseph is not limited to union leaders.
"It's broader than that," said Bonnie Stevenson, an anatomy and physiology professor. "The president may think everyone's out to get her, but I think everyone's concerned about the integrity of the school and how things are being managed."
Many instructors say Joseph's changes have been unnecessary and at times counterproductive. They fault her for micromanaging the college and dismissing faculty ideas and concerns.
"I feel there is an almost sad atmosphere on campus," said Patricia McCauley, an adjunct nursing professor. "I feel like the current administration doesn't value the faculty's experience and expertise."
Jonathan Bower, chairman of the MassBay board of trustees, said the trustees are firmly behind Joseph, giving her high marks for creating a fund-raising operation in preparation for a capital campaign, and strengthening ties with area businesses.
"When she arrived, the board felt that major change was warranted," Bower said. "She's done that, and she has our strong support."
Current and former colleagues said Joseph has exacting standards and is not swayed by resistance to ideas she believes are right.
"She's a mover and shaker," said Fatiha Makloufi, a former colleague of Joseph's at Hostos Community College at the City University of New York. "She has very high standards, and sometimes that can be a challenge for people."
Joseph, who emigrated to the United States from Haiti as a young girl with her family, has had a successful career as a sociolinguist and administrator, primarily in the City University of New York system, where she developed bilingual education programs for Haitian immigrant students in New York City public schools.
The controversy on campus does not appear to have trickled down to students, many of whom are unaware of the dispute. Last week, Joseph met with two student government leaders to discuss plans for the fall semester. She listened as students described ideas for a recycling program, several new clubs, and some of students' back-to-class complaints.
Kandis Hill, a 27-year-old sophomore from Dorchester, complained about a shuttle bus that had been leaving ahead of schedule.
"Really? Hmm. That's the first I'm hearing of it," Joseph said. "You should report that to Michael Pierce," the college's director of administrative services. "Kandis, talk to my assistant, and she'll give you Michael's extension. I'll send him an e-mail, as well. The quicker we solve this the better."
After the meeting, Hill said Joseph's quick response and attention to detail were typical of her dealings with students. She said the faculty members who oppose her do not realize that. "They are putting their interests above the interests of the students," she said.
Joseph said she has gone out of her way to be conciliatory to faculty and union leaders, but won't abandon her straight-talking approach.
"I am 'to the point,' I am no-nonsense. I'll take those adjectives," she said after meeting with the students.
But Michelle Cook, a nursing instructor who was on the search committee that recommended Joseph, said many faculty members now feel they made a mistake.
"We were a college that needed to go to the next level, and I don't think we could have asked for someone better on paper," she said. "But it hasn't worked out that way."