Freedom of Speech Frayed at Florida College
In what appears to be retaliation for speaking out, five Edward Waters College administrators are abruptly terminated BY PEARL STEWART
Jonathan Glenn, a college freshman with a 3.7 GPA, wrote an article for his journalism class last April complaining about the lack of campus security. Within hours of submitting the article to his professor, Glenn was robbed and shot to death in front of the honors dorm. After his death, the professor e-mailed his article to the campus community. The message reached only a few recipients before it was blocked, then deleted from the server. Internet access was shut down for several hours. A few weeks later, on the same campus, another student, failing several classes, was allowed to graduate — after admitting she had removed the failing grades from her transcript. This might seem to be the plot of a TV pilot, the collegiate version of “Boston Public”— but it’s an actual account of occurrences last spring at Edward Waters College (EWC) in Jacksonville, Fla. Adding to the drama, five administrators were abruptly and theatrically terminated, with certified letters delivered to their homes and locks changed on their office doors during the night. One of them was even escorted off campus by a security guard in front of students in a summer youth workshop. The series of events stunned the 1,200-student campus that promotes its intimate, family-style environment and its religious origins as a historically Black college founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.And the dismissals came weeks after the deadline for notifying employees of contract terminations. The five who were fired were Jayme Bradford, chairwoman of the communications department; Dr. Dudley Gill, dean of professional programs and human services; Dr. Juan Gray, dean of students; Dr. Alan Sheppard, vice president of academic affairs; and Dr. Pat Whittingham, chairwoman of the psychology department. Sheppard later was reinstated in a different position — assistant to the president. He would not comment, but Bradford and Gray said he backed the decision to allow the student to graduate.Phyllis Bell-Davis, spokeswoman for the college, said President Jimmy Jenkins would not discuss the firings. The administration’s position was summed up in a statement from general counsel Mike Freed.“In general, as the college does at the end of each school year, it has evaluated its strengths and weaknesses to pursue continued improvement. Inevitably, this involves restructuring and employment decisions. It is unfortunate that one or more of those affected have resorted to airing their personal concerns publicly — presumably to pressure the college to revisit its decisions — rather than through internal college channels.”News of the June firings, which occurred after graduation, circulated to most students through the media. Marchell Robinson, a 2004 communications graduate and Jacksonville resident, has mixed opinions on the firings. “Miss Bradford is a very, very good professor. She was a real asset to Edward Waters College,” Robinson says. “Communications was kind of a dead program before she came. She brought communications to life on our campus.” Robinson says Bradford has numerous connections in the field and often brought well-known journalists and other speakers to the campus.But she bestows similar praise on Jenkins. “He has brought the school a long way — the school has really come up, and it’s looking better around there. He usually makes very good decisions,” Robinson says.Three of those fired have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They contend that the school’s actions, similar to a spate of firings in 1998, are evidence of rigid administrative governance without due process.“The entire environment thrives on fear,” says Gray, who has filed an NLRB complaint. “If you ask questions in that environment, you don’t last long. There is no freedom of speech here.”And Gray, a former pastor from Winston-Salem, N.C., who had just been at the college for 10 months, says he asked a lot of questions. For example, “Why does the college have a 20 percent graduation rate?”In addition to questioning the administration, Gray took the bolder step of putting his complaints in a memo, which found its way to the local news media. Armed with Gray’s letter and the article from the slain student, the press began to probe, and the delicate shell of silence that had protected Edward Waters from outside scrutiny began to crack. Bradford, who was locked out of her office with personal belongings still inside, felt no obligation to remain silent. As a former newspaper reporter accustomed to asking pointed questions, she had tangled with Edward Waters’ top administrators in the past. “In many ways, EWC resembles a slave community with an oppressive mentality,” Bradford says. “Faculty members are afraid to challenge senior administrators — they fear retaliation and possible termination.”As evidence, she points to the fact that each person who spoke out against grade-changing is out of a job. (An adjunct professor who failed the same student in another class also had her contract terminated. She wrote a letter objecting to an “F” she gave the student being changed to an “I.”) For Whittingham, the manner of her dismissal still haunts her. “It was a travesty. I was attending a conference in Daytona when I heard what was happening. When I got back, I was locked out of my office — I was treated like a criminal.” Whittingham says she never thought giving a student a failing grade would get her fired. In this case, an “F” the student had received in Whittingham’s class disappeared from the student’s transcript. It was one of the grades the student later admitted altering.But Whittingham is still reeling from the personal affront. A licensed clinical psychologist, she was teaching five classes and serving as a department chair, and during her four years at Edward Waters, she had consistently received favorable evaluations. Her curriculum for the next semester had been approved. “They sent me a certified letter saying my services were no longer needed — then they withheld my final paycheck, saying they needed a copy of my final exam. I had given them everything they had asked for. It was cruel and mean-spirited. I did not deserve to be treated that way.” Gray also had a role in opposing the grade-changing. He chaired the judiciary committee, which, on Bradford’s request, investigated the matter and recommended a year’s suspension for the student. According to Bradford and Gray, the president did not accept the recommendation, the student was allowed to graduate, and was reportedly applying to grad schools.Although Bradford never named the student involved in the alleged grade-changing incident, the administration’s press release called it “particularly troubling that anyone in higher education would disclose purported information regarding individual students or colleagues.”Bradford taught four mass communications classes and served as department chair. Gray and Bradford have been outspoken about deficiencies at the school. Bradford is concerned that the 100 mass communications students have no student media. “Communication majors do not have a student newspaper, radio or television station to practice their craft,” Bradford says. “I believe that many students graduate without the practical experience to be competitive because of the lack of resources.”Gray raised questions in his memo about the high number of students with failing grades at midterm, calling it an “academic crisis.” He also estimates that as dean of students he saw “75 percent of the students leaving without any credentialing at all. It’s not normal.” He believes his memo set the stage for his dismissal. Gray and Bradford contend grade changes occur “regularly,” but faculty members usually don’t object. “Usually the changes are made without the faculty member’s consent. I just happened to detect the changes on the student’s transcript and because I had been her adviser, I knew the transcript was wrong.”Unlike most colleges, students at Edward Waters are allowed to hand deliver a copy of their transcripts with their applications for graduation, leaving open the possibility of tampering.Dr. Jonathan Knight, director of academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors, says the organization is “concerned” about the terminations, “especially if they were released because the administration was displeased with their comments.” He also notes that they were not given hearings.“Generally, any time faculty members are treated in this fashion, we’re concerned,” Knight says. “It doesn’t matter whether [an institution] is public or private, faculty members should be able to speak their minds on subjects of academics.”
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