Problems and high expectations greeted new community college leader

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A new report commissioned by the Tennessee Board of Regents is critical of how Nashville State Community College is administered.
Adam Tamburin / The Tennessean

Flora Tydings is no stranger to controversy. It brought her to Tennessee in the first place.

She came to Chattanooga State Community College in 2015 to provide leadership and integrity after her predecessor, Jim Catanzaro, left the campus swept by scandal. He had resigned following months of criticism for hiring a woman he met in Barbados to serve as a top deputy even though she did not have a college degree.

Tydings’ task from day one was to soothe a weary faculty and reestablish administrative stability. Two years later, she is in a similar position — this time as the chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the state’s largest college system, which oversees community and technical colleges.

Rifts between presidents and faculty at community colleges in Nashville and in East Tennessee have put a spotlight on problems at each campus. Some worry continued in-fighting could distract from the state’s push to support students and build a more educated workforce.

But in interviews this month, several state officials said Tydings’ depth of experience, including her time repairing damage Chattanooga State, make her uniquely suited for this moment.

“Walking into an academic situation is not the easiest thing in the world to do when it’s been contentious, and Flora did that,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee. “She not only smoothed the waters, but she really had Chattanooga State functioning in a really productive way.”

Haslam and others said Tydings’ leadership style in Chattanooga blended a sunny personality with steely backbone. They predicted that mix would be useful as she navigates the sharp corners ahead.

In May an internal report on the working environment at Nashville State Community College exposed a “climate of fear and oppressiveness” among faculty, who said that administrators used “hostility, intimidation, and retaliation” to keep them in line.

Nashville State President George Van Allen said a “vocal minority” had protested extended office hours and other changes he pushed to boost student success.

And while the Board of Regents defended the changes as in line with broader student success goals, system leaders said communication between his administration and professors was lacking.

Related: New report slams Nashville State for ‘climate of fear and oppressiveness’

The report spurred ongoing work to strengthen bonds and clarify policies on campus, in collaboration with the system office.

In an interview earlier this week, Tydings said she was comfortable in the role of mediator, listening to both sides and charting a path forward. 

“That has been a part of my career for several years, going into situations where there might have been a little bit of an upheaval or people that have had some difficult times, and just helping people communicate,” she said. “Obviously there was a little bit lacking there. And that’s what we’re hoping to work with to help them understand how better to communicate.”

Tydings also needs to replace the embattled president of Northeast State Community College in Blountville. 

President Janice Gilliam submitted her resignation late Thursday, months after the Faculty Senate had logged a vote of no confidence in her, citing financial mismanagement among other issues. 

A team of top-level system administrators went to East Tennessee to review the situation and recommend changes — that investigation is ongoing.

Alisa White, president of Austin Peay State University, was part of the panel that interviewed Tydings for the chancellor job. She said Tydings’ past experience as a college president prepared her to handle internal disputes.

“I believe that she’s got the skills that she needs coming in to look at those situations, listen to all sides, get input and then help these institutions and these leaders move forward,” White said. “I don’t have any reservations about that. It’s just unfortunate that those would come up so soon.”

State programs add work for the college system

Tydings is also juggling the work of the system, which must continue to graduate higher numbers of students in order to meet the governor’s goal to get 55 percent of Tennesseans a college education by 2025.

The pressure of that goal is especially acute at Tennessee’s community and technical colleges, where most of the state’s efforts have been focused.

Haslam’s signature higher education program, Tennessee Promise, has sent more than 33,000 high school graduates into community and technical colleges tuition-free since 2015.

The recent passage of Tennessee Reconnect, which will open tuition-free community college to more than 2 million eligible adults next year, is sure to come with its own challenges.

Tydings and her senior leadership team are reviewing potential changes to course schedules and workflow to accommodate the unique needs of an older student population.

The stakes are high. Haslam has said without more college-educated workers, Tennessee could struggle to attract employers and support a growing economy.

But the governor said his confidence in Tydings is strong, bolstered by her experience in Chattanooga and as a college president in Georgia.

“You tend to meet Flora and you get taken by her Southern accent and Georgia background,” he said. “It’d be easy to pigeonhole her and think, ‘I bet she’s this way.’ But she is tough and she’s smart and she’s very results-driven.

“I came away really impressed with Dr. Tydings, and I’ve continued to grow more impressed with her.”

Tom Griscom, a Board of Regents member who participated in the searches that placed Tydings at Chattanooga State and then bumped her up to the system office, said many challenges Tydings faces have been typical of “a system that was in transition.”

The Board of Regents is certainly in the midst of the most significant transformation in its 45-year history. Last year, Haslam pushed to revamp the system by removing six regional universities, including Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis.

Tydings is revamping the system office to match the change. The offices of community colleges and technical colleges are being eliminated, while new offices are being formed to focus on student success and economic development.

“Change is not easy, and we’re going through a significant change,” Griscom said. “Now it feels like it’s being road tested.”

‘Efforts being made’ to ease campus tensions

The Board of Regents system office remains actively involved in efforts to calm conflict at Nashville State and Northeast State.

In Nashville, system officials are serving as mediators, clarifying policies and working to bridge the divide between administrators and the faculty.

Included in that work, Tydings said, would be “taking the right steps to improve,” particularly as it applies to communication between the two groups.

“Right now we are seeing efforts being made on both parts and that’s all we can ask for at the moment,” she said. “We are progressing along the road.”

In a statement, Van Allen, the Nashville State president, reiterated that the changes that had bothered professors had improved students’ experiences. But he added that working with the system office had been beneficial.

“Working with the new administration has been productive and satisfying,” Van Allen said. “Our overarching goal is the success of our students which is more assured in a collegial environment that is dedicated to student achievement.”

Gilliam, the outgoing Northeast State president, declined to comment for this article. In her resignation letter to Tydings, she said retiring on June 30 “seems to be in the best interest for the college in moving forward.”

Tydings indicated neither matter had been resolved, but she did not specify what the next steps would be.

“We are continuing to work with everyone toward the benefit of all concerned,” she said.

She seemed unfazed by the ongoing conflict management, framing it less as an anomaly and more as a hallmark of a job that requires constant multitasking.

“There will always be opportunities and challenges no matter what they are,” Tydings said. “Juggling many thoughts is what this job is all about.”

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and [email protected] or on Twitter @tamburintweets.

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