Students at embattled county college ‘live in an earthly hell,’ clergymen say

NEWARK — Clergy leaders on Thursday denounced what they called a culture of political interference permeating Essex County College, as well as threatening its accreditation and ability to stay open.

“The social conditions at this college are causing students and faculty to live in an earthly hell,” the Rev. Ronald L. Slaughter, pastor at Saint James AME Church in Newark, said at a press conference. “It’s ridiculous that we are trying to get over the low hurdle of keeping accreditation.”

The outcry comes a day before the school must show its accrediting agency how far it’s come since a series of high-profile firings and financial probes rocked the college over the past year.

Faith leaders from across the county said administrators and college trustees put in place by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr., were standing in the way of reforms pushed by college President Anthony Munroe, who was unanimously appointed by the board in May.

At the press conference and at a Board of Trustees meeting afterward, the clergymen demanded the resignations of the entire board and of Joyce Wilson Harley, the college’s vice president of administration and finance. They also called upon the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the institution’s finances.

“Many of you have to go,” Bishop Jethro James, Jr., of Paradise Baptist Church in Newark, told the board. “Your alliance and allegiance is not to this community. It is not to the people that we serve, but it is to a political boss.”

DiVincenzo said in a statement that he believes in the board of trustees and in Munroe, whom he said he has met with to talk about resources the college needs. 

“Although I nominate members to the board of trustees, I have never interfered with college business. … This is a landmark institution that has nurtured the American Dream for generations of students,” DiVincenzo said. “It cannot and will not fail.” 

Fighting for accreditation

The board unanimously adopted a monitoring report due Friday to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits area colleges. The commission will then send investigators to the college to verify what’s in the report.

The school, which serves about 15,000 mostly black and Latino students, has to prove it is meeting three accreditation standards: institutional resources, leadership and governance, and student admission and retention.

Colleges rarely lose accreditation, which comes with the loss of federal student aid. Essex County College students received more than 8,000 federal Pell grants for low-income students in the 2014-15 school year. If the students lose federal aid, the school likely would have to shut its doors. 

Trustee Safanya Searcy at the meeting stressed Middle States had put the college on warning, and not on probation. 

“When an institution is placed on warning, a commission typically does so because they believe that while we may not necessarily be in compliance, there is, in fact, some sort of evidence that shows we can, indeed, become compliant,” she said. 

Lack of a CFO

Board members also raised concerns about the college’s lack of a chief financial officer, after Munroe’s pick for the position, John Parker, was rejected in a 5-4 vote earlier this month. 

Bibi Taylor, the board’s president, has said some trustees were concerned about Parker’s experience and credentials. She said Thursday the board had an obligation to promote from within and to choose an Essex County resident if there were a qualified candidate. 

Thomas McDermott, an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie, said he expects someone to fill the CFO position in either a temporary or a permanent capacity before Middle States investigators arrive on campus in October. 

“I think Dr. Munroe … is moving along very quickly,” McDermott said. “The recommendation, I’m hoping, will come forward in our September meeting so we get this behind us and move forward and get us on a financial road that’s successful.” 

Wilson Harley, who previously raised concerns about Munroe’s hiring practices, took the microphone from the audience to say she had interviewed Parker and found him unworthy of the job.

“I gave very clear and very pungent reasons why that person was not fit to serve here at ECC,” Harley said. “The search has been open again. … I look forward to seeing the candidates that come forth now.”

Harley had alleged Munroe changed the job description for CFO to drop a requirement that he be a certified public accountant and to make it so he would report directly to Munroe, instead of to her, in opposition to the language in the board-approved job description.

Munroe closed the meeting by reading a statement saying he did not come to Newark from Chicago, where his wife and two children still live, to let Essex County College fail. He acknowledged the school faces serious challenges and said he was working on long-term solutions.

“You hired me to do a job,” Munroe said. “Allow me to do my job.” 

The next board of trustees meeting is scheduled for Sept. 19. 

Staff reporter Karen Yi contributed to this report. 

Marisa Iati may be reached at miati@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Iati or on Facebook here. Find NJ.com on Facebook

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