Montgomery College Chief Faces Delicate Balancing Act

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2009

Even before the financial meltdown, Maryland's largest community college was turning away thousands of students each year because there were too few seats in classrooms and too few dollars for financial aid. Now, Montgomery College President Brian K. Johnson is grappling with record demand for classes just as support is shrinking from cash-strapped state and local governments.

Enrollment in the past decade has risen 20 percent on Montgomery's three campuses to an all-time high, following a similar trend at community colleges nationwide. About 60,000 students are in classes for credit and continuing education.

Tuition is less than half the cost of Maryland's four-year public universities, and in this economy, Johnson said, "families are forced to find the best financial deal -- and we're it."

Johnson, 52, took over from popular President Charlene R. Nunley early in 2007 after two decades at community colleges in Arizona and Pennsylvania. He scored early successes in fundraising and campus construction projects and has won praise for his relationships with students and faculty, forged with jelly beans and pickup basketball games.

"In good times, administrators can throw money at things. But in these times, showing up, sitting and talking to students shows a real commitment," said faculty union president Rose Sachs, who has worked at the college for 25 years and participates in Johnson's informal monthly chats with school leaders. "We haven't had a president who has been able to connect publicly in quite the same way."

But off campus, Johnson has at times had a rocky adjustment to Montgomery's sometimes prickly political culture. Critics say he initially mishandled a union organizing drive by part-time faculty members and unwittingly helped stoke a rivalry between Montgomery's two nonprofit hospital giants.

"I've very much encouraged him to pick up the phone and call people," said County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty). "More communication in this county is never going to be a bad thing."

A former high school basketball forward, Johnson is a towering presence at 6 feet 4 inches, with a commanding voice to match. He is working to defend the school's twin principles of affordability and accessibility while responding to calls for budget trims from state and local officials.

Johnson helped secure $30 million from the state to break ground this month on a science center in Rockville, and he said the stage is set to land additional funding for a biosciences center on the Germantown campus. When asked whether he worries that Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) could pull back some of the money to cope with what legislative analysts estimate is a $1.9 billion shortfall, Johnson joked: "They can't take it back. Do you see how big I am?"

In his annual report last year, Johnson pledged to embark on a "communications offensive." But his efforts have received mixed reviews. On campus, Sachs, alumni association president Tookie Gentilcore and board of trustees Chairwoman Roberta F. Shulman credit Johnson for being inclusive and collaborative.

Even so, Johnson faced pushback from elected officials after the college issued a memo in the spring that was widely viewed as a move to discourage part-time faculty from forming a union. He quickly clarified in a second memo that the college was "not anti-union" and would not take a formal position on the effort, which was ultimately successful.

"You come into a new culture, you're brand-new and unfortunately mistakes happen," Shulman said. "It was rectified, and we've moved on."

But Johnson's handling in August of plans for a new Holy Cross Hospital on the site of the college's future science and technology park in Germantown also ruffled some feathers. Johnson alerted board members and called the president of rival Adventist HealthCare on the morning the proposal would be made public.

That was not soon enough for some board members or for Adventist, which has called for more public scrutiny and regulatory oversight of the plan. Thomas Grant, a spokesman for Adventist, said an "open and transparent process would have been more in the public's interest than cutting a backroom deal with only one provider."

Johnson called the hospital deal a "very delicate situation." The college had authorized its foundation board, which is separate from its board of trustees, to work with the project's developer to find a tenant for the planned park. The partnership with the hospital, he said, will bring new opportunities for students and additional classrooms.

"I don't define effective communication as consensus. I'm going to do what's in the best interest of the college," he said. "You're going to have individuals whose interests aren't aligned with ours, and they are going to raise questions."

He said trustees showed their support for moving forward with the plan last month, voting to allow the developer to enter into a lease with Holy Cross.

Trustee Georgette "Gigi" Godwin, who is president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and abstained from voting on the hospital plan, said Johnson is "working very hard to get his footing in a community that is complicated. It's a steep learning curve for anybody."

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