By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
A $4,051 hotel bill in Delhi. A $780 tab for limousine service in Boston. And a growing tally of missed meetings and unexplained absences at home. Critics of Brian Keith Johnson -- and they are many -- say the Montgomery College president has spent the past two years running up outsize expenses while neglecting important job responsibilities.
Faculty leaders have compiled a dossier on Johnson's activities, building a case that the president of Maryland's largest community college, with 60,000 students, should be investigated and placed on administrative leave. The 10-member board of trustees meets Thursday to consider his future. Any action taken by the board requires a majority vote of the members present for ratification. More than 200 faculty members voted for a no-confidence resolution on Johnson at a meeting last week.
"It's a mess," said Rose Sachs, president of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. "And I think we're all feeling it."
Johnson, 52, has made little public comment on the controversy. He told colleagues in a statement Friday, "I remain focused on our students and ensuring that they receive the high-quality education and services that they expect and deserve." He said he would answer his accusers "in an appropriate manner in the near future." Johnson said, through a college spokesman, that he is not commenting on the allegations on advice of counsel.
The potential implosion of a presidency is an unfamiliar scenario at Montgomery College, one of the oldest and most esteemed two-year colleges in the mid-Atlantic. Johnson is the seventh chief executive since its founding in 1946.
The timing could not be worse: Classes started Monday. Johnson spent the day visiting the campuses and greeting students, most of whom know little of campus politics.
Rockville political circles have buzzed for weeks over rising faculty discontent toward Johnson. Some professors pushed for a no-confidence vote last spring. Instead, faculty leaders prepared an investigative report and delivered it to trustees in mid-summer.
The report alleges that Johnson's "frequent and noted absences at essential meetings and functions have diminished the visibility and jeopardized the reputation of Montgomery College." The president leaves his office for days at a time without explanation, the report says, and has not deputized anyone to sign documents in his stead, leaving college administrators "unable to carry out the daily and necessary activities and business of the institution."
As the college has frozen long-distance travel and scaled back on refreshments served at faculty, staff and student events, Johnson has spent thousands on hired cars and fine dining and thousands more on hotels and airplane flights. Expense records obtained by faculty through a public records request and shared with The Washington Post show Johnson charged $58,165 on his corporate credit card between July 2007 and April, including several hundred dollars on floral arrangements and $302 in a single charge to a Borders bookstore. The reports do not contain details beyond what is listed on a credit card statement.
Faculty members allege that Johnson has directed administrators not to talk to college trustees and that information is "routinely censored." Several employees say they believe that listening devices have been planted in offices and meeting rooms, according to the report.
A banner hung near campus late last week drew attention to another potential embarrassment: a bench warrant issued last year against Johnson by an Arizona court for $12,000 in unpaid child support to a former spouse. Johnson has since paid the sum.
Hours before the vote of no-confidence Thursday night, Johnson was leading reporters on a tour of the school's new performing arts center in Silver Spring, where Aretha Franklin is booked Sept. 11. That event, too, has come under fire, for its estimated $146,000 cost. Tickets are $75.
Johnson portrayed a college "on a very good trajectory," with record enrollment, a growing honors program and a proven pipeline to four-year colleges.
Even now, Johnson has passionate supporters. Sue Payne, a parent, said Johnson wept when she told him that her daughter Lauren had been accepted into a study-abroad program at Cambridge. Lauren Payne, 23, graduated from Montgomery College in 2007 and completed a bachelor's degree this spring at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
"My sense of him was that he was very student-centered and very approachable," Lauren Payne said. "I saw him eating meals with the students."
Johnson, 52, came to the college in February 2007 from the Community College of Allegheny County, Pa., where he was chief executive of the Allegheny campus. He replaced Charlene R. Nunley, who retired after eight successful years.
Raised in Jersey City, the seventh of 10 children, Johnson transferred at 15 from a low-performing high school into a Dartmouth-sponsored program called A Better Chance. He spent 17 years in a variety of management jobs at Mesa Community College in Arizona, followed by three years in Pittsburgh. College officials there credited Johnson with creating programs to raise achievement. Detractors point to a 2006 audit, reported in Pittsburgh newspapers, that showed Johnson had used $3,500 in relocation expenses for home appliances.
The faculty report also cites a pattern of demeaning language, "threats of retaliation, and explosive, targeted rage." One chief of staff resigned, then another.
Johnson is on his fourth executive assistant.
The changes have left the college "destabilized and without a viable structure of leadership," the report says. The direction of the institution "changes frequently, randomly, without explanation," it states.
Johnson failed to attend at least a dozen meetings with state and county representatives, including such politically potent events as a March news conference for the county operating budget, according to the faculty report. He told trustees that he had met with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) at a June 3 meeting of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges; in fact, neither he nor Mikulski had attended it, according to the report.
The swift and steep deterioration of leadership portrayed by the faculty has thrown college trustees on the defensive: They are charged with presidential oversight. Last spring, trustees gave Johnson a positive evaluation and were poised to increase his $220,000 salary. But "everything is on hold," said Michael C. Lin, chairman of the board.
Lin said allegations about Johnson's behavior had reached trustees early on, but the information was mostly secondhand and scattershot. "Initially, it was only one piece here and another piece there," he said. "Certainly not credible information that we could act on."
Now, trustees are weighing several possible actions, including the course suggested by faculty, or a potential settlement agreement that would essentially pay Johnson to leave, according to a trustee who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.
"Senior management is not, I would say, divided," the trustee said. "At the upper levels, I'm only aware of one supportive individual. That's how rough the waters are."