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'Calming Spirit' Steps In As College's Interim Chief
In Montgomery, Hope for a 'Good Change'

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Montgomery College community awoke Friday with a new president, who spent part of the day walking around the administration building to provide "tangible evidence" to beleaguered administrators that the school had indeed entered a new era.

Trustees voted late Thursday to remove Brian K. Johnson, who had served as president of Maryland's largest community college since February 2007, placing Johnson on paid leave and declining to renew his contract. Until the end of June, Johnson, 52, will effectively be paid to stay home. He will continue to draw his $233,210 annual salary.

Hercules Pinkney, who recently retired as vice president and provost of the school's Germantown campus, returned to work Friday as interim president. Pinkney, 64, immediately called together leaders of faculty, staff and the board of trustees to open his tenure on a gesture of collaboration. And he made the rounds of the college headquarters in Rockville, seeking out some of the employees who, according to faculty leaders, had endured a climate of intimidation and depleted morale for more than two years.

"What I have done in the few hours I've been here is try to walk around, let them see me, so they have tangible evidence that there is change," Pinkney said. "The smiles on their faces, the lighting up of their eyes, said to me we're in for a good change.

"One staff member told me that she walked up a flight of stairs without her ankles aching her for the first time in months. And I said, 'You're attributing a whole lot to me.' "

Students returned to classes thinking about such mundanities as homework and parking, largely unaware that trustees had installed a new president overnight.

Chris Krawiec, 24, a sophomore, said he knew of the recent tumult on campus only because a professor had made a passing reference in class.

"Any upheaval that's going on among the faculty is relatively isolated to them," he said. Krawiec said he had never seen Johnson on campus but added, "I probably wouldn't recognize him if I did."

Trustees ousted Johnson one week after faculty approved a vote of no confidence in their president, citing a pattern of absence, erratic leadership, overspending and intimidation. Johnson said he was the victim of a "vicious attack on my credibility" by faculty seeking leverage in upcoming contract negotiations. He has declined to comment on the board action, on the advice of attorneys.

"Obviously, it's Day One, Minute One," said Rose Sachs, president of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. She said the invitation to Pinkney's office symbolized a new era of "reaching out to more transparency, to more collaboration."

Faculty leaders assembled an investigative report on Johnson's activities over the spring and summer after some professors called for an immediate no-confidence vote at a spring meeting. Trustees credited the report as a factor in their decision, but board Chairman Michael C. Lin said the group acted upon "the totality of all the input we received over the last year or so" on the president's leadership.

Now begins the work of shoring up the reputation of one of the nation's most respected community colleges. The school has a record fall enrollment of more than 60,000 students in for-credit classes and continuing education. Many of them had no idea of the sea change playing out in the top reaches of the institution.

"Our commitment to our students never wavered," said Brad Stewart, vice president and provost of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus. "We never took our eye off the ball."

But Stewart lamented the departure of several top executives in recent months amid the tumult of Johnson's leadership: "You have to wonder a little bit what might have been, in terms of the contributions those people might have made."

Robert Cephas had worked at Montgomery College for 32 years when he retired in January 2008 as Johnson's chief of staff. He said he left the college for his own reasons but was fully aware of the morale problem plaguing the administration building. "There's a lot of hurting over there," he said.

Cephas praised Pinkney's "calming spirit" and predicted the college would have little trouble regaining lost stature. "I know in my heart of hearts that they will do everything in their power to bring the college back to where it was," he said.

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