Unflinching review needed at Conn College
Recent events and allegations have seriously eroded confidence in Connecticut College leadership. If the Board of Trustees undertakes a public relations campaign to repair the damage, rather than a serious evaluation of the situation, it will only invite more distrust.
The liberal arts college faces a twofold problem.
The first involves the decision, later revoked, to reach into the deep pockets of the members of the secretive Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Fla., via a fundraising event. Rodmon King, dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, objected, pointing to the organization’s history of discrimination against Blacks and Jews. King resigned, claiming college President Katherine Bergeron had asked for his input to defend the fundraising plans.
As serious —and potentially more so — are King’s claims, contained in a letter sent to the trustees, that Bergeron’s “bullying” leadership style has created a “toxic administrative culture of fear and intimidation.”
“People seek to avoid triggering Katherine’s anger and this affects their ability to do their jobs,” wrote King.
In his letter to the trustees, King claims “Senior Administrators are afraid to speak honestly,” resulting in an environment in which the college president is told what she wants to hear, rather than the frank opinions or assessments that she may need to hear.
These two issues are related. A plan to promote diversity and inclusion at the college is only as good as the ability of top administrators, and others, to frankly assess those efforts and offer criticism when leadership is falling short of the plan’s ideals.
And if there is indeed a “culture of fear and intimidation,” there are broader implications. Are senior administrators free to challenge budgetary projections and priorities without fear of retaliation? Can they offer critical assessment of the college’s educational goals?
We don’t know the answers. Neither can the trustees. But King’s allegations are serious and come from a credible source. They deserve a serious evaluation.
As to the matter of the ill-conceived fundraiser, both Bergeron and the trustees have acknowledged it as a mistake. A letter to the Connecticut College community from Board Chair Debo Adegbile suggests the trustees were equally culpable with Bergeron for ever having pursued it. The same letter envisions the trustees working with Bergeron to fix things.
“The Board, President Bergeron, and the senior administration will listen to, learn from, and — most importantly — take action to ensure that we better and more sustainably accomplish the goals that we set for ourselves in our Equity and Inclusion Action Plan,” states Adegbile’s letter.
The letter ignores the calls coming from the student body for Bergeron to resign. It was written before a vast majority of the faculty signed a letter calling for the president to be replaced.
The letter promises forums for students and faculty to present their views and to “provide our Equity and Inclusion Action Plan with significant additional resources.”
The trustees pledge to “fund an immediate, independent, expert review of our DEI commitments across the College and community.”
While welcome, this is not enough. Any independent review must also include an assessment of King’s claims of a “toxic administrative culture.” If the “expert review” does not take a hard, critical look at Bergeron’s administration, the college risks having any new reports, promises or proposals viewed as simply papering over the real problem.
There has been much to admire in Bergeron’s leadership of New London’s college on the hill. She led the college through the pandemic. During her tenure, Connecticut College has tightened its ties to the community, including the first dorm rooms in downtown New London. And it was under her leadership that the college increasingly prioritized diversity, equity and inclusion.
But if her leadership style is — as King alleges — silencing criticism, the college has a serious problem. A fair, objective, candid evaluation of the situation — wherever it may lead — is a necessary step in restoring the confidence of faculty, students and alumni.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.