Lack of Leadership

“Good leaders pass the credit and take the blame”

—Tobias Fredburg, The Harvard Business Review

A week ago Friday (October 25), the Palomar College campus received an email from President Blake, in which she seemed to be responding to the faculty vote of no confidence and this blog post by making various claims about the situation at the school. Like her “Tuesdays at 10” emails, she intended to convince readers that she is steering the Palomar ship on a wise and true course, but based on the many conversations around campus about her communique, it's pretty clear that it did not hit its mark.

One reason it failed to persuade is that Dr. Blake’s language so thoroughly inverts what Tobias Fredberg and anyone else who has studied leadership know, as noted at the top of this post. Consider, for example, all of the “credit-taking” Dr. Blake engages in:

  • "The changes led by me and my team of administrators…” (This conveniently ignores the fact that four vice presidents—all very well-respected, all representing diverse communities—have left under her watch. Click here for a post that provides some insight into the “locker room culture” she has created for her “team.”

  • “I introduced the College to the Institutional Effectiveness Partnership Initiative”

  • “…the foundational K-12 partnerships set early on in my presidency”

  • “I led a proactive approach to minimizing the impact of SCFF”

  • “It is my pleasure to have also contributed to the increasing success of the Palomar College Foundation”

This self-promotion is pervasive and certainly not benign; it drives day-to-day actions and decision making. Some examples: rushing through vanity projects with high self-promotion potential and even higher financial, diverting Prop M money away from planned projects to fund an expensive presidential suite, and spending public funds in self-serving ways where the value to students is dubious at best and nonexistent at worst (see HERE and HERE).

As for "taking the blame," it is clear that this is not something that interests Dr. Blake. Instead, in order to maintain an elevated image of success, her language obfuscates all information that might lead to negative conclusions. For instance, throughout her email, Dr. Blake makes references to the college's “fiscal crisis,” but she conveniently ignores its primary source. In this case, the truth often lies in what’s not said. What follows is a selection of quotes from Dr. Blake’s October 25th email with the annotations necessary to get a more complete picture of what’s happening.

“The opening of the Rancho Bernardo and Fallbrook Education Centers and our intentional focus on increasing our Distance Education offerings as well as our partnerships within the District’s service area have all contributed to the increase in enrollment.”

Yes, these have all increased enrollment, but that is not nearly the whole story, especially regarding the Rancho Bernardo and Fallbrook Centers. In one of her first actions as president, she decided to open both new centers at the same time, reversing previous plans to stagger the openings by three years in order to allow one center to become established and self-sufficient prior to engaging in further expansion. The blog post “A Careless and Costly Decision” provides information on how this came about and the impact it had on remaining Prop M dollars.

What is never addressed in her email are the high operating costs at those centers and how those costs are contributing to our "current fiscal situation." This financial drain is represented in the following graph:

The building and renovation of these centers was funded by Prop M, but that money covered only construction costs, not operational costs. Instead, the college’s general fund incurred additional expenses in the form of utilities, security, insurance, and staffing—all of which were compounded by the injudicious opening of both centers at once.

While Dr. Blake touts increased enrollment, she fails to mention that those numbers are not covering the operating expenses that her plan caused in the first place (and continues to cause).

Regarding the enrollment, Dr. Blake writes in her email:

“Our enrollment is up 3.5% compared to the previous fall semester, which had also increased over fall 2017. I can confidently state that, with the changes we implemented, our enrollment trends fit nicely into a comprehensive fiscal stewardship plan…”

Again, we’re not given the whole story, as her statement is a little too selective. What she doesn't mention is that there was a 5.8% decrease in funded FTES between spring semesters. More importantly, the overall decline in FTES from the previous year was 2.3%.

This decline in enrollment for Fiscal Year 2018-19 was significant as the district expected that the expansion would generate a 7% growth in enrollment for that period. The Financial Recovery Plan warned of fiscal risk if the district’s enrollment growth did not reach the 7% target. A year and a half later, we are still nowhere near that number, and the two centers continue to generate substantial operating costs.

Nowhere in her email is there any reflection about her decisions and how they were made, no consideration that these decisions had unintended consequences, no “taking of the blame” in even the slightest way—something that good leaders do regularly because they understand that acknowledging mistakes puts them in a position to learn from them.

What we do get in Dr. Blake's email is a fair amount of "credit-taking," but these places—which sound good in a superficial reading—are rather vague, especially in terms of what they mean for the financial health of the college:

“While this funding formula is contributing to our fiscal health and current deficit spending, it is extremely important to realize how our successful K-12 partnerships and redesigned Promise Program initiated two years ago impact our current fiscal situation.”

How, exactly, do these "partnerships" and redesign impact our “current fiscal situation”? What are the dollar amounts that they are bringing in, and have they offset the runaway costs of opening the two centers simultaneously?

Symptomatic of the vagueness is this word "partnerships"—a word that Dr. Blake bandies about freely. Her repetition of it without clarification insists that we simply accept it as a good thing. In a partnership, two sides promise to give something and to receive something, but Dr. Blake never makes clear our obligations and potential rewards in any of the several partnerships she mentions. Are we committing human resources? Who and for how long? Financial resources? How much and for how long? What are our returns? Are they short- or long-term? Have there been thorough cost analyses done on these partnerships? What, exactly, are our partners expecting, and can we deliver? Are these partners being given an honest picture of our college or are they getting an all-is-well glossy PR version? Addressing these and other obvious questions instead of remaining vague would go a long way toward supporting her claim that she is an effective and responsible leader with true vision.

The murkiness continues:

“Our dually enrolled students and those coming immediately out of high school are funded at a higher amount than our traditional students”

Again, a true statement that nevertheless fails to tell the whole story. What is that “higher amount” and how many students are we talking about? Higher amounts per student is not a financial gain if the overall number of these students is low. And what are the costs associated with these programs? Do the fiscal gains—if they are, in fact, gains—offset the runaway costs of opening the two centers simultaneously? By neglecting to provide this important data, Dr. Blake’s “argument” that her initiatives are helping us is woefully incomplete and should give us all pause.

“Just imagine if we as a College had not already opened our new Education Centers…”

Many people are imagining this, but not in the way that Dr. Blake intends. Had we stuck to the original plan to initially open just one center, let it get established, and then open the other one, our operating expenses would be much lower than they are now, to the point where they are not outpacing the revenue they generate.

“…developed partnerships with K-12 districts throughout the region to ensure the launch of middle colleges at each of our locations”

“Partnerships,” again, but the main point here is that the "middle college" project was never discussed through the shared governance process and its fiscal costs and value have yet to be outlined and analyzed.

Finally, there is Dr. Blake's oft-repeated mantra that she represents “transformational change”:

“Suffice it to say that transformational change can be disruptive and perceived as the impetus for an unstable environment.”

The fact of the matter is that transformational change is the impetus for an unstable environment when it’s recklessly implemented. There is no "perception" here; as we can see from our “current fiscal crisis,” the mass exodus of qualified top administrators, the recalcitrance of her Board majority in the face of numerous voiced concerns, and the overwhelming vote of “No Confidence” by full-time faculty, the environment is clearly unstable.

At this point in time, Palomar College needs a leader who provides honest assessments of the school and also of herself, and not simply a selective reality that seems largely defensive and designed for self-promotion. Palomar College needs a leader worthy of its great educational tradition. Palomar College needs a leader who can share the credit and take at least some of the blame.

I want to end here by giving credit where credit is due. I was very pleased to read Dr. Blake’s words near the end of her email: “I recognize that we live in a nation where freedom of expression is guaranteed to us through the U.S. Constitution. I believe the recent activities on our campus reflect this fact.” Given the timing and tone of her email, one can only assume that she is referring to the faculty vote of no confidence and the rhetoric surrounding it—including this blog—and I would like to publicly thank her for acknowledging that what we write here is protected by the First Amendment.

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