The outgoing president of Berkeley’s Vista College is claiming that a black-orchestrated, racial discrimination conspiracy has cost him his job and is threatening a lawsuit against the Peralta Community College District if his contract is not reopened and renewed before the end of the month.
Vista College is a member of the Peralta District.
In a June 1 letter addressed to the district’s Board of Trustees and Chancellor Elihu Harris, Vista President John Garmon, who is white, charged that the five African American members of the seven-member board and Harris, who is also African American, based their decision last month not to renew his contract “on racial grounds and voted as a black majority for race-based reasons.”
The vote, Garmon said, came in retaliation for his dismissal of an African American researcher as part of a budgetary cut and his failed attempt to dismiss “an underperforming and chronically absent” African American dean. Garmon insists the two employees had close relations with Harris and African American members of the board, and conspired to turn the board against him.
“I’m sorry to say it, but that’s the way it appears,” Garmon said in an interview Thursday.
Although he said he couldn’t prove his allegations and that much of his information has come second hand, Garmon said he expects to file a lawsuit against the district for violating his employment rights and civil rights.
Among other complaints, Garmon wrote in his June 1 letter that the board didn’t give him fair consideration when he applied for Chancellor of the Peralta District and that it failed to let him respond to a critical May 7 letter from the Vista Faculty Senate delivered days before the board voted unanimously not to renew his contract as president.
Response to Garmon’s letter has been fast and furious.
“I’m absolutely flabbergasted and shocked,” said Peralta Trustee Darryl Moore, who is African American. “The vote had nothing to do with John’s race and everything to do with his performance.”
Moore said Garmon—as stated in the May 7 faculty letter—had “dropped the ball” on fundraising for Vista’s new downtown Berkeley campus and failed to build ties to the community for Vista’s 30th anniversary celebration.
“John is grasping for straws,” added Joan Berezin, co-president of the Faculty Senate, who along with co-president Joseph Bielanski, wrote the May 7 letter to Chancellor Harris and Board President Lynn Baranco. The letter expressed concerns about Vista’s leadership without mentioning Garmon by name.
The May 7 letter, written without the knowledge of Vista’s classified staff, drove a wedge between the faculty and other staff members. While Berezin said the faculty didn’t want to include the staff because they would be more vulnerable to retaliatory layoffs, some staff members said they felt betrayed.
“[Garmon] was the nicest person we’ve ever had,” said one classified worker who asked not to be identified. “The faculty senate didn’t ask us anything about this. I feel like they ruined this man.”
For Vista, Garmon’s departure when his contract expires at the end of the month means the school will be saddled with an interim president for next year while it conducts a nationwide search for a replacement. Garmon’s eventual successor will be the fourth Vista president in seven years and will bear the burden for completing a $2.5 million fundraising effort to outfit its new campus with furniture and equipment.
Vista has long been considered the stepchild of the Peralta district, which includes Merritt College, Laney College and the College of Alameda. The new campus, scheduled for completion in 2006 was seen as finally placing Vista on equal footing with its sister schools.
Garmon insists his three-year tenure at Vista has been a success and that his downfall began early last year when he was ordered to slash his budget by 10 percent. He says he attempted to reach that budget-cutting goal by recommending the dismissal Dr. Connie Portero, an education researcher, who is African American.
The move touched off a revolt among Garmon’s hand-picked management team, said Michael Mills, president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers. “The opposition countered that [Garmon’s] decision was based on race,” Mills said.
Garmon, who insists he respected the researcher’s work but had to concentrate cuts away from classroom instruction, said his management team had some “heated discussions” over the proposed release.
Chancellor Harris backed Garmon’s decision, but the board overruled him and reassigned Portero to the district’s main office.
Shortly thereafter, the board renewed Garmon’s contract for one year, while giving two-year extensions to his management team. The dispute over the dean soon followed.
Vista staff interviewed described Garmon as a friendly boss, but a subpar administrator.
“A number of people say he was a very nice man, outgoing affable, but not the kind of leader Vista needed at this time,” said Bielanski.
“He’s a nice guy,” said Paula Coil, President of the Classified Employee Senate at Vista. “A lot of staff people did appreciate the human touch he brought to things.”
Miller said the teachers union has received complaints from faculty about the leadership of all of the Peralta school presidents, but nothing specifically bad about Garmon. The other two school presidents up for renewal in May received extensions.
The Vista job was Garmon’s first stint as a college president after more than three decades working in community colleges, most recently as executive dean at the Florida Community College.
Despite signs that his job was not secure, Garmon insists he was shocked the board chose not to renew his contract.
His colleagues, however, were not surprised by his dismissal and said Garmon had been interviewing for jobs outside the district since last fall.
Garmon said he inquired about other jobs because of the district’s budget turmoil. “Most of the presidents in Peralta were looking for jobs,” he said. “We were all hedging our bets.”
One job Garmon applied for this year happened to be for district chancellor, held until May on an interim basis by Harris. Though Garmon said he never expected to beat out the former state legislator and former Oakland Mayor for the job, he said the board was set on giving Harris the full-time job and rejected the advice of its consultant to re-advertise the position when only seven candidates applied.
“I know it didn’t sit well with the board that I had the nerve to run for chancellor,” Garmon explained.
Moore insists that Chancellor Harris had been talking to Garmon for months about concerns over his performance.
“John knew he wasn’t going to be renewed,” the Berkeley-based board member said. “Now he can say he was let go because he applied to be chancellor.”ˇ