Chapdelaine ‘terminated’ 7-O

Board accepts embattled RVC leader’s forced resignation by unanimous vote

• ICCB may reinstate full recognition, keeps college on short leash

Rock Valley College (RVC) President Roland Chapdelaine’s employment with the college was terminated Jan. 13 by the RVC Board of Trustees after accepting his resignation in a 7-0 vote.

Board Chairman Randy Schaefer said the board exercised its right to terminate Chapdelaine under two paragraphs of Chapdelaine’s contract.

One of those paragraphs reads Chapdelaine “shall be deemed to have resigned from his position of president as of the effective date of termination.”

A part of the other applicable paragraph reads that the board retains the right to terminate Chapdelaine’s official duties and stipulates severance pay.

Chapdelaine was not available for comment.

The removal of Chapdelaine comes after five consecutive and unprecedented years of deficit spending that totaled $7.3 million; a downgrade of the college’s recognition status in February by the college’s governing agency, the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB); “no confidence” votes by all three employee groups that totaled 204-28; legal costs that climbed each year during Chapdelaine’s tenure from about $48,000 in 1998 to about $460,000 in 2003; and at least $9.6 million in construction cost overruns.

Chapdelaine also persuaded RVC trustees three times to use a loophole in the tax-cap law to borrow a total of $61.8 million without a voter-approved referendum. The borrowed money was spent primarily on construction projects, such as the remodeled Student Center, remodeled Samuelson Road building, new Support Services Building, new athletic fields and new Starlight Theater.

One year ago, The Rock River Times began publishing numerous articles that spotlighted Chapdelaine’s management, which eventually led to his dismissal. Former RVC Board Chairman Chris Johnson said during an October interview that the articles “totally eliminated the trust factor” in Chapdelaine.

Mark Culhane, RVC professor of English, said: “If it wasn’t for Jeff Havens and The Rock River Times, this story would essentially have remained uncovered in Rockford because, and I am very sad to say this, because my family has a history with that newspaper. But what I consider to be the utter failure of the Rockford [Register Star] newspaper to do the duty that it has, and it’s a duty because it receives First Amendment protections with the caveat that it has a responsibility to the community. They failed. Jeff Havens and The Rock River Times did not fail.”

Chapdelaine’s firing comes on the heels of ICCB administrators’ recommendation the college be returned to full recognition status, which may become official Jan. 16 when the ICCB board votes on the issue.

However, ICCB administrators have also recommended keeping RVC on a short leash by asking their board for permission to conduct an ICCB-initiated financial audit of RVC sometime after July 1 and a complete recognition evaluation in fiscal year 2006, which starts July 1, 2005.

Normally ICCB conducts recognition evaluations on a five-year cycle for different criteria in different years. ICCB officials have monitored RVC closely every year since fiscal year 2001.

Chapdelaine was accused by RVC faculty in their no confidence motion of choosing to leave the chief financial officer position open for at least two years until the board pressured Chapdelaine to fill the position early last year.

As a result of the financial problems, tuition was hiked 11 percent, eight employees were laid off, student employment at the college plummeted, other staff were transferred to new positions, and student fees increased.

In addition to Chapdelaine’s departure, Penny Billman, former executive assistant to Chapdelaine and associate vice president of Strategic Effectiveness, “resigned” Dec. 31, according to Johnson. Billman was considered second in command behind Chapdelaine. Former Chief Operations Officer Don Williams said he retired Jan. 5.

Observers at the faculty’s Dec. 9 closed-session meeting with trustees said the faculty presenters’ case against Chapdelaine was compelling. Johnson said after the Dec.9, meeting, “It was a very moving evening.”

Contract and payout

Johnson said Chapdelaine’s termination will probably cost taxpayers about $151,500, based on one year’s salary and insurance costs.

Chapdelaine received a base salary of $147,900 and a total compensation package estimated at $230,000 per year. The package included a retirement fund (SURS), an annuity (TIAA-CREF), split-dollar life insurance policy, long-term care insurance policy and a “deferred compensation plan” (457(f)).

One paragraph of Chapdelaine’s contract reads: “If the board terminates this employment contract under this paragraph, the board shall notify president of its election to terminate the contract and the effective date of termination. At the board’s option such termination may be immediate.

“Notice shall be in writing, and either personally delivered to the president or mailed by certified mail to the president’s last known address. Upon termination and payment, the President shall have no further rights or claims whatsoever against the Board, individual members thereof, the College, or the Collect District with regard to the president’s employment as President. The president shall be deemed to have resigned, from his position of President as of the effective date of termination,” the contract reads.

Presidential search and acting president

Schaefer said an interim president is expected to be chosen by the end of this month.

Cheryl Krakow, executive vice president and chief academic officer and Sam Overton, chief financial officer and board treasurer, are expected to be co-acting presidents until an interim president is chosen.

According to Johnson, a presidential search committee will be formed and consist of trustees, students, community members and faculty. Johnson said the public will have the opportunity to meet with presidential candidates and offer their opinions about who should be selected.

Wes Branski, RVC Student Commission president, said he looks forward to having students included in the decision to choose a new president.

Education and work history

Chapdelaine began his tenure at RVC in November 1997 after serving seven years as president of Cumberland County College in Vineland, N. J. Prior to his employment at Cumberland County, Chapdelaine was vice president at Mojave Community College in Kingman, Ariz., from 1986 to 1989. Sources said Chapdelaine also worked for his family’s construction company, Joseph Chapdelaine and Sons, Inc., in East Long Meadow, Mass.

A June 1997 RVC press release reads that Chapdelaine has a doctorate in education degree and a master of science degree from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., near Indianapolis. Chapdelaine earned his bachelor’s degree from Providence College in Rhode Island.

Chapdelaine’s hiring

Tom Alisankus, RVC faculty president in 1997, strongly urged board members, including Schaefer, to not hire Chapdelaine. Instead, the June 16, 1997, board report shows the presidential search committee unanimously endorsed Dr. Ron Wright, who is now president of Cincinnati Technical and Community College.

In 1997, Chapdelaine charged $770 to his Cumberland County College credit card for three round-trip airline tickets from Philadelphia to O’Hare Airport at the same time he was being considered for his RVC position.

RVC also issued Chapdelaine two checks during the same period totaling $2,107.53 for his recruitment to RVC.

Cumberland County College documents show Chapdelaine charged Cumberland County College for two July 17, 1997, airline tickets to O’Hare, the day after he secured the RVC presidency on July 16,1997. Chapdelaine charged $612 to Cumberland County College for tickets and flight insurance for himself and his wife on July 17, 1997.

Details of Chapdelaine’s use of both colleges’ funds during his recruitment are described in The Rock River Times’ Sept.
17, 2002, issue.

RVC also paid Chapdelaine’s moving expenses, guaranteed him a price on the sale of his New Jersey house and assisted him in finding employment for his wife.

Bill Sjostrom, who was board chairman when Chapdelaine was hired, resigned from the board Feb. 13, 2001, and was hired by Chapdelaine a few weeks later as RVC’s facilities director. Sjostrom remains in that position.

On the decision to hire Chapdelaine, the July 18, 1997, Rockford Register Star quoted Sjostrom: “He’s a good communicator. And he has a lot of good ideas.”

Chapdelaine was hired in a 5-2 vote. Out of the seven trustees that voted, Schaefer is the only trustee still serving from that 1997 board. Schaefer voted to hire Chapdelaine and voted to fire him last night.

Visionary and change agent

Chapdelaine’s supporters said he was a “visionary” and “change agent” who ushered the college into a new era of bold and exciting construction projects.

Three of Chapdelaine’s supporters–Thomas Furst, president of The Furst Group; Gary Katz, president and chief executive officer of Rockford Health System; and Jay Mathur, owner of Valuideas–placed a large advertisement in the Jan. 29, 2003, issue of The Rock River Times that read: “Dr. Chapdelaine has done many fine things for Rock Valley College and deserves taking credit for taking the college into a new era.

“Dr. Chapdelaine has briefed us and others on developments at the college and has repeatedly pointed to the following progress: the addition of needed facilities (RVC’s enrollment increased 10 percent this year); important upgrades to the computer infrastructure; the addition of five high-demand programs in the technology area; the partnership with NIU; and efforts to make the college more accessible through satellite locations.

“Change agent executives often need to make difficult and unsettling decisions. Progress does not come easily, and RVC is making progress. There is a real question of integrity here, and it is not with RVC. Rather, it’s the clearly biased writing of someone with an axe to grind with the college, and who has passed off slanted, shoddy investigative reporting as proof of facts.

“As readers, we deserve unbiased investigative reporting,” read the advertisement.

Construction and controversy

Chapdelaine built the $12.6 million Starlight Theater, which was advertised for years as an $8 million facility. The theater opened last June with much fanfare, primarily because of its origami-type roof that opens and closes.

The roof is currently undergoing significant repairs to fix cracks in welds that piece the roof together. A mechanical engineer for a major international manufacturing company said, “All safety features of the roof have failed if there are cracks in the welds because the cracks may propagate.” The roof is being supported by about 12 metal poles with brick and wood footings.

During Chapdelaine’s tenure at Cumberland Community College, The Press of Atlantic City said in its July 18, 1997, issue, Chapdelaine built the Frank Guaracini Jr. Fine and Performing Arts Center in 1995; raised $2.5 million for student scholarships and college operations enhancements; and 20 new programs including music theater, hospitality management and tourism, aquaculture and television production.

The 1997 Atlantic City article also credited Chapdelaine with a staff reorganization that was a “major philosophical shift for the college. Next year will see the resurgence of the school athletic program at the school.”

However, Frank Philips, professor of sociology at Cumberland Community College, said of Chapdelaine last January, “We were very happy to see him go” because of Chapdelaine’s “misplaced priorities” and “false statements.” Paul Kirdonak, retired Cumberland County College professor, corroborated Phillips’ statements.

Similar to the reorganization at Cumberland County College, RVC’s reorganization was also a major philosophical shift that was not well received. RVC faculty alleged in their Aug. 29 “no confidence” motion Chapdelaine failed “to stabilize the college management by reorganizing the college four times in the past five years.”

In addition to the $12.6 million outdoor Starlight Theater, Chapdelaine is credited for the $7.9 million Support Services Building, which was originally said to cost $4.2 million; the remodeled $6.9 million Student Center, which was originally said to cost $3-$4 million; and the following approximate amounts: $2 million for athletic fields; $6.5 million to remodel the Samuelson Road building; $3 million for technology upgrades; $2 million for a new parking lot; $5 million for an east side campus road; $1.8 million for an asphalt recreation path; an unknown amount to dredge Spring Brook and an artificial pond; and an unknown amount for a microwave broadcast dish and tower.

The crown jewel of Chapdelaine’s tenure was the proposed $32,528,600 Arts Instruction Center (AIC). Chapdelaine said most of the construction on its main campus was to make room for the 120,000-square-foot building. The AIC is supposed to feature a music performance hall, art gallery, thrust-stage theater, and space for instruction of music, visual arts and performing arts.

The state was to pay for 75 percent of construction costs, or $24,396,450. RVC was supposed to have paid the 25 percent remainder, or $8,132,150.

However, RVC did not receive any state funding for the AIC this fiscal year but has been recommended by ICCB administrators as third in line for $15,700,400 in state funding for the AIC for next fiscal year (2005).

In 2002, RVC expected all $24.4 million from the state for the AIC but received just $8,696,050.

Chapdelaine said in an Aug. 28, 2002, press release: “I am confident that we will secure the remainder of the state funding for this project next year [2003]. In the next few months, we will be pursuing our options for an early start to construction.” Early construction never occurred.

ICCB warns in their Jan. 16, 2004, agenda: “Due to these [construction] cost overruns, the college may encounter difficulty meeting its local match requirements on future state-funded projects [AIC and proposed $15.6 million Classroom Building III].”

Many faculty argued if climbing enrollment was the justification for construction, Classroom Building III should have been built before all other construction projects.

Johnson said RVC’s foundation, the private money-generating arm of the college, has accepted responsibility for raising funds for the AIC.

Chapdelaine also had plans to spend $30 million to build campus dormitories that housed about 300 students.

Student enrollment

Chapdelaine repeatedly justified construction primarily on climbing student enrollment. However, ICCB data published in the Jan. 29, 2002, issue, for both student headcounts and full-time equivalent students, did not support Chapdelaine’s assertion.

Chapdelaine used a large drop in the fall 1999 student headcount as a reference point, which was 6,352 students. The previous 12 years of readily accessible ICCB data from 1987 to 1998 show fall enrollment headcount never fell below 1987’s level of 7,597 students, averaged 8,364 students and reached a high of 9,113 students in 1993.

Sources said historically RVC’s enrollment rises and falls after periods of economic booms and busts. An assertion supported by ICCB data (see RVC fall headcount graph on A2).

During Chapdelaine’s tenure, starting in 1997, ICCB fall student head counts were 8,188; 8,254; 6,352; 7,699; 8,542; 9,016; and 9,298 respectively for an average of 8,193 students.

The fall 2003 fall headcount of 9,298 students is still less than 1983’s 9,634 students, which followed Rockford’s 26 percent unemployment rate in June 1982. Since 1971, RVC’s fall headcount has averaged 8,074 students.

‘No confidence’ response

In response to the faculty’s 95-11 “no confidence” votes Aug. 29, Chapdelaine wrote in an e-mail to the faculty: “I am also impatient, uncomfortable with detail, have trouble with pronunciation of names, need a good grammar chec

ker, and am more inclined to involve myself in big-picture issues. I don’t like nay-sayers or complainers; I want people with solutions. Sometimes my passion and impatience is perceived as arrogance.”

Bill Scarpaci, English professor at RVC, said: “It’s my professional opinion that if it were not for the articles initially written by Jeff Havens focusing on relevant and pertinent issues concerning the tenure and decisions of Dr. Chapdelaine, then we would not be playing witness to this meeting tonight. We would not be playing witness to a decision culminating in the investigative reporting rendered by Jeff Havens.”

Scarpaci added: “I admire Jeff Havens for his perseverance, for his diligence, for his courage in bringing forth issues well supported, in bringing forth issues totally relevant and germane to the existence and welfare of Rock Valley College. Without the courage that he exhibited in developing the earliest of stories concerning relevant issues to the welfare of Rock Valley College, then—that’s the question—who would have done so?”

Editor’s note: Jeff Havens was an employee at RVC from 2000 to 2002, before Chapdelaine recommended the board fire Havens on Aug. 13, 2002. While Havens was an employee at RVC, he spearheaded a union organization effort for RVC support staff during early 2002, publicly called for the resignations of Chapdelaine in June 2002 and the board in July 2002.

Havens was terminated by the board in a near-unanimous vote with one abstention after he was accused by Chapdelaine of interfering with students’ ability to learn and exercising undue influence on a student trustee (see Aug. 7, 2002 and Aug. 14, 2002 issues.)

Havens was given five minutes to defend himself before he was fired.

Before he was terminated at RVC, Havens wrote guest columns that were critical of Chapdelaine’s administration for both the Rockford Register Star (he was also a member of the daily’s community editorial board) and The Rock River Times. He was hired by The Rock River Times approximately two months after his termination at RVC.

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