RVC administration wants to fire staffer, critic

The administration of Rock Valley College is recommending to the Board of Trustees that Jeff Havens, Physical Science Laboratory manager, be fired at the board’s meeting on August 13.

Havens was suspended with pay on August 1, pending the board’s vote.

Havens is a regular columnist on Renewable Energy for The Rock River Times and has published letters and guest columns in both The Times and the Rockford Register Star critical of the RVC administration and Board of Trustees. His last column in this paper on July 17 was entitled, “Kick RVC leaders out of office.” He also has been involved in union organizing for the support staff at the college.

The first charge

In the August 1, 2002 letter notifying Havens “of the administration’s recommendation of discharge,” Interim Director of Human Resources Robert Griffith alleges that Havens used his position “to attempt to exercise undue influence on a student who was first a candidate for the student trustee position [on the board] and then later the elected student trustee.

The student trustee is James Canfield. Griffith’s letter goes on to assert that Havens had several conversations with Canfield trying to “persuade this student to adopt your

views and act upon those views in his role at the College. Subsequently you then sent this student trustee an e-mail communication expressing your dissatisfaction with the manner in which the student trustee voted at a Board meeting and suggesting that he not act that way again in the future.”

Havens supplied a purported copy of the e-mail to Canfield which reads, “Suggestion: Don’t vote ‘present’ on critical issues. You were voted in to make decisions, not sit on the fence. You get a pass because it was your first night.”

Canfield confirmed the content of the e-mail, and said he was not sure of the number of conversations he had with Havens about RVC policy. As to the content of the conversations, Canfield said, “Conversations that Jeff and I had, I consider them privileged conversations. Since I’ve taken office, I try to keep a sense of confidentiality with myself and people on campus, so they don’t have to worry about me betraying their confidence.”

As to how many conversations Canfield had with Havens about RVC administrative practices and whether or not Havens impeded his or other students’ learning process, Canfield said, “I don’t feel comfortable speaking about it because it’s a human resources issue. And as a board member, I can’t speak about it before it comes before the board.”

Canfield added he hadn’t had a conversation “with Jeff since I’ve taken office, and I have not spoken to the administration. I did have a brief interview with Human Resources.”

Havens asserted that during the conversation in question, he was “doing Canfield a favor” by supplying him with two extra lab samples beyond the required number for a particular exercise.

Canfield said, “He did so at the direction of the professor. He did provide extra samples.”

Havens feels that prior to the conversations on RVC in the lab, he considered Canfield a friend.

However, Canfield said, “There are different degrees of friendship. Jeff isn’t someone I would call to watch a football game. We had a relationship that was more than an acquaintance. I enjoyed talking about science and math and other things we had in common.

“An issue is an issue and a person is a person. I know that Jeff is uncomfortable with the growth and development of the college,” he said.

Canfield admitted he was told by Havens that he had voted for him, and that Canfield had won by one vote.

Canfield replied, “Yes,” when asked as a candidate and a student trustee, “Do you feel that voters and constituents have a right to speak to you about matters concerning the administration of RVC?”

Canfield said he had “not directly” had conversations with other board members or Dr. Roland “Chip” Chapdelaine about Havens’ views, “I’ve never sat down and said, ‘Jeff said ….”

As to voting on Havens’ pending dismissal on Aug. 13, Canfield said, “As a student trustee, my vote doesn’t count. It’s an advisory vote. I haven’t voted on faculty hirings or firings. It’s not my bailiwick. If I had a vote that counted, I might change my feelings. Because I’m a student, I have teachers that I answer to, so there’s a conflict of interest. And I wouldn’t feel comfortable voting.”

Havens said it’s ironic that all this occurred since he felt Canfield was a friend of his; and that if he wouldn’t have voted for him, Canfield hadn’t had a tie vote. Havens said Canfield originally lost by one vote, and that he was one of the people who urged Canfield to call for a recount. Canfield then won by one vote against his 15-year-old opponent, whose presence on the ballot was questionable.

“I would not have said anything else to this fellow if he had not been a friend. I never would have spoken to him in that manner otherwise. I was in the process of doing him a favor getting his chemicals for his lab work,” Havens said.

The second charge

The second major allegation of Griffith’s letter said that Havens used his position to attempt to influence other students “in conversation regarding non-curriculum matters including your personal views about the College. These communications occurred on numerous occasions during instructional time and caused said students to be distracted from the curriculum. These communications constituted a substantial disruption of the academic environment. … You [sic] misconduct is particularly egregious in that because of your position, students perceive you as an authority figure at the college, able to influence their grades.”

After interviewing students, staff and faculty who did not want to go on the record, allegedly one or more students overheard Havens’ and Canfield’s discussion in the Physical Science lab and became “upset.”

‘Fire Jeff Havens’ campaign

The following e-mail appeared in a student chatroom “The Open Discussion Forum,” dated June 11, 2002; Subject: Re(6) Register Star; To; discussion about RVC; Text: “Perhaps a student armed with some information should write ‘a letter to the editor’. Jeff Havens does not speak for me.

“I think I’m going to start a petition to fire Jeff Havens. His campaign against President Chapdelaine is seriously impeding on my ability to learn in a classroom. That is when his opinion steps over the line of being best for the college.

“So, how about it. Who’s going to join me on the ‘Fire Jeff Havens’ campaign?

“‘We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge but we cannot be wide with other men’s wisdom.’

“‘A cause is not necessarily true, just because a man dies for it,’” reads the e-mail.

A reply e-mail reads: “Who is Jeff Havens? He’s the lab manager for the Physical Science Division here on campus. I think he’s a pretty nice guy and he’s always been helpful to me.

“Ooops, that wasn’t silent,” read the reply e-mail.

These e-mails were between two very close people, but their names are withheld at the request of the source.

In a stark contrast to Griffith’s assertion of Havens’ influence, on March 18, 2002, The Rock River Times was contacted by Executive Vice President of the RVC Foundation and Vice President for Institutional Affairs Suzanne Berger, who said that “Jeff Havens was incorrectly listed as Laboratory Manager at RVC—no such title. He is ‘Physical Sciences Laboratory Technician.’ They were getting inquiries.”

Havens provided The Rock River Times with his personnel records that proved his promotion by the RVC Board of Trustees from technician to manager on Oct. 9, 2001, effective Sept. 16, 2001. The records were faxed to Berger by our office, and our fax and call was returned, with an explanation saying, a mix up occurred in the Human Resources Department. Yes, Havens was correct with his job description. The incorrect information was allegedly supplied by the Executive Dean of the Human Resource Department, Linda Kyle.

Kyle and her former employer, Rockford Memorial Hospital and Rockford Health System, were named in a discrimination lawsuit against African-American employees that was settled with no admission of guilt in 1997 for $1.9 million, plus attorneys’ fees. Kyle was vice president of Human Resources at the hospital.

Asked about her departure from Rockford Memorial, Kyle said, “I left voluntarily.”

Asked to comment on Havens, Kyle said, “You know this is a personnel matter, and I would refer you to Suzanne Berger, vice president of Institutional Advancement.”

Berger said, “Issues of personnel matters are extremely sensitive, and I cannot comment.”

Other RVC associates have also contacted The Rock River Times and tried to diminish Havens’ title and reliability.

Havens is also a member of the Register Star’s Community Viewpoints Board. The “inquiries” apparently began because Havens’ columns in these pages and those of the Jan. 27, 2002 Rockford Register Star, particularly the column, “Build downtown RVC campus as home to alternative energy studies.”

In that RRS guest column, Havens spoke against moving the Rockford Art Museum to RVC, and urged RVC to build a downtown campus in the Reed Chatwood Building. He argued that the blooming Renewable Energy industry would provide jobs for an industrial Rockford future, and RVC should focus on that curriculum. He also argued, “the lack of real opportunities in well-paying jobs and challenging careers” was “One of the reasons our best and brightest are siphoned off to other communities.”

In the unedited version of this same column that appeared in these pages, the last paragraphs read, “However, RVC is in financial straits that threaten these possibilities, due to its borrowing of more than $33 million dollars, with interest, for questionable expenditures, during the tenure of

Dr. Chapdelaine. This comes after decades of being in the black. The current RVC Board of Trustees operates similarly to the way it did when Dr. Karl Jacobs was running the college. The primary difference now is that Dr. Chapdelaine lacks the vision, skills and financial responsibility to run the college well. These are some of the many reasons why RVC faculty members and staff may vote to unionize soon.

“Regardless, we need a downtown Rock Valley College campus. If you agree, let Dr. Chapdelaine know by writing him a letter, or contacting him by telephone. Once the concrete starts pouring on the east side, it may be too late. Here is how to contact him:

Dr. Roland ‘Chip’ Chapdelaine

Rock Valley College

3301 North Mulford Road

Rockford, IL 61111

(815) 921-4007”

In the May 15-21 (2002) issue of this paper, Havens’ letter to the editor to this paper was entitled, “What about the Chemistry Department?” The letter asked for state refusal in funding RVC’s Arts & Instruction Center (AIC) for $24 million because he felt more academic classroom technical space was needed, rather than competing with the downtown cultural corridor.

He said, “Massive construction projects and restructuring are in operation that have sent the college’s long-term debt from about $2 million in 1998 to $34 million in 2001 and counting, without a public referendum. In my opinion, these projects and restructuring have been done not to meet the community’s needs but to build the resumé of the current RVC President, Roland Chapdelaine.”

Havens sent copies of the letter to Governor George Ryan, Illinois House Majority Leader Mike Madigan, Illinois Senate President James “Pate” Philip, Illinois Senator Dave Syverson and Illinois Representative Chuck Jefferson.

In the June 5-11 issue of this year, Havens’ guest column was entitled: “RVC president should resign.” In that column he criticized Chapdelaine’s column in the RRS the previous Sunday. Again he addressed the lack of a referendum, the wisdom of the new physical developments on campus and cited the faculty’s vote to unionize.

On June 6, 2002, Chapdelaine wrote Havens a letter that said, “This letter is to advise you that you are to immediately refrain from using your RVC title when submitting letters containing your opinion to the newspapers and other media.

“The use of your title outside of your responsibilities with the College is misleading and can create the impression that you are speaking with the authorization of, or on the behalf of, the College. … This restriction is not intended to prevent you from exercising your constitutional rights as a citizen and a public employee to comment or issues personal statements on issues of public concern.” Havens said this contradicts a memo he received from Chapdelaine on May 16, 2002.

In the July 17-23 (2002) issue of this paper, Havens’ guest column was entitled, “Kick RVC leaders out of office.” He was incensed that RVC was going to borrow another $27 million, bringing their total debt load to $61 million, according to Havens.

He criticized Chapdelaine’s community input process and the lack of community debate on increasing the debt load, again without referendum.

He concluded, “Chapdelaine’s and the board’s actions are elitist, arrogant, and wrong. They are enough to warrant all of them, who voted for this back-door fiasco, including Chapdelaine, to be kicked out of office.”

Chapdelaine was called for comment, but will be out of town until Friday. His office said he would return our call.

Union activity

Havens said he had phone conversations in December of 2001 with the National Education Association (NEA) and the Illinois Education Association’s (IEA) union organizer Tom Suhrbur. In January of 2002, he met with Suhrbur to discuss the strategies they would have to go through to arrive at a union vote for RVC support staff.

Suhrbur confirmed Havens’ contacts. He said, “Yes, there has been interest on his part.

“If employees are attempting to unionize, it is a protected activity under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. Employees have a right to participate in the activity of a union.

“There is a provision in the Act, Section 14A, which prohibits the employer and the employer’s agents, administration, from coercing, intimidating, dominating employees in the exercise of their rights in organizing a union. If they do such actions, the employee has a right to file an Unfair Labor Practice complaint—a charge against the employer. There is protection. They better have a good reason to fire them,” Suhrbur said.

In late January or early February 2002, Havens met with Barb Abrahamson of the IFT-AFL-CIO to discuss organizing RVC support staff under that organization’s umbrella.

Havens said he also contacted the American Federation of County, State, & Municipal Employees (AFCSME) to talk about organizing a union. Havens said, “That was so the RVC support staff could compare and contrast the benefits of all the unions and have a complete picture on which one was best—or not to join at all.”

The RVC faculty unionized under the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT-AFL-CIO) by an 82 percent majority in March of this year. One faculty member thought this large majority by the notoriously conservative faculty spoke volumes about Chapdelaine’s administration.

Havens also stated he was organizing a union on WNTA’s Chris Bowman Show in June of 2002. Havens also asserts that back in April, he told Chapdelaine during a meeting that he intended to organize a union for the support staff.

The meetings

The primary purpose of that meeting was in response to Havens’ appearance at a Board of Trustees’ meeting where he held up a sign that said, “Smear Campaign? Ask Chip or Linda or Suzanne or The Rock River Times or the Rockford Register Star,” referring to the misinformation given by the college and then corrected to both papers.

Havens said he was given less than three minutes to explain his sign, and could not give a complete explanation in that time. Board President Donald Johannes asked if Havens and Chapdelaine have ever met. Havens thought Johannes was asking if they had been introduced. Havens reports he said, “Yes, we’ve met.”

Chapdelaine, apparently thinking Johannes was asking if they had ever met on the issue of misinformation on Havens’ job title that went out to the community, related that they had not met on the issue.

At which point, Havens recalls, he understood the question saying something to the effect of: “That’s a lie. Chip, we’ve met!” Johannes then suggested they get together to clear up the misunderstanding and the issue at hand, and Chapdelaine sent Havens a letter setting up the meeting.

Havens says he is still “disgusted” that he did not receive an apology for the administration’s action in contacting this paper and the daily trying to diminish his position and credibility.

However, in a letter dated May 16, 2002, Chapdelaine stated: “Following the completion of your statement, I presented to you the basis for the Board’s serious concerns with your actions and behavior at the meeting on April 9, 2002. These concerns are as follows:

l Failure to follow Board policy regarding speaking to the Board. Chairperson Johannes granted you, out of courtesy, the opportunity to speak. Although you did not formally request to speak to the Board, the sign and your positioning in the audience clearly was designed to provoke a response.

l Your actions and signs showed lack of respect to the Board, the administration, and staff as well as guests attending the meeting.

l Your sign and subsequent statements were defamatory. The sign, I believe, read, “Smear Campaign—ask Chip, Linda, Suzanne.”

l You openly contradicted the President regarding whether or not you had ever met with the President on this subject. The Board, in effect, interpreted your response as calling the President a liar. This is insubordination.

l You did not follow the chain of command in pursuing your grievance, i.e., your supervisor, the associate dean, and the acting CAO, president, and finally Board of Trustees.

In the presence of your supervisor, I stated that, because of your action, your position was in jeopardy. By that statement and this letter, you have received official notice of said potential action.

You requested recommendations regarding what actions or behaviors you should follow to minimize that possibility. I respond with the following.

1) Focus on job performance as Chemistry Laboratory Manager.

2) Find a way to work within the system. There are numerous committees, etc., that are looking for positive and contributory membership. I did emphasize that such participation should be positive and constructive on your part. I also suggested additional effort on pursuing alternative energy grants and programs that would utilize your efforts and expertise.

3) Follow the chain of command when there is a problem or issue you wish addressed.

4) Immediately cease overtly undermining the Office of the President and the administrative structure of the College. You should attempt to properly research and verify your facts relative to anything you choose to develop regarding the college and its activities or actions.

Two Board concerns, in particular, that were identified were the “defamatory” statements on your sign and your contradiction of the President at the Board meeting. Regarding the slanderous statements, the College took the appropriate action in correcting our error in contracting and affirming with individuals at both newspapers the status of your job title. Suzanne Berger’s response to you was accurate and appropriate. Your e-mails subsequent to that response were not.

I acknowledged at our meeting that the College had in fact made a mistake and took action to correct it. Furthermore, at that meeting, I apologized for any embarrassment you may have felt for the mistake. Again, however, the correct action was taken to correct the error,” said Chapdelaine.

More chemical errors to come?

“What he did today far outweighs anything I might have done to impede the students’ learning process,” Havens said of his suspension and possible dismissal.

Havens was in the process of changing over the Chemistry 101, 102, 220 and 221 class manuals.

“That’s two-thirds of our entire chemistry program being totally overhauled. It’s an unprecedented overhaul,” Havens said. “I had about a third of that done, with the semester starting Aug. 19. Really, with all the labs to set up, I was about 20 percent done. That doesn’t include merging the spreadsheet and the word processing program into a data base.”

In a July 27, 2002, letter to Kyle, with copies sent to various administrators, Havens warned the college about the crisis.

Havens is the direct supervisor of Brandon Coppernoll, student worker in the Physical Science lab. With Havens’ suspension, Coppernoll is unable to work.

“Luckily, I have another job. If I didn’t have another job, I’d be in a very serious situation,” Coppernoll said. “I’d be unable to pay for my tuition, insurance and registration for my vehicle. I was working four days a week out at Rock Valley for 12 hours each day.

“There is no way in hell the lab will be ready. They’re not going to be able to do their labs and they are going to have a bunch of angry students. I have called the administration, but they haven’t contacted me since.”

As to the administration’s awareness of the impact on the Chemistry program and students, Coppernoll said, “I don’t think they really care. Havens is an excellent guy. He really knows his stuff, and he really cares what happens to his students.

“We would have discussions all the time about what was going on, but it was just a general debate about a particular topic. He would not interrupt their class schedule. If they were doing a lab, he wouldn’t interrupt students, unless they asked him a question, and he’d answer them right then and there. Students came first and everything else came second. He considered what was most important to them,” Coppernoll said.

Havens received the highest ranking in his review papers he supplied, which were confirmed by his supervisor.

1st Amendment question

Journalism Professor James Tidwell, a leading expert on First Amendment rights at Eastern Illinois University, specializes in communications law and is an attorney.

When asked about the Havens case, Tidwell said, “The court will look to see if the speech is a matter of public interest. How the college is spending its money obviously is in the public interest. That’s an easy one to figure out.

“The second prong the court will have to weigh is the balance of the government/employee orderly operation of the workplace, as opposed to the employee right to comment on the public interest.

“You balance.

“The farther away from the workplace, the stronger the free speech rights of the employee is. If he were criticizing his immediate supervisor, and the way the chemistry lab was run, that would be close.

“The way the college spends its money is obviously farther away. That’s going to weigh here—weigh heavily.

“The student trustee issue seems bizarre. You can talk to a trustee anytime. But if he was interfering with his or others’ learning process, that is serious, if he did it in class time.

“They are obviously trying to argue he didn’t do his job. Did he really do the things they are accusing him of, or are they just using this to fire him? Concerning the columns he wrote, they obviously couldn’t fire him for those, but what he does in the classroom is different.

“And that is a case of fact which they will have to fight over. Is this just a pretext or fact? They are going about it the smart way. If he became such a burr under their saddle, are they just trying to get rid of him?” Tidwell said.

Silence and timing

Faculty and staff were extremely apprehensive to go on record for this story.

What one faculty member was echoed by others off the record, “This is an obvious set up. Two things I find curious about it is the timing, and that the lone accuser seems to be the student trustee. I know that Jeff has been active in trying to organize the support staff and that he has been vocal about administrative practices. The timing is curious. The only other down time is the fall and winter. The only other time is the first few weeks of August when most faculty are away.

“I cannot speak for faculty in any official manner. Isn’t going to college supposed to promote the free exchange of ideas? The College should support free speech and debate. At a college, when you start firing people for speaking their mind, there is a problem.”

Havens protested, “How can I defend myself when they won’t give me a list of the questions and allegations? You know as well as anyone, it’s a closed session for personnel matters, but they abuse that habitually.”

The Rock Valley College Board of Trustees meets on Tuesday, Aug. 13, to decide on Havens’ fate. The Board members are: Donald B. Johannes-Chair, 3304 Alta Vista Road, Rockford, IL 61107, 397-1708. Chris Johnson-Vice Chair, 5639 Haddon Place, Rockford, IL 61114, 637-2250. Rick J. Johnson-Secretary, 5500 Woodview Way, Rockford, IL 61109-3550, 874-1898. Randy F. Sturm, 4737 Rainbow Ridge, Rockford, IL61109-3535, 874-4608. Dr. David L. Powers, 731 Paris Avenue, Rockford, IL 61107, 226-9260. Douglas Kelley, 3456 Dallas Road, Rockford, IL 61109-3830, 874-6395. Randy Schaefer, 5833 Mabbott Drive, Loves Park, IL 61111, 633-7215. James Canfield—Student Trustee, 5763 La Cresta Drive, Rockford, IL 61114, 387-8912

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