Flogging a ‘dead horse’
LITTLE ROCK — Someone asked why I’m supposedly “beating a dead horse” over the firing of former CFO and top administrative executive Marty Parsons at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville.
It’s a fair question (one I also was asked after four years of writing about the late Janie Ward of Marshall). The issue matters because it involves questionable methods behind management at the state’s largest public community college.
Still, how much more can be said about my perceptions of how poorly the board of trustees treated Parsons by refusing to grant him an appeal, despite its own policy that allows for such a hearing?
Those who’ve followed the Parsons saga know how college President Becky Paneitz fired him on the spot in her office August 1. Ironically, Parsons had been promoted months earlier and even praised in a board meeting just weeks before he was summarily canned.
I’m flogging this mare again because a reader who served nearly three decades in top financial administrative posts identical to Parsons at two Illinois community colleges (one with much larger enrollment than NWACC’s) contacted me. John Murphy from Holiday Island said he was surprised to learn the policy at NWACC was to allow its president complete authority to fire an employee without the board of trustees’ involvement whatsoever. The process that Murphy followed in Illinois was that each school’s elected board was the ultimate arbiter of hirings and firings.
“If a president wanted someone dismissed, the process was to place that person on suspension until the board could weigh the facts and make a final decision whether to dismiss the employee,” particularly when the issue involved a top-level administrator, he said. In other words, for the sake of the institution and its credibility, something of such a serious nature just wasn’t done arbitrarily with his former employers. Under the latest NWACC policy, as I understand it, the college president is given full authority in matters of hiring and firing, even above that of the board which hired her, although the policy does provide for an appeal when a conflict of interest can be shown.
Murphy said he believes that sort of policy also “abrogates the tremendous responsibility of the board when it comes to hiring and firing.” Some label the board’s direct involvement with such employment matters as “micromanaging.” But to me, providing this kind of ultimate oversight-and the backstop of protection it provides everyone-is simply assuming the responsibility of one’s elected position.
A board’s active participation in any public school’s firing practices ensures that one employee’s decision to dismiss another on the spur of the moment must be proved to be justifiable and in the best overall interests of the school. Anything especially unfair or amiss with that reasoning? Why even have an elected board if not to lead and direct in an assertive manner, especially when issues concern the livelihoods and performances of those employed there? From his experience in top college financial positions, the largest percentage of the budgetary expenses at a community college are related to its employees, Murphy added.
I’m far from alone in my opinions on the lack of due process for Parsons. For instance, over at North Arkansas College in my hometown of Harrison, I’m assured the termination policy for someone in Parsons’ top administrative position allows for a hearing before the board, as long as it’s properly requested. On a somewhat related point, it’s also been implied publicly that Parsons’ personnel file might just supposedly perhaps contain material that shows Paneitz had counseled him on previous occasions about what she perceived to be problems with his job performance.
I asked Parsons what his personnel file contains in the HR department that he had acknowledged and signed. He said any purported previous criticism of his performance found in his personnel file was news to him. Then he elaborated: “When Paneitz [and attorneys for Parsons and the school] met on July 25, some items on Paneitz’s memo to my file were discussed, but not all,” he said. “There was no discussion of a performance-improvement plan, or being given 30 days to improve, or a possibility of termination discussion whatsoever. No documents changed hands.
“The first time I actually saw [Paneitz’s] memo to my file was the following week when she handed it to me on August 1. Then she immediately asked for my resignation [which he declined]. There was no discussion of any items listed on her memo. The only thing she said to me was ‘this bad press has to stop. I want your resignation.’ ”
Parsons was formally fired in a letter he received two days later. He said he understood Paneitz’s memo to file was provided to the school’s Human Resources Department sometime after August 1 to be placed in his personnel file. There were no other performance issue-related documents-other than a year-old positive evaluation in his file. “That’s the facts.” he said.
Time to lead this ol’ mare back into the stall, and for the PR staff listed on NWACC’s website to go back to work. November is right around the corner.
Mike Masterson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.