A source at Rochester Community and Technical College told me about a month ago that he believed Leslie McClellon would "be gone by Christmas" from the top job at RCTC.
That prediction was eerily correct, in terms of the announcement. McClellon, who was only formally installed as president of the college in September and had been on the job for about 18 months, announced her resignation Thursday, effective on Jan. 8.
As the P-B editorial Friday said, this is a "somber moment for the campus, as well as the community." There's no doubt that relationships between McClellon and students, faculty and staff had broken down, apparently irretrievably, in recent months. We had heard concerns about McClellon as long as a year ago, but by September, when RCTC was celebrating its centennial, it was a wildfire waiting to happen.
As it turned out, it was the centennial party -- the perceived excessive spending, the academic mace, the gold "chain of office," the New Orleans jazz artist -- that set the fire. That's when many people began talking to the Post-Bulletin about deeper and more substantial issues at RCTC.
Her troubles weren't about the mace and the party. They became powerful emblems, though, of what her critics said was an arrogant and autocratic manner of running the college, especially when it came to personnel and processes.
There's no doubt that she made unforced errors in hiring and firing, not least of which was the hiring of Anthony Brown as interim vice president of student affairs. In hindsight, that case crystalizes the issues her critics raised, including the way it was handled after it blew up.
McClellon reassigned (effetively terminating) Alex Herzog, who was popular and well-respected as the student affairs VP, in June; a search process was begun to find a replacement, but it was declared to have failed and McClellon named Brown as interim vice president.
A news release went out Oct. 28 that made no reference to the most important part of Brown's career, the 14 years he spent at Elizabeth City State University in Elizabeth City, N.C. He was vice chancellor in 2013 when a state investigation of campus police and security resulted in his resignation as well as the university's chancellor. The investigation led to criminal charges against the campus police chief and a campus security officer.
When the Post-Bulletin reported on Brown's background, based entirely on material that was easily found on the Web, McClellon said she was "aware that there had been a situation" at Elizabeth City "but not of all the findings ... some parts of that I did not know and would not know. Some of those things are just not uncommon on college or university campuses when you're dealing with a large number of investigations."
She went on, "This isn't something that was of great concern. I was very impressed with how it was handled after the fact," and she said he'd do "phenomenal work" for RCTC students.
A day later, Brown "withdrew his acceptance" of the job, and McClellon was inconsistent in interviews afterward about how much she knew about his record, raising questions about how carefully he had been vetted and her own candor on the matter.
In the end, though he never worked a day here, Brown played a part in bringing down the leader of a second institution.
Was it fair that McClellon's tenure ended this way? There are few people on campus, in the city or at MnSCU who can answer that. But she apparently had lost the confidence of too many people at RCTC over the past six months to go on.
She also lost the confidence of key community leaders, judging by how few spoke out to support her during the final weeks. Rochester City Council Member Sandra Means wrote a column in the P-B on Dec. 3 that questioned whether the RCTC community had been "welcoming" enough of McClellon and explicitly raising questions of whether race and diversity were factors.
"The publicized information appears to be a one-sided, opponent's attack on the president," Means wrote. "Where are the proponents' voices?"
Means was right -- few of her colleagues spoke out in McClellon's defense. We made a lot of calls last week looking for comment and didn't get many callbacks. Either people didn't have enough information on how things were going at RCTC, or they did. Maybe it was a lost cause by then.
Were race and gender a factor? There was a lot of vitriol directed at McClellon -- we at the P-B heard it and read it in emails. There were a few coded references to the number of minority people she hired for top jobs, including past associates. As Winona State University professor Nicholas Wysocki told me for a story this week, "Any time you have a person of color in a leadership position, that has to factor in ... from my own work, that intersection of race, gender and position of authority will inherently play in. I think we'd be foolish to say that's not part of the criticism that she's receiving."
I completely agree. To deny that race and gender were a factor in the arc of McClellon's career here is absurd. Were they important factors? Only people closest to the situation know. There's no doubt that her decision-making and actions over the past 18 months gave her critics plenty of material to work with.
A lot of questions remain after her announcement Thursday and we'll likely never know the answer to most of them. Who decided to remove Marcus Babaoye, another of McClellon's hires, from oversight of accreditation? Was that a late effort by McClellon to begin salvaging her presidency or was it ordered by MnSCU, thus a clear signal that her time was up?
How did MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone's own problems factor into how the McClellon issue was handled? She was hired in spring 2014 under his watch, and he was here for the investiture ceremony. Rosenstone has been under fire from his own critics in the past year; the festering controversy in Rochester was the last thing he needed.
And how important was organized labor in pushing McClellon out? There's no doubt that the unions on campus are strong, well-organized and have been out front on just about everything related to McClellon. There weren't any student protests about her leadership, but the faculty and employee unions worked overtime to oust her.
Her critics were motivated, aggressive and strategic. They were effective in getting their message out to the media after the initial stories in September. P-B reporter Taylor Nachtigal and I had more tips than we could reasonably deal with, and I'll assume MnSCU heard many of the same tips, many of which were untrue or hyped.
McClellon is personable, articulate and has leadership qualities that were obvious to all who met her when she arrived last year. She had an accomplished career before coming here. She's well-liked in the wider Rochester community and has worked hard to build relationships with community leaders.
Apparently she and her inner circle needed to work harder at those relationships on campus.
Rosenstone says he'll name an interim president and hopes to find a permanent replacement by the start of the next academic year. Those appointments will be crucial to RCTC's future, especially with accreditation deadlines looming.
The person he chooses for the interim job will say a lot about what went wrong under McClellon and how the healing will begin.