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Report Finds ‘Some Serious … Rather Troubling’ Developments Regarding Diversity at The College at Brockport

Patti Singer

Diversity issues are the major topic of conversation this winter at The College at Brockport.
Provided by The College at Brockport.

The controversy over diversity issues at The College at Brockport became spiced with intrigue after an anonymous voicemail to the president of The College of Brockport seemingly triggered an attempt by the campus police chief to investigate former chief diversity officer Cephas Archie.

However, president Heidi Macpherson ordered Dan Vasile, head of the campus police department, to stop his inquiry.

The call and the response are among the latest developments surrounding Archie’s dismissal and the college’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion:

  • On Feb. 14, chief diversity officer Lorraine Acker sent an email to students that invited them to apply for a new Student Advisory Board. The board will provide recommendations to the diversity office.
  • On Feb. 13, Macpherson sent a note to the campus community that acknowledged “missteps” by her and laid out five action steps, including the immediate appointment of the chief diversity officer of SUNY Oswego on special assignment to Brockport.
  • On Feb. 17, Macpherson released to the college community a report commissioned last fall – before the current situation – about the campus climate. The report by Curtis L. Lloyd, former State University of New York vice chancellor for human resources, “revealed some serious and rather troubling developments ….”
  • On Feb. 17, Archie’s attorney released a statement about a phone call Vasile made to a colleague of Archie’s at Houston Community College.

Archie was let go in late January, and students reacted with peaceful protests. Macpherson named Acker as interim chief diversity officer.

Then, the college’s diversity recruitment and retention specialist resigned.

SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson is scheduled to visit the campus, but no details have been released.

Vasile makes a phone call

On Feb. 14, Vasile contacted a former colleague of Archie’s when both worked at Houston Community College, according to a statement released three days later by Archie’s attorney.

Andrew Burns of the firm Burns & Schultz LLP said he believed Vasile was directed to inquire about Archie by someone in the administration. “They got caught. They’ve been backpedaling for more than three weeks now as the tumult and everything that’s gone on on campus. They made a terribly dumb decision, there’s no basis for it, and they’ve been back on their heels ever since. This is just more of the same.”

Burns released a statement from Sabrina Y. Lewis recounting events and provided a screen grab of the translated message from her voicemail.

Lewis wrote that she and Archie were colleagues at Houston Community College, where he was Diversity and Inclusion Program Coordinator from 2013 until leaving for Brockport in 2017.

She wrote that Vasile first contacted her on the social medial platform LinkedIn. He then left a voicemail saying he’d been given her number “by someone who said I would have some information” for him. He asked her to return the call and left his number.

She looked up Vasile on LinkedIn. When they spoke, she said he told her he was informed that Archie had fired her. She said that Archie was not her supervisor and had nothing to do with her employment. She said further discussion led her to believe that Vasile was looking for disparaging information about Archie. “I told him if so, he had the wrong person to use as a witness.”

Lewis wrote that she and Archie partnered on several programs at Houston Community College. She said he was supportive of all and was widely respected.

“When I informed Chief Vasile that I never observed or heard about any instance where Dr. Archie acted in an inappropriate manner, Chief Vasile quickly ended the call,” she wrote in her statement to Burns.

Burns said there was no basis to remove Archie from his job. He said Archie has not filed a lawsuit, none has been threatened and at this point, one hasn’t been discussed.

“There was nothing for them to defend, to conduct any sort of investigation, other than trying to defend the decision made a little more than three weeks ago to relieve him of his duties and responsibilities,” Burns said.

As for the call by Vasile, Brockport released the following statement:

“The President’s Office recently received an anonymous voicemail from an individual who claimed to have information about a former employee of the College. Because of the nature of the allegations, the voicemail was shared with our chief of police for his records. While the police chief did look into this allegation, our own review revealed that since this employee no longer works for the College and the allegations pre-date their employment, the inquiry should not have occurred. The President has ordered the chief to cease this inquiry.”

The campus climate report

Lloyd was hired to assess staff attitudes and beliefs and how the campus operates in order to determine the ability to resolve conflicts. The assessment was to determine if it was possible for the leadership team and key staffers to “work toward the common goal of supporting the President to succeed in educating students ….”

The report also looked at ways to improve the climate on race and ethnicity and “other human capital concerns.”

Lloyd wrote that there was no evidence of students being negatively affected by the climate created by employees and administrative processes. But, he wrote that respect and cordiality have been compromised in certain functional departments.

“I am unable to offer any thought as to why or how the climate and culture have deteriorated at the campus, but I can say it is crucial that this matter is address(ed) as quickly as possible,” he wrote.

Lloyd interviewed 27 people over three days. He talked with Macpherson, five vice presidents, 12 program directors, seven faculty members and two support staffers.

Among his findings:

  • the five-member president’s cabinet has diverse personalities but appears to work well together;
  • staff below cabinet level suggested overall campus climate and culture suffered from broken trust, lack of direction and vision, “lust for power and control” and lack of training;
  • while staffers expressed positive comments about the president and leadership, they said there are communication challenges, there’s a feeling of unfairness in hiring and promotions, ideas from certain women or people of color are not taken seriously; and tensions are high.

Lloyd issued five recommendations:

  • campus leadership meet to discuss the content of this report and develop a path forward;
  • protocols be developed to allow employees from across functional areas and at all levels to participate in the formulation of campus core values and strategies;
  • the campus develop additional online and/or webinar training and development programs to educate employees about its core values and expectations for the treatment of fellow employees;
  • campus leadership undertake additional implicit bias training; and
  • revamp the bias incident reporting system for clarity, and develop guidelines for the resolution of all complaints.

Call to students

In the email sent to students about the advisory board, Acker said board members will:
Serve as liaisons between the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the broader campus community through open, respectful, and on-going communication;
Be actively invested in issues related to equity, diversity, and inclusion and willing to learn institutional policies and regulations in order to produce strategies and recommendations to solve campus problems; and
maintain minimum 2.0 GPA and be in good conduct and academic standing with the college.

Macpherson’s action steps

In her Feb. 13 email, Macpherson said she is committed to change. She wrote that the following steps will be taken:

The College at Brockport President Heidi Macpherson. Provided by The College at Brockport.
  • bringing Rodmon King from Oswego to advise her and work with my leadership team to assess and address the serious challenges and longstanding concerns about the climate on campus. King will join Acker in the diversity office and have the ability to make decisions. King will report to the SUNY chancellor by April. 30;
  • change the bias reporting system to rebuild confidence among students, faculty, and staff;
  • require the top leaders to undergo immediate training on implicit bias, institutional racism, and structural inequality from skilled diversity trainers;
  • review of the demographics and diversity representation of every department to eliminate these “diversity deserts”; and
  • commit to hold additional community conversations at designated areas around campus with students, faculty, and staff of color to hear issues and concerns that need to be resolved.

Macpherson concluded her email by writing, “These actions are the direct result of feedback and needs I have heard from students, faculty, and staff on campus. These actions are just the beginning, and I will continue to do everything in my power to help rebuild what has been broken on campus. I have repeatedly heard from our community that they expect our leadership to be courageous, and I humbly report to you that courage begins with me today.”