This seems to be one of those all’s-well-that-ends-well stories.
True, Tacoma Community College President Sheila Ruhland is out of a job after less than two years at TCC, and the school’s administration will be in limbo for awhile. But it could have been worse. It could have degenerated into a drawn-out, sordid tale of faculty versus president, like what happened at another community college north of here.
Ruhland’s resignation this month was at least partly prompted by a letter signed by 87 of the 90 tenured faculty at TCC and submitted to the college’s board of trustees. It included a four-page list of complaints, and it beseeched the board to find a new president.
Resigning was a merciful move on Ruhland’s part considering Green River College’s recent three-year ordeal involving disgruntled faculty and their former president. Eileen Ely was the subject of three no-confidence votes, the first in 2013.
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Faculty members at the two-year Auburn college complained of a toxic campus atmosphere and an unresponsive administration. That clash culminated in a faculty strike last March. After three years of infighting, Ely finally resigned in May.
There will be no such fiasco at TCC — a blessing as the college springboards off its 50th anniversary in 2015 and tries to set a positive tone for its next half century.
Part of Ruhland’s resignation agreement includes a letter of recommendation from Bob Ryan, president of TCC’s board. Ryan wished her the best, saying she had made positive contributions during her short tenure.
She also departs with a $275,000 financial settlement for a job that paid $236,000 a year.
It’s not our purpose to scrutinize the allegations against Ruhland; we’ll leave that to the board. But we can say failing to notify staff and students of the school’s probationary accreditation status was no small error.
Only two schools in a seven-state region were put on probation. If TCC were to lose accreditation, its 13,700 students would not have access to federal aid.
On paper Ruhland was a good fit for TCC. She arrived in March 2015 after a steady progression. She served four years as president of Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. As instructor, dean and vice president of instruction, she led community and voc- tech colleges from multiple angles.
But higher ed can be a turbulent environment. Demands from students and faculty, as well as financial and facility challenges, make strong leadership essential. So does sensitivity to campus culture, which differs from college to college.
Presidents must contend with all of the above, in addition to sharing a vision that contributes to the common good while implementing strategic steps to get there. Two-year college leaders have an especially difficult mission: providing quality, affordable education to working-class people who often juggle school and full-time jobs. The Legislature cut tuition at two-year schools by 5 percent last year — a nice gesture, but a fraction of the 15 to 20 percent cut it gave to four-year colleges.
Despite TCC’s accreditation breakdown, which should be resolved in January, the college has a solid reputation to uphold. It’s been ranked one of the top five community colleges in Washington and was named one of the U.S.’s 50 best two-year colleges in 2013 by the D.C. publication Washington Monthly.
Much of this is thanks to Ruhland’s predecessor, Pamela Transue, who retired in 2014 after serving 17 years without a similar faculty complaint. When the board searches for a successor, it would do well to find one of Transue’s caliber and stability.