At a recent board meeting, Triton College Board Chairman Mark Stephens received an award for his years of service in education. Jim Reed, executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, traveled from Springfield to the college’s River Grove campus Aug. 24 to honor Stephens in person and recognize his commitment as an educator for the last 30 years.
But the celebratory moment was quickly clouded as a group of Triton employees raised concerns over the school’s lagging diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts and some remarks Stephens made during a school board meeting over the summer. They called attention to the growing number of resignations and retirements, especially among administrators of color, and a culture of fear they alleged was created by Vice President of Academic Affairs Susan Campos.
Faculty and staff present donned red shirts with the slogan ‘We will not be silenced’ and piled into a small board room on the third floor of a campus building.
During public comments, Leslie Wester, a tenured faculty member and president of the Triton College Faculty Association (TCFA), addressed Stephens’ statements from a July 20 board meeting. Wester said Stephens interrupted Associate Vice President Derrell Carter, while he was leading a presentation on the college’s diversity initiatives and commented that companies hired to examine those initiatives were “out to make a buck.”
“This minimizes the work many of us are doing to create an environment at Triton College that embraces DEI,” said Wester, whose organization is a chapter of Cook County College Teachers Union, (CCCTU) Local 1600. Members from the Mid-Managers Association and the Classified Association, both of whom are also chapters of CCCTU, also attended in solidarity.
Board meetings are not recorded, but the college’s minutes from the meeting in question briefly documented Carter’s presentation. From hosting focus groups to creating a framework to focus on staff and students’ needs, Carter, who headed Triton’s DEI plans, talked about the work that was done to help expand the mission, according to the minutes. In August, Triton announced five new courses that center on contributions and experiences of Latin Americans, as well as Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Americans. These courses, which are funded by a major grant, were faculty-led and are an example of the work that Triton’s educators are doing, said Wester in an interview after the meeting.
“I think our concern is that we’re putting all of this effort and energy into it,” she said. According to the July minutes, Stephens also “encouraged employees to treat everyone with respect and dignity so they have the opportunity to be successful.”
To Wester, that last remark felt dismissive. She said the minutes from the July 20 meeting were “very watered down” and do not reflect “what was said” that evening.
“As the presentation continued, the presenter [Carter], a Black man, kept getting interrupted by the board with statements regarding treating all people better,” she said. “They seem to ignore the concern at hand – that people of color, specifically, are not feeling respected or heard at Triton College.”
Stephens also mentioned the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Wester felt those remarks were “disgraceful,” misguided and maybe even threatening.
“A Black man is sharing a presentation focused on uplifting and supporting people of color at the college,” she said. “The board then ties into the conversation the assassination of a powerful Black man fighting for civil rights. I can absolutely see that threat. I believe others have, too.”
Stephens responded to Wester by first saying he wants meetings to be recorded and offered to pay for the cost himself.
“I’m not going to have my words purposely twisted [or] strangled up by any purpose,” he said, before clarifying his comments about King.
“There is no greater figure in the 20th Century than Martin Luther King, and I think I indicated that,” Stephens said to Wester, adding “you didn’t listen well or you didn’t want to.” “Here’s a man who had the courage of his convictions who didn’t make a dime out from what he was doing.”
‘Are we there yet?’
Cassandra Hutchinson, a web analyst at Triton, joined Wester and told the board of trustees that at least 7 administrators, most of whom are people of color and in critical roles, have either resigned or retired over the last few months. Their departure has left a “gaping hole in the fabric of leadership at Triton,” she said.
Carter, who is among the small pool of staff leaving, was hired as the vice president for strategic marketing at Stephens College in Missouri and is expected to start his new role Sept. 1, according to a news report issued by the college in early August.
“Diversity, equity, inclusion – are we there yet?” Hutchinson asked, adding the DEI committee will be “dead on arrival” because there does not seem to be an urgency to find a replacement for Carter or to focus on the work that “needs to be done to achieve” the mission at Triton.
“As trustees and administrators, you set the policies that influence and shape the leadership at Triton,” Hutchinson said. “This institution needs to be worthy of its staffers.”
Also at the meeting, TCFA Vice President Daniele Manni told the board of trustees that 88% of the faculty association’s members were not confident that Susan Campos, vice president of academic affairs, could carry out her duties and lead the academic departments.
“It’s a sad day for Triton College,” said Manni, noting Campos was a former union executive and that “arriving at the point of holding a vote of ‘no confidence’ was a difficult decision and one that gives us no pleasure.”
Manni, who read a statement to the board, claimed Campos has a “retaliatory attitude,” bullied staff, faculty and administrators, and not shown support for the chairs of academic committees, all of which has led to multiple resignations and retirements of key staff.
Manni said the TCFA previously warned the trustees about Campos’ leadership and “damaging actions” toward faculty and staff, as well as appointing her without conducting a job search. The organization even sent a letter of concern, which was also shared with President Mary Rita Moore, he said.
Near the end of the meeting, after the board discussed other matters on the agenda, Moore replied to Manni and TCFA members, thanking them for opening up and drawing their attention to Campos.
“I have heard what you said this evening, and I know that Dr. Campos shares with me an opportunity to see the concerns,” Moore said. “We will digest that and be open to a conversation.”
In an interview with Wednesday Journal following the meeting, Wester and Manni said they felt somewhat optimistic, after hearing Moore offer a sit-down conversation and address their concerns with Campos. A date and time has yet to be determined, they said.
“We want positive change. We want to work together,” Wester said. “We want to build upon the years of wonderful work that our faculty has done, and it’s not just our faculty. It’s all the units there. We all work well together, and we’re all about our students, but we need support.
“We need folks to be building us up and not putting us down, and that’s a huge culture shift. And I think that it is time for us to be really focusing on that and moving forward.”