Truckee Meadows Community College continues to experience turmoil among its ranks. The Nevada Faculty Alliance in mid-March petitioned Nevada’s Board of Regents for immediate redress of what it said was a toxic and fear-ridden environment at the college.
“The state board of the Nevada Faculty Alliance demands that the Nevada System of Higher Education take immediate proactive steps to restore shared governance, academic freedom, due process, faculty rights, and basic human rights at TMCC,” the organization wrote in a letter to Nevada’s Board of Regents and chancellor. “If these matters are not resolved satisfactorily, then the State Board will consider a public censure of the TMCC administration and a recommendation of a formal investigation to our AAUP national organization.”
AAUP is the American Association of University Professors, a national organization for higher education faculty that promotes academic freedom and faculty input into higher-education governance.
“Since the creation of the Nevada Faculty Alliance in 1983 the organization has never formally censured an administrator in the Nevada System of Higher Education. However, due to the toxic, fear-ridden, and deteriorating culture at TMCC we are now seriously considering such a move,” Faculty Alliance representatives wrote.
The representatives also said two other NSHE campuses are facing similar issues to TMCC’s: Great Basin College and UNLV.
At TMCC, they cited “verbal abuse and threats” by president Dr. Karin Hilgersom and her administration.
“The president purposefully uses bullying, threats, divisiveness and retribution as tactics to create a climate of fear and an ‘us versus them’ atmosphere among the TMCC faculty and staff,” the group wrote. “The NFA State Board is disturbed by verbal abuse and threats made against TMCC NFA officers and members by the president.”
Although the NFA letter was authored by representatives from each of Nevada’s higher-education campuses, Hilgersom dismissed the allegations as coming from a vocal minority at TMCC who she said are “cruelly dishonest and defamatory.”
“These vocal few members of a small local union chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance … propagate misinformation designed to distract me and TMCC’s leadership team from the only thing that matters at the moment—helping our community make it through an unprecedented crisis,” she said. “How much longer will the NFA majority accept the tactics of an unethical minority in their midst? And how much longer must the entire TMCC community suffer as a result of the actions of the few?”
A recent faculty survey, which Hilgersom described as “unethically delivered,” was completed by 62 percent of the administrative and teaching faculty.
More than 25 percent who completed it indicated the campus climate has moderately or greatly improved while 57 percent said it had moderately or greatly deteriorated.
One faculty member said: “faculty who speak up can also expect to be harassed with formal reprimands or investigations,” and when formal complaints are filed, they are not processed according to TMCC’s rules.
The Faculty Alliance echoed this point:
The TMCC Human Resource office has been relegated to a political arm of the president to obfuscate, mount phony complaints against targeted faculty, and shelter aberrant presidential behavior. The NSHE system attorney assigned to TMCC seems to have become the personal attorney of the president to facilitate the same kind of harassment or cover up. The contractual grievance process, when used appropriately, identifies and alleviates problems institutionally. Under the current model the system attorney finds Code or contractual weak spots then hides behind manufactured deadlines and legalese to prevent a fair and impartial hearing or a mutual resolution of grievances.
When evaluated two years ago, Hilgersom received a mixed review.
Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly said Hilgersom’s evaluation showed that she had work to do when it came to communications, particularly campus morale, conflict resolution and shared governance, as This Is Reno reported at the time.
“There are recommendations on how to address those issues, particularly around the issue of communication,” Reilly told regents at the June 2018 meeting.
“(There will be) lots of active listening and making some strides on some of the perceptions on campus on the issue of shared governance. To that end, most recently, the president and her staff, as well as the faculty and Nevada Faculty Association, participated in a 3-day, very-extensive mediation training on the issues of shared governance that I understood went very well and there were some agreed upon metrics and agreed upon ways to move forward.”
It was recommended Hilgersom retain the services of a coach to help with these efforts. Kate Kirkpatrick, the college’s director of marketing and communications, said that TMCC spent $2,500 on a search firm’s executive for the communications coaching services.
Faculty representatives said it didn’t work.
“Unfortunately, these problems at TMCC remain,” they wrote. “President Hilgersom appears to have satisfactory external relationships with entities in the community, but the TMCC internal community, the faculty and staff, is deeply troubled by her management style towards employees.”
Former instructor Kyle Simmons’ lawsuit against TMCC, for discrimination and wrongful termination, was dismissed earlier this year. NSHE attorney John Albrecht argued TMCC was immune from litigation in federal court under the 11th Amendment.
“Defendants argue that because TMCC is not a legal entity, only a community college operated by NSHE, it is not a proper party and must be dismissed,” U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks wrote in February. “The court finds that NSHE and the Board [of Regents] operate as a branch of the Nevada State government and are state entities immune from suit pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment.”
Simmons said he is refiling the lawsuit in district court.
Instructor Thomas Cardoza filed a suit against TMCC in 2018, which was later dismissed. He re-filed his lawsuit last November. An amended complaint was filed this week. He names NSHE Chancellor Reilly and TMCC administrators as defendants.
A lawsuit filed last year by a professor, William Gallegos, was recently resolved. He was granted emeritus status, according to his attorney. No additional details were provided.
A divided campus
The vice president for the campus’ NFA chapter last year praised Hilgersom.
“I regularly work with all of the TMCC administrators and find President Hilgersom approachable, available and willing to sit down and talk about issues with people who care about TMCC,” Julie Muhle told This Is Reno.
Others, while acknowledging problems, also praised her performance but were critical of the administration at TMCC in general.
“[Hilgersom’s] a visionary, has great ideas and does so much for the students,” a former employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“She loses sight of the faculty,” they added. “Administration at TMCC causes people to do crazy, crazy things. There’s so much turmoil at NSHE as it is.”
A part-time faculty member, also speaking off the record, said he appreciates TMCC’s leadership.
“I think there’s a split in the faculty. Some full-time faculty don’t like her, but not all,” the adjunct instructor said. “She’s tried to make changes, tried to bring new ideas, but I’ve never viewed her as disliked. She has done so much for the part-time faculty, including longevity pay [and other benefits].”
Hilgersom said the criticisms of her administration are a distraction from TMCC dealing with a massive public health crisis.
“Now is not the time to advance self-serving grievances and agendas. This does nothing but distract all of us from acting in the best interest of the institution, our students, and the community we serve,” she proclaimed.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.