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James Mabry

LOWELL — The Middlesex Community College board of trustees voted unanimously at a special meeting Thursday morning to approve hiring a third-party consultant to conduct an evaluation of President James Mabry.

After saying in recent weeks that he didn’t feel the third-party review would be worth the expense, trustees Chairman James Campbell said Thursday he now supports it.

Campbell said he recently had an opportunity to speak with Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago, who expressed his support of conducting what is being called a 360 review.

“He recommended that we do the study, particularly in light of the fact that there was a vote of no confidence and also that President Mabry is approaching the five-year mark,” Campbell said. “The commissioner is recommending that all of the colleges do this.”

Campbell said Santiago assured him that the MCC board of trustees has his full support and that of the state Board of Higher Education, and that Santiago would put that in a letter to the trustees this month. The state will not, however, provide any funding for the review, Campbell said.

A day before the trustees voted to pursue the 360 review of Mabry, Campbell shared with The Sun a report from MCC’s accrediting body, the New England Commission of Higher Education, lauding Mabry and MCC for accomplishments midway through the college’s current 10-year accreditation cycle.

The document notes a number of achievements, including improved outcomes for students, successful curriculum redesign in key areas and other program improvements, efforts to improve financial, human resources and information technology practices and progress in hiring more diverse faculty and staff.

The Thursday vote comes after several contentious months that included the faculty union voting no confidence in Mabry and Campbell, and the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee to work on trying to repair the fraught relationship between the union and college leadership.

In the spring, the board of trustees completed its annual evaluation of Mabry and determined he completed all of the institutional and state-mandated goals set for him for the 2018-2019 school year, including working to maintain information technology infrastructure, working to help students with career exploration, the advancement of campus safety programs, and help provided to homeless and hungry students.

The board also asked Santiago, when considering the state-level review, to award Mabry less than the maximum possible salary increase for 2020 in light of the no-confidence vote.

The union requested the 360 review of Mabry, believing it would provide a more comprehensive evaluation of the president that would include all levels of the college community. The Ad Hoc Committee sought proposals from a number of firms and was ready to put forward a recommendation at the trustees’ full board meeting Oct. 24.

Less than a week before that meeting, however, three-quarters of the Ad Hoc Committee resigned from their assignment, citing distrust in Campbell and Mabry over what they felt were comments and actions designed to distract from the original goal of evaluating Mabry alone – not Mabry and his three vice presidents – and mislead the public about the costs associated with the review.

The committee members were also upset with Campbell for telling The Sun, in an Oct. 15 article, that he didn’t support the third-party review because he felt it was too expensive and would not provide any valuable new information. At that time he’d said the cost would be about $105,000 for a review of Mabry and other senior college leadership.

The review the board approved, by AGB Consulting, is estimated to cost about $67,500. Figures that would have included reviews for the three vice presidents were significantly higher.

Campbell said he expects the 360 review will be completed well before the end of the school year. The matter now goes to the college’s purchasing department to negotiate the contract.

Also on Thursday, Annie O’Connor, who was one of the members of the Ad Hoc Committee, was unanimously approved to be the board of trustees’ new vice chair.

“The Ad Hoc Committee worked hard all summer to get all of the information, presented it, and I think we made the right decision to go forward with just the president, and then I only see it as a benefit from here on,” O’Connor said after the meeting.

Trustees Cheryl Howard and Linda Banks-Santilli, the other two members who had resigned from the committee, also expressed their support for the direction the board took Thursday.

“I think it’s the right thing to do, and I think today’s meeting is really a shift in moving in a positive direction for all of the hardworking people at MCC – the faculty, the staff, the leadership – so I feel very encouraged by today’s meeting,” Banks-Santilli said.

“I think that it was a very good meeting and I think that it demonstrated the board really coming together and working as one to help move the college forward,” Howard said.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the faculty union and college leadership appears to be showing signs of improvement.

Following an Oct. 24 full board of trustees meeting where there was a tense exchange between Campbell and faculty union President Joanna DelMonaco and accusations that she has a “personal issue” with Mabry, DelMonaco and Mabry issued a joint statement Oct. 31 stating their intention to work together moving forward.

“The MCCC (Massachusetts Community College Council) and College Leadership teams met on Tuesday (Oct. 29) and had a very frank and open dialogue,” the statement read. “Numerous recent events were discussed and information was shared in a professional and confidential environment. The group also discussed how to present positive messages to the college community and how to work to improve morale. The two teams agreed to meet again soon.”

Mike Williamson, a math professor and vice president of the union, spoke in favor of the 360 review during public comment at Thursday’s meeting.

“I think there’s voices that want to be heard at the college, and I think that it’s something that eventually will be coming down the pike as far as the Board of Higher Education is going to recommend that colleges do that,” Williamson said. “So I think, due to the unsettled nature on campus, I think this is a time to do it, to hear the voices of not just the few people who have been representing the faculty and staff but to hear from everyone at the college.”