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Review shows RCC put students’ basic needs at risk

Leaders spent on raises, scrimped on amenities

First of two parts.

When Terrence Gomes stepped down as president of Roxbury Community College in June, students, staff, and professors were told little about why.

The US Department of Education and the state auditor’s office were investigating the school, but both kept details confidential. Gomes and the college’s trustees signed a contract that barred them from criticizing one another.

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But over the past three months, the Globe has conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with dozens of other sources and obtained thousands of documents, including an audit commissioned by the school’s trustees. That body of evidence indicates that over its nine years of existence, Gomes’s administration made many decisions that put RCC students’ basic needs at risk.

The school spent thousands on administrative raises while scrimping on campus amenities. Some of its hiring practices raised ethical concerns. The college quietly distributed scholarships to a small group of students at will.

Meanwhile, it put its access to federal financial aid in jeopardy, despite the fact that 78 percent of its students depend on federal Pell Grants. The school is currently on provisional financial aid status — meaning that the Department of Education can unilaterally cut off funds if an investigation reveals serious infractions.

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Hundreds of e-mails and other documents show that during Gomes’s tenure, RCC ­repeatedly failed to fix problems with a computerized ­academic-advising system that determines whether students are enrolled in courses that qualify for aid. In 2006, the federal government found it had distributed money to many ineligible students.

Terrence Gomes

Globe/File

Terrence Gomes

After that, problems continued, even though the school had assured the government they would not, and even though Gomes was regularly signing documents saying the college was compliant with federal rules.

Gomes would not comment for this story. Most of his top administrators also declined to comment. Almost all other RCC employees who talked to the Globe did so on the condition of anonymity because they had been forbidden by supervisors to speak with the newspaper.

This year, Massachusetts payroll data show that Gomes has made $374,589 from the state, thanks partly to his ­departure package. He received a 40 percent pay raise between 2005 and 2012, bringing his annual rate of pay to $196,749. That is only a little above average for a ­Massachusetts community college president, and the jump is partially accounted for by the addition of a modest housing allowance.

But the numbers do not include other perks, such as a car the school procured for Gomes’s use — spending extra funds, according to campus ­officials, because Gomes wanted a specific color of paint.

Payroll data also show that the school’s current five highest-­paid administrators have, on average, received a 32 percent salary increase since 2005 under Gomes’s oversight, though not all of them received major promotions during that time.

Meanwhile, RCC has scrimped on some campus basics for students.

Recently, as a cost-saving move, it decided not to buy whiteboards for some classrooms. Instead, it covered old blackboards in white paint that has already begun to wear thin.

It demolished its cafeteria and rented out the space to officials from the 2010 US Census. The head-counters have long since left, but the cafeteria has not yet been rebuilt.

A major college asset, a ­Centre Street mansion listed on the state register of historic places, has been neglected to the point of dilapidation. When a drug-rehabilitation program that rented the mansion for just $12 a year recently moved out, the door was left open.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

This Victorian mansion on Centre Street owned by Roxbury Community College fell into disrepair.

Thieves took the antique fixtures, according to a campus ­official, and the pipes froze and burst. The school still did not board up the building, said ­another RCC employee, until police were notified.

In other ways, the school made progress under Gomes.

Its finances improved substantially, according to data the school submitted to the state.

Although its graduation rate remains dismal, pass rates in remedial math classes have tripled to 33 percent, winning the school a national award. RCC’s entry-level nursing program has boasted 100 percent pass rates on a national licensing ­exam. This spring, the state pledged $20.7 million for the school to build a life sciences center.

College officials are trying to stay focused on those types of accomplishments, interim president Linda Turner said.

“There was a long and hard fight to get this college located in Roxbury. Now, we’re fighting to be stronger,” she said. “We’ve had some problems, and I don’t want to diminish the problems. But I want to concentrate on positive things we’ve done.”

Yet the school’s positive momentum may now be at risk, too. Following the federal and state investigations, some ­Massachusetts authorities told the Globe there are questions about whether to fund the life sciences center.

State officials say they do not want faculty, staff, and students to suffer for administrators’ decisions. Nor do they want to merge RCC with Bunker Hill Community College, a longstanding fear at RCC, which is of enormous importance to Boston’s minority community.

Yet RCC is losing hundreds of neighborhood students to Bunker Hill. News of its dysfunction could exacerbate the trend and slow the college’s growth, which already lags that of its counterparts across the state. RCC’s annual head count is 3,912, a 6 percent increase since 2003, compared with a 61 percent increase at Bunker Hill Community College during that time.

Whatever the effects on students, the coming year is likely to bring change for RCC’s administration.

Governor Deval Patrick recently overhauled its board. Kathy Taylor, the new chairwoman, told the Globe she planned to look into allegations of misconduct, relying on “middle managers” to tell her what top administrators might not.

Wayne Budd, a prominent former federal prosecutor, has also launched an investigation at Turner’s behest.

For RCC, then, the future is uncertain, and the past is unsettling.

Bad advice

For most RCC students, a key factor in choosing classes is whether the courses are covered by federal financial aid. The information is supposed to be supplied through a computerized advising process.

But hundreds of documents obtained by the Globe show that the “advising tree” software intended to serve that role has not been properly updated over the years. Consequently, it has produced results during those years that are, in the words of one college official, “bogus junk.”

Those results may have caused many students to unwittingly receive aid for which they do not qualify. Documents show RCC administrators have been warned about the possibility. But “no one has taken ownership,” said the official, who spoke anonymously for fear of losing his job, “and no one has been held accountable.”

In 2006, the Department of Education pinpointed many cases in which aid had been given to ineligible students and ­demanded the school pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In subsequent appeals, RCC administrators argued that two courses previously classified as remedial and ineligible for federal aid should have been considered college-level and thus eligible. (E-mails show the administrators had been debating the point internally for years.) Retroactively reclassifying the courses substantially lowered the amount the school had to pay back.

The school also assured the Education Department that it had been “able to make the necessary changes to the advising delivery system to ensure the problems uncovered by the [federal] audit will not occur again.”

But e-mails and documents show that, unbeknownst to the Education Department, the ­advising trees continued to be dysfunctional long afterward and that school employees spent years talking about the problem but never coming up with a permanent fix.

In 2009, Gomes ordered the school to make the software a priority. Advisers told him they had accomplished the goal.

But soon, as shown by numerous e-mails and a state ­audit released in 2012, the advis­ing trees were yielding bad results again.

The school did not solve the problem in time for this year’s spring semester. Instead, advisers had to do the software’s job slowly by hand, keeping the school from distributing aid incorrectly but delaying distribution for hundreds of qualified students until shortly before graduation.

RCC’s vice president of academic affairs, Brenda ­Mercomes, and its vice president of enrollment and student affairs, Stephanie Janey, told Gomes in an e-mail that the delay had arisen because of a newly discovered “computer glitch,” angering financial aid staff who felt they were being blamed for a problem they did not create.

Since then, according to Turner, RCC has tried again to fix the software. But it is still not fully confident in its efforts. So, even though the deadline for adding or dropping fall classes has already passed, advisers this semester are again checking students’ choices by hand.

‘The door to mischief’

Since February 2009, ­Roxbury Community College has awarded 165 students scholarships that the college’s internal audit describes as “questionable.”

The Presidential Scholarships program appears to be unknown to almost everyone on campus, including at least one member of the school’s scholarship committee.

The college’s audit says the awards have no qualification criteria and no application and are given at the president’s sole discretion. Recipients do not seem to fit any typical profile of scholarship winners. The college’s audit sampled 25 scholarship recipients’ records at random; four had 0.0 grade point averages.

Alane Shanks, RCC’s former vice president of administration and finance, told the Globe the scholarships were used “to prevent hardship in the neediest students.”

A different RCC administrator told the Globe he had inquired about them on behalf of a student and had been advised by an RCC vice president that the money was to be “used to cover our errors.”

Documents show one Presidential Scholarship was given to a student who complained in 2010 of being sexually assaulted by an RCC official and was billed unexpectedly after the school lost track of her health insurance information.

Joshua Wyner, executive ­director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and a specialist on community colleges, said administrators should not “have money, in ­essence, in their hip pockets and give it out however they want, because that opens the door to mischief.”

Last week, Turner told the Globe she has put a stop to the practice.

Human resources

RCC has made a few coveted hires in recent years, including a Fulbright Scholar who is a dean.

But the qualifications of other hires have prompted concerns.

When the college was hiring an official to oversee information technology, for instance, its human resources director told colleagues he could not confirm the credentials of a leading candidate, Patrick Jean-Louis.

Although Jean-Louis lists “15 years of experience” on his LinkedIn page, he did not receive his bachelor’s degree until 2005 or his master’s until 2007, both from the for-profit University of Phoenix.

RCC hired Jean-Louis over the human resources director’s objections. The results were not encouraging.

In 2009, faculty members gave Jean-Louis a vote of no-confidence, citing “constant interruptions, failures, [and] lack of updating” of IT systems. A consultant hired by Gomes to assess the situation delivered a scathing report.

But Jean-Louis kept his job and $100,000 salary. He is now RCC’s fifth-highest-paid employee. He did not respond to requests for comment.

On May 2, 2008, the human resources director quit his job — in disgust, he told the Globe. Days later he e-mailed former vice president Shanks, accusing her of having pressured him to rule against unionized employees in grievance cases. He also e-mailed union representatives: “Alane Shanks made threats to my employment.”

Shanks denied those allegations to the Globe. Shortly after the human resources director made them, she also denied them to an RCC manager whom the school had chosen to investigate.

The manager concluded that the human resources director’s allegations were unfounded. But critics questioned whether the manager was impartial. In 2007, she and Shanks had co-chaired committees at the Brookline school their children attended.

Shanks told the Globe that she did not appoint the manager as head of the investigation. But a contract the manager was given in 2008 — which, according to a college employee with direct knowledge, was for the investigation — lists Shanks as the signing authority.

In 2007, RCC hired another person familiar to Shanks: her husband, Jeremy Solomons, a Suffolk University English professor, who helped the school in its response to the 2006 financial aid audit. Solomons’ job was to pick through transcripts looking for students who had been given financial aid for courses that were not eligible, which would then be reclassified.

The State Ethics Commission questioned the hiring of Solomons in 2008. Shanks told the Globe she advised the commission that she “did not work with or supervise” Solomons’ project, “nor did he and I discuss it.” The commission cleared her on the basis of her testimony.

But the Globe has obtained an e-mail in which Solomons advises Shanks in detail on his progress. It strongly suggests she was acting as a supervisor.

More bad news

RCC’s potential woes are not limited to its main campus. The state auditor’s office is investigating concerns at the school’s Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, including complaints of a hostile work environment and allegations that cash collected from events has not been properly reported as income.

Low-level employees have suspected as much for a decade, since a janitor found dollar bills hidden in a bureau after a track meet. The janitor told the Globe he took the money to his supervisor, and heard nothing more — until the next year, he said, when another facility employee found cash in the same bureau.

A Reggie Lewis official told the Globe the money in the first case likely belonged to outside event promoters and was returned.

But late last year, an independent track coach named Rose Green wrote a 24-page memo filled with allegations that Reggie Lewis staff members were, among many other transgressions, making off with cash. She provided copies of the memo to Governor Patrick, his chief of staff Mo Cowan, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Boston police, the federal Department of Education, and state auditors.

Green has been mired in a credibility battle with Reggie Lewis director Keith ­McDermott. He has accused her of stalking a facility employee and running a “scam” while renting a room for a competition. She has, in turn, accused him and his staff of harassing her track team and unfairly barring her from the facility.

The Globe has found some allegations in Green’s memo to be factually inaccurate, but has not been able to conduct a full review. State auditors have met with Green at length, however. They have yet to release their findings.

The federal Education ­Department’s investigation, ­focused on crime reporting by the college, is also still ongoing.

Documents show at least one RCC administrator has publicly identified two employees, Thomas Galvin and ­Raymond O’Rourke, as whistle-blowers who alerted government agencies to the school’s troubles.

Whistle-blowers’ names are supposed to remain confidential, and the Education Department has warned the college it may be illegal to retaliate against people helping with its investigation.

O’Rourke, the school’s financial aid director, is out on stress-related medical leave. Galvin was recently fired from his job as security chief and has retained an attorney for a possible suit against the school.

Many on campus fear that such lawsuits could result in multimillion-dollar settlements — and more bad times.

Mary Carmichael can
be reached at mary.
carmichael@globe.com
.
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