Meetings of community college boards of trustees rarely attract much of a crowd, but that wasn’t the case at Roxbury Community College Tuesday night.
A packed room of 200 or so people came to tell the school’s leadership exactly what they thought of the administration’s terrible decision to fire the head of the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center — a move that threatens to dismantle what is probably the best-functioning part of the school.
RCC management gave executive director Keith McDermott the boot last week after 18 years of service, announcing the decision in an icy, three-sentence e-mail. College officials have refused to say why he was fired, hiding behind the usual excuse that they cannot discuss personnel issues.
But McDermott’s supporters believe they know why: McDermott said “no” too often to his bosses on issues of access to the athletic center, and they decided to show him who was in charge. Most recently, McDermott refused to close the facility for two weeks in January — at the height of the indoor track season, when meets are booked practically every day — so it could be used for RCC registration. That, the thinking goes, was the last straw for the administration.
Speakers in McDermott’s defense ranged from Roxbury politicians, to neighborhood activists, to suburban track coaches, to neighborhood seniors who are regular users of the fitness center. The people who fired him didn’t have a supporter in the room.
It’s hard to overstate what the Reggie Lewis center means to the community. It’s a world-class athletic facility. It’s a major community center. It’s a national showcase for Roxbury. When it was built, in 1993, it was the facility that the track and field community had been seeking for years. And, of course, it’s named for a community hero.
It’s not clear how much any of that means to RCC president Valerie Roberson, who seems to view it as just another gym.
And some worry that the administration might also see it as a piggy bank. The Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association held a fund-raiser in August 2015 at the track that raised $120,000 — but they haven’t seen any of the money yet. It was collected by the RCC and is now, surprisingly, being held by the Roxbury Community College Foundation. The coaches say they have been told only that the money is being “held in escrow” there, and meetings between the track association and Roberson have been repeatedly put off.
The Coaches Association says it has no idea what it all means, and neither do I. Roberson told me she couldn’t address the specifics of the Foundation’s activities, which she said she does not directly oversee. She said she hopes to meet with the coaches soon. McDermott, meanwhile, did not return calls.
The shame is, all of this is occurring at what is supposed to be the new and improved RCC. After a series of stories several years ago documenting multiple forms of mismanagement at the school, Governor Deval Patrick overhauled its leadership.
The reformers Patrick appointed brought far more management experience and pledged to start over. Hiring Roberson was one of their first moves. It all seemed so promising.
But the college has reverted to operating like a third-world fiefdom, in which decisions cannot be questioned and explanations are unnecessary. It was heartbreaking to watch a group of elderly women attest to McDermott’s kindness and support Tuesday night while the college’s so-called leadership looked on stonefaced. If they felt any sense of community accountability, they didn’t let it show.
McDermott should be reinstated, but the reforms can’t stop there. The track should be managed by a different entity — perhaps another local college. And the RCC Foundation needs to immediately release any money that wasn’t raised for its use.
Roxbury Community College has a troubled history and a questionable present as well. But a precious community resource can’t continue to be sacrificed to dysfunction.