Friday, September 25, 2020
Sept. 25, 2020

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Donnelly: Clark College challenges call for balanced approach

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Is Clark College on the right track? Clark is so consequential here that we hope all is well at our community college. Yet it appears that stress levels are high for Clark trustees and administration. The recent acrimonious departure of former President Bob Knight is troubling for those who know his contributions at Clark. The trustees must find a balanced approach to calm the waters.

The stakes are high. Few if any institutions here can match Clark College for helping the less privileged climb the economic ladder. Clark offers students the means to increase their earning power by leaps and bounds, in the nursing school, the culinary school, as a machinist or other skilled labor, or in the many new STEM programs.

Clark has long been inclusive, going the extra mile to accommodate minority studies, those with health and behavioral challenges, students with young children needing Clark Day Care Center, mature students, and high achievers in high schools through the Running Start program.

Knight, president for 12 years, responding to a request for this column, considers his three most important contributions to be “adding two campuses, East Vancouver and the planned Advance Manufacturing Facility in Ridgefield; supporting social equity efforts by creating the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and obtaining six Accreditation Evaluation Commendations in October 2018 including for equity and inclusion and for veterans.”

For decades, Clark has maintained strong endowment support through the Clark College Foundation, including for the state-of-the art STEM building that opened in 2016, gaining national plaudits. Foundation donors have always had full confidence in Clark’s direction and leadership.

Turbulence has come in waves in 2018 and 2019. The campus commitment to free speech was put to the test by Patriot Prayer political rallies and leafletting by National Socialists. More substantively, money troubles developed. Enrollment fell 22 percent from 2011-12 to 2019-20, sapping Clark’s budget at the time when the faculty union demanded higher pay. Knight pushed back on salary demands, citing budget concerns. In May, three STEM programs were cut due to budget constraints. Faculty and administrators entered into mediation in July and, after the two sides met monthly without success, on Nov. 13 the union authorized a strike vote.

Reports raised eyebrows

In July, President Knight retired. In September, after reviewing a consultant report, the trustees (who are appointed by the governor) reported concerning information about an employee, later identified as Knight, with regard to the discriminatory behavior toward several college faculty or staff women of color.

In one example, Knight had jokingly greeted one with an awkward remark: “here comes trouble,” and again jokingly “troublemakers.” Knight later stated he thought of the terms as “playful teases,” which he regretted. When Knight cited specific hires of women of color as examples of progress, he was accused of discrimination in the form of “tokenism.” He has disputed the concerns.

Such a contentious series of events raises eyebrows. Knight is a known factor in Vancouver. He is known for his leadership, and for holding himself and everyone else to the same high standards. His 21-year Army career including commanding the Vancouver Barracks, and his presidency of Clark College and State Association of Community Colleges revealed no previous discriminatory behavior.

The Community Foundation’s First Citizen Award — won by Knight in 2016 — is awarded to an individual who stands above virtually all others for character and leadership as a volunteer. This history doesn’t square with the recent concerns aired publicly about Knight.

Clark’s trustees have many challenges, of which the most important may be selecting a new president who can restore fiscal balance and confidence.

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