Metro Provost Gets a Steep Grade
Get well soon, Dr. Rocha. Just don't come back.
That's probably the most civil way to characterize the sentiment among many faculty members at Metropolitan State College of Denver with regard to Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Rodolfo Rocha.
School administrators hoped that Rocha, hired in the summer of 2006, would help attract more minority students and bring greater stability to an institution still rebuilding after leadership shakeups. But in less than a single school year, he earned the scorn of his peers, and by the end of the spring semester, the school's faculty senate was vigorously pursuing a vote of no-confidence in the hopes of forcing the provost's resignation.
They never got the satisfaction. Rocha was placed on medical leave on May 30, suffering from what college representatives characterize as a "serious illness." His return date has been extended three times, even while Rocha continues to receive his $175,000-a-year salary. Though serendipitously timed, his leave is taken at face value by most of his critics. Nevertheless, the four-month absence hasn't made their hearts grow fonder.
"I'm sorry the man is ill and can't work, but for the institution and for the well-being of the environment, it's probably best that it happened that way," says John Schmidt, a longtime professor of industrial design. "Because otherwise it'd be a mess down here, I can tell you that right now."
During Rocha's short tenure, the union representing faculty received more than a dozen complaints from instructors about him, at least two of which ended in settlements. Ellen Slatkin, president of the Metropolitan State Faculty Federation, says this is by far the most complaints the union has ever received in a single school year.
Rocha couldn't be reached for an interview, and his wife, Dr. Dalinda Solis, a tenured professor at Metro, didn't return calls seeking comment. Metro professor David Conde, who wrote articles promoting Rocha's arrival at the college for local Latino newspaper La Voz, didn't respond, either.
When Rocha threw his hat in the ring for the Metro provost position two years ago, he was one of seventy applicants. At the time, the college was still trying to recover after a management dispute prompted the sudden resignation of thirteen-year president Sheila Kaplan. Provost Cheryl Norton and three vice presidents also vacated their positions. To begin healing its reputation, Metro hired Eastern Washington University president Stephen Jordan in July 2005 as Kaplan's replacement.
A month later, Jordan told the faculty senate that a permanent provost was key to stabilizing the school's leadership. He also voiced his concern that the "complexion of the [faculty] is very pale" and doesn't match that of the student population.
As an open-enrollment college, Metro's mission has traditionally been to give inner-city residents access to a four-year higher-education experience. The school has a minority enrollment of 4,800 students, or 24 percent of its entire student population.
But Jordan and Metro's board hoped then, and still do, to double the Latino enrollment to 25 percent and have the college designated by the federal government as a "Hispanic Serving Institution." This would also make Metro eligible for millions of dollars in grants set aside by all federal agencies.
Jordan outlined his argument in a July op-ed piece in the Rocky Mountain News, pointing out that "the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas, received $2 million from the Department of Energy and $6 million from other federal agencies."
The University of Texas-Pan American was where Rocha had previously held the position of Dean of Arts and Sciences. As a first-generation college graduate who'd worked his way through the academic ranks, Rocha seemed the perfect fit for Metro's ambitions. And his credentials as a Mexican history scholar who was deeply involved with the Hispanic community were likely to draw more Latino students to Metro.
Jordan won't discuss Rocha's medical leave or the complaints surrounding him. But he insists that Rocha's hiring was based purely on his accomplishments. "We were looking for the best candidate, and Dr. Rocha came up within that search process as an individual with an extremely high set of credentials," he says.
What apparently didn't show up in what Jordan calls Metro's "rigorous" vetting was the fact that in January 2005, Rocha was abruptly removed from his dean's position at UTPA — which he'd held for six years — and placed on a semester-long leave in order to "restart [his] engagement in research and teaching," according to a statement at the time from the school's vice president for academic affairs. No other details were provided. According to an article in the Paper of South Texas, Rocha was also the subject of a complaint by UTPA art professor Lenard Brown, who accused Rocha of planning to fire non-Hispanic members of the art department. Brown, who is African-American, no longer works for UTPA.
Somehow, neither of these readily available facts was included in the information presented to Metro students and faculty after Rocha became one of six finalists for the high-profile provost position in Denver.
After he was hired, Rocha immediately stirred anger within the Metro ranks. One situation involved the removal of English professor Renee Ruderman from her twenty-year position as head of a program intended to assist incoming freshmen who lack academic strength. Although Ruderman still works at Metro, the program was scrapped and replaced by a peer-mentoring initiative headed by Rocha's wife.
But Ruderman's biggest complaint came after an October 2006 administrative meeting during which she says Rocha spoke to her in a disrespectful and threatening manner.
"As a professional, I have never been treated that way before," Ruderman says. She declines to go into specifics except to say that Rocha's "tone of voice" was highly inappropriate. "The great thing about college and academic life is that we argue all the time in a collegial way," she adds. "But the way he talked to me was not collegial at all."
Art department chair Greg Watts also got into a dispute with Rocha last fall. The Metro veteran hired an attorney and later reached an agreement with the school. Watts declines to elaborate: "As much as I'd like to say more, legally I can't do that." Sources say that the conflict arose after Rocha characterized Watts, a British expatriate, as "racist and colonialist."
The same isn't true for Melanie Haas, who ran the largest federal endowment in the college's history before being canned by Rocha earlier this year. The $9.4 million Teacher Quality Enhancement grant was one of twenty issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2004 with the goal of stimulating reforms in the way new teachers are trained and recruited into urban school districts at colleges nationwide.
Haas, a former Denver Public Schools principal, says she was put into a difficult position at a December 18 meeting when Rocha pressured her to use grant money to pay for another faculty member's $118,000 salary. Haas refused, countering that the DOE would never approve the change. "[Rocha] said to me, 'If I find out you're lying, I'm going to get you,'" says Haas. "And he did."
Haas filed a complaint with Metro's Office of Equal Opportunity, saying she felt physically threatened by Rocha. Then, on February 28, while Haas was visiting an elementary school, her computer was confiscated and she was fired.
The next week, faculty members sent a letter to Jordan expressing concern over the dismissal. They say they never received a response. "I believe it was a personal vendetta on the part of Rocha," says history professor Barb Gabriel. "[Haas] dared to stand up to him, and she was fired for it."
Haas hired a lawyer, who promised to sue the school for discrimination and unlawful dismissal. The two sides eventually reached a settlement for an undisclosed monetary sum.
Neither the president's office nor the faculty senate would comment on these cases, citing personnel issues.
Rocha has until mid-November to decide if he wants to return, says Metro spokeswoman Cathy Lucas. If he does, it won't be as provost. On August 8, Jordan appointed Linda Curran, Rocha's temporary interim replacement, to the position heading the Division of Academic Affairs at least through the 2007-08 school year. If Rocha does come back, he would have to take a faculty position, or he may get disability payments, which he has already applied for. If they are granted, he would have to resign.
"We would need to deal with that right away," Jordan says.
If Rocha decides to push for his provost position, however, instructors also have plans to deal with it, says professor Schmidt. "I have no doubt in my mind that the faculty will be ready with its vote of no confidence," he says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.