NEW LONDON — On Wednesday the faculty of Connecticut College overwhelmingly carried a vote of no confidence in the president of Connecticut College – culminating weeks, and years, of concern about Katherine Bergeron’s leadership.
Ostensibly, the problems began with the resignation of Dr. Rodmon King, Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, concerning a fundraiser at the Everglades Club in Palm Springs, an exclusive social club that has faced allegations of discrimination.
King had urged Bergeron to cancel the fundraiser, and it was removed from the college website on Monday, Feb. 6., according to the College Voice.
King resigned Tuesday morning, Feb. 7.
Bergeron responded with letters to the community on Feb. 7, and Feb. 8, writing that “the news has caused a measure of shock, anger, and grief in our community. I want to express again my sorrow at his sudden departure, which represents a real loss to our community and to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Conn.”
By Wednesday night, Feb. 8, students gathered to protest, pointing to chronic understaffing and lack of funding for the Division of Institutional Equity and Inclusion – and that four of the division’s deans had come and gone.
But in a letter to the chair and vice chair of the Board of Trustees, King said that issues centered on Bergeron’s behaviors. He wrote that Bergeron had created a “toxic administrative culture of fear and intimidation,” and described her “bullying behaviors.” King said that he had witnessed her “yell at, denigrate, talk over and silence my colleagues during cabinet meetings” – behaviors that she had exhibited “throughout her presidency” that began in 2014.
In a phone call with CT Examiner, Afshan Jafar, chair of sociology at the college, emphasized that even though the faculty’s no confidence vote had been framed as a reaction to King’s resignation, the 149-to-11 vote (with 8 abstentions) reflected long term concerns about Bergeron that the faculty had repeatedly brought to the Board of Trustees.
“But we have been ignored for many years,” Jafar said.
She said the student protests had provided the faculty with an opening to go back to the Board of Trustees with the same long term issues.
“So it’s really much bigger than Rodman King’s resignation – that was a catalyzing event in many ways, but it was not the reason we’re doing this by any means,” Jafar said. “Students keep saying it is the straw that broke the camel’s back – and it really is – but faculty have been communicating with the board for several years now regarding our concerns.”
Reappointment without faculty input
One issue, Jafar said, was that the board reviewed Bergeron in 2019 and reappointed her to a five year term without the faculty’s knowledge.
“We certainly weren’t able to provide any feedback to the Board of Trustees regarding her review – so that kind of top down approach to just reviewing and reappointing her, I think was also really jarring to faculty.”
She said a 2017 letter from the faculty to the board discussed Bergerons “lack of transparency and her leadership style which is often dismissive of the expertise around her and mentioned that faculty morale is at an all time low.”
Jafar said that nearly 100 staff members were laid off during COVID, and faculty’s salaries were frozen and retirement benefits were cut from a 10 percent match to five percent match.
“At the same time that President Bergeron took home a bonus that was over $200,000 during COVID. So there was a lot of unhappiness around,” Jafar said. “We were all paying the price for a lot of administrative decisions at the time, but we felt like she was not paying the price of those decisions.”
Jafar said there had been a high rate of turnover among the senior administrators under Bergeron and that her administration had been described as “chaos” since positions were not filled immediately because faculty don’t want to put their names forward.
“There are all these issues that have just come to a point where we have been taking the concerns to the board for many years, but the board hasn’t done anything about it. So we’re at this point where this was the action that was left for us to take,” she said.
During a forum held by the Board of Trustees, Jafar said faculty members asked why the board continued to have confidence in Bergeron.
“They didn’t really have an answer for that except to say that one of the positive things about President Bergeron has been that she has been a great fundraiser. I think the trustees tend to look at the health of an institution from a purely financial angle, and don’t understand all the other costs that the rest of us are paying on campus in order for an institution to look relatively healthy financially to the Board of Trustees.”
The faculty — and the staff and students — are now waiting for the Board of Trustees to make a decision, Jafar said.
“They are reviewing her and they’re reviewing all the information available to them. And so this becomes one more piece of information in that equation for them.”
‘That ship has sailed’
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, the same night as the faculty vote, 30 students who had locked themselves in the Fanning Hall administration building since Feb. 27 exited the building.
“They just came out last night, in part because of the vote of no confidence, but also because spring break starts tomorrow and I think to be realistic that they need to go home. I’d heard a lot of them were not doing well, emotionally or mentally, because they’d been locked in the building for 10 days,” said Christopher Steiner, professor of art history and anthropology and director of the museum studies program.
Steiner told CT Examiner that the mood on campus has been low, but there is also a sense of hope.
“On the one hand, morale is the lowest it’s been in 25 years. On the other hand, there’s a tremendous sense of unity,” he said.
He said he thought that the president and the board were hoping things would die down over the next two weeks of Spring break — but said he knew “that’s not going to happen.”
“I just think the ship has sailed and momentum is extremely high on campus. It’s the fact that we had the largest vote of no confidence in a president ever at Connecticut College – and the fact that the students are organized and demanding change and they will not accept anything less.”
Editor’s note: The faculty no confidence vote took place on Wednesday, March 8, as did the students’ exit from the administration building — neither were on Thursday as previously stated.
This story has been updated.