In last month’s election, four people were elected to the Parkland Board of Trustees. One of the newly elected trustees, Rochelle Harden, became the first black trustee in the history of Parkland College. However, her election has been surrounded by controversy. Harden is a tenured English professor at the college, therefore stirring up rumblings of a conflict of interest and resulting in the college filing for a declaratory judgement in the Champaign County Circuit Court where a judge will ultimately decide whether she can continue to teach and serve as a member of the board. I met with Harden last week, and she shared her perspectives on the situation.
Editor's Note: answers were edited for space and clarity.
Smile Politely: Give us a brief background on yourself and what brought you to Parkland.
Rochelle Harden: I was working on my second masters degree in education at U of I, after working at Eastern [Illinois University] with a program for first generation college students to give them exposure to what campus life is like. I just thought "I need a couple of dollars, I’m a graduate student," so I started teaching part time at Parkland and I fell in love. It was an incredible time. It was so exciting. It was perfect for what I needed at the time. I just blossomed there. When I got the opportunity to apply for a position, I was like “Oh yes, I’m definitely going to apply!” Three years later, I got tenure, and I’ve been there ever since. My background has always been helping students who are usually first generation, but are referred to as "developmental students". At Parkland, I was hired specifically to do this job, to work with the students I’ve been working with this whole time. It was an exciting time professionally, and there was so much faculty input on the day to day. Now, fast-forward to today: state budget. State budget has been disastrous for the whole state and for the higher education system. The biggest problem has been that once people heard we were losing funding, they just started leaving Parkland for other jobs. We lost the Director of Disability Services, and then the Assistant Director of Disability Services. And the majority of my students have disabilities. Then they started firing (non-tenured) faculty. I went to the board of trustees and I asked them to "please not cut these people...", they said "no".
SP: So what led you to run for the Board of Trustees?
Harden: I found out that there was an election coming up, and I was convincing everyone in the community to “please, please run." I went to a community meeting, hosted by Carol Ammons and her group. It was right after election, people were kind of despondent, looking for direction and looking for focus... and a real way to have an impact. By the end of that meeting, I was running for the board of trustees. At that meeting I got the 50 signatures right then and there. I was thinking "How many times have I told my students, 'you’ve got to keep pushing'." It occurred to me that I needed to follow my own advice. I needed to do whatever I could to make sure they (my students) have as few obstacles in their path as possible.
SP: Once you filed your petition and announced your candidacy, what was mentioned about this whole conflict of interest thing?
Harden: As a faculty member, I’ve gone through Illinois (Public) Community College Act a couple of different times. Before I handed in my papers I just kept looking through and looking through and consulting with some friends who are lawyers, but not in an official capacity. I’m like look at this, tell me, do you see anything in here that could be a problem? They’re like no! Just follow the section that talks about abstaining from conflicts of interest. As long as you follow that, you should be fine. There might be some pushback from the college, obviously, but there’s nothing in here. The very first time I heard anything was from a gentleman who’s the executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustee Assocation (Michael Monaghan). Unprompted, he called the local newspapers and made a statement that said “she can’t do it, it’s a conflict of interest." That started the ball rolling.
SP: What do you see as the benefit of having a faculty member on the board?
Harden: The Board of Trustees are guests. When they come in, we put out our best towels, and our best silverware, right? We clean up for them. They’re not there for the day to day. They only know what Tom Ramage (Parkland president) shows them. They don’t tour the campus, or take classes at the campus. I think that has been a major problem in communicating what the students need. I understand that their focus is fiduciary responsibility to the community, but we also need to serve the students and their best interests and that is kind of falling to the wayside. It’s not the board’s fault entirely, definitely the state budget has been a part of it, but I just keep thinking of the ways my students in particular are being disadvantaged. Every time they raise tuition, my students have to work more hours to pay that tuition. The more hours they work, the less time they have to study. There's going to be a point where they are priced right out of the market and won't be able to go to college. We have a responsibility to our students to do the best by them as we can.
SP: What action has the board taken so far?
Harden: They had an emergency meeting right after the election. Right before I was sworn in, I was called into HR with Lorna Geiler (Parkland and the board’s lawyer), the VP of academic affairs, HR director, and my union rep. They presented this big thick packet and said these are the reasons why you can’t (both teach and serve on the board) so you need to choose. And I responded “no, I’m going to do both. And you can’t force me to choose." So I was sworn in, and the very next day they had the court papers ready and they filed a declaratory judgement. It really concerns me, especially since we’re in serious financial trouble, that Parkland is using taxpayer dollars in order to fund Lorna Geiler. And as a board member, I can see how much she gets paid! That’s three scholarships right there! Now I’m in the position where I have to raise funds for a lawyer. I’m beginning to feel what my students feel like, when you have a goal in mind and then it takes money. All I want to do is serve on the board and help the students. Why are there so many roadblocks? Then, as I would tell my students, I tell myself to hang in there and find a way. So that’s where the gofundme came in. Community members have been incredibly supportive. I’ve already raised $3,000 inside of a week, but I have to get to $15,000.
SP: So what are you waiting on to happen next:
Harden: My lawyer gives a response to the 6th district. There might be some motions, there might be a public hearing, there might be oral arguments...I don’t know. But ultimately it comes down to the judge. It ends there, it’s his decision.
SP: In the meantime, are you an active member of the board?
Harden: Yes. I’ve already had my first board meeting, I have another one on Wednesday, I have graduation... I’m doing all of the board things. It’s a joyous time of year that’s kind of overshadowed by the lawsuit. The thing that’s the most heartbreaking is that we really need a budget. I need to finish grading and then I need to get down to Springfield to do whatever I can to push for a budget. I need to be calling the governor, calling our representatives, I need to be encouraging people to call our representatives. I should be doing those kinds of things.
SP: What’s the feeling with the rest of the board members as you participate in board activities?
Harden: It’s cold. It’s pretty cold. Don’t get me wrong, they shook my hand, they said welcome, but then two days later I got served without a heads up. But believe me, I didn’t get this far by being thin skinned. I’m completely used to it.
SP: Obviously the more you speak out, the more this situation is out there in the public, the more this is shared, the more scrutiny and criticism you’ll get. What is your response to those who think you should not be able teach and serve on the board?
Harden: Higher education is different. I’m always pushing back against the assumption that the business world or the private sector and higher education run the same way and they really don’t. It’s not just a job, it’s a profession. And when you commit yourself to a profession, there are some things that you sacrifice. And when you have people who sacrifice for a profession, it’s much more involved. This is about people’s minds, and this is about people’s futures. I don’t want to put a price on people’s education. I get the thought process (behind the conflict of interest). The News-Gazette editorial described it as "labor vs. management", and I thought to myself, "that's not how higher education is". We don't think of the board as management and we (the faculty) don't think of ourselves as labor. We work together in order to serve the community and serve the students.
SP: What is your desired outcome in all of this? What do you hope to see?
Harden: I keep thinking short term, because I just want this to be over. I just want to focus on doing the things that help students. But my ultimate dream is that we reinstate the budget fully, and we fully fund higher education, and we make drastic changes at the college that encourage students to come to Parkland, and then we hire all these great teachers. There’s a way to groom an environment where everybody loves learning, so it’s not a chore or a hoop you have to jump through, it’s much more about developing you as a human being and seeing your greatest potential being realized and whatever path you take, you go for it. No matter how stressful all of this gets, the minute I walk into that classroom, I’m like “Hey!! I missed you guys!!” But I’m doing the best I can for them. I’m trying to do right by them. They’ve done right by me...I’m going to try to do right by them.
Smile Politely reached out to Parkland, and we received this response:
Statement on behalf of Parkland College Administration and Board of Trustees:
Parkland College is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court to settle the dispute over Ms. Rochelle Harden’s ability to simultaneously serve as a member of the Parkland faculty and its Board of Trustees. The Declaratory Judgment Complaint was filed with the Champaign County Circuit Clerk. There are questions on both sides as to the legality of this situation and it is imperative that Parkland seeks appropriate guidance in order to proceed in a matter consistent with the law.
It should be noted that this is not an effort to contest the results of the April election, remove Ms. Harden from office, or pursue action against her as an individual. On the contrary, we believe that pursuing a legally binding determination is the best way to serve District 505 in this situation.
Parkland is anxious to move forward with direction on this issue from the court. A legal resolution in this matter is welcome and in the best interest of all parties.
It’s a tricky situation for sure. Ms. Harden exudes enthusiasm for the college. She quite obviously has a passion for her students, and is driven to push for decisions that will be in their best interests. It’s clear that her voice on the board would be one that speaks not just for the faculty, but for the staff and students as well. However, there is a valid argument for her presence on the board being a conflict of interest, as the board is responsible for making decisions about hiring and firing faculty and staff, including Dr. Ramage, Ms. Harden's boss. While there are higher education boards with faculty members serving, it's up to the circuit court judge to decide whether the language of the Public Community College Act prohibits it in this case.