Members of the Pomona College Board of Trustees held a series of three meetings with faculty, current and former dining services employees, and students on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the recent employment authorization reviews that resulted in the termination of 17 college employees on Dec. 1, general worker concerns, and ways to improve communication between the Board and other members of the college community. Trustees were on campus this week for their quarterly Board meeting.
A group of trustees, including Chairman of the Board Paul Efron PO ’76, met with faculty members on Tuesday evening to discuss the Board’s decision-making process regarding the recent documentation reviews, according to trustee Paul Eckstein PO ’62, who attended the meeting.
The reviews were triggered after 84 college employees were found to have deficient documentation following an audit of the college’s hiring practices by law firm Sidley Austin. The Board consulted Sidley Austin after receiving a complaint last spring accusing President David Oxtoby’s administration of keeping a policy of not obtaining proper documentation from employees at the time of hire and alleging that no verification of employees’ legal authorization to work was ever undertaken (see stories in News).
On Wednesday morning, close to 40 current and former dining services employees congregated in Rose Hills Theatre to share their stories about the work environment in the dining halls with four members of the Board of Trustees: Eckstein, Jeanne Buckley PO ’65, Jennifer Wilcox PO ’08, and trustee emeritus Ranney Draper PO ’60. The meeting was scheduled following a hunger fast initiated on Dec. 8 by four students calling for more direct communication between the Board and Pomona staff members (see the students’ Statement of Purpose in Opinions). President Oxtoby responded to the students on Dec. 9, and the fast was ended.
When the students’ initial request to record the event was denied, an editor from The Student Life was invited to attend, though all recording devices were forbidden. The four students who participated in the hunger fast, Isabel Juarez PO ’13, Will Mullaney PO ’12, Andrew Davis Saul PO ’14, and Tracy Zhao PO ’13, were also present at the meeting, though they spoke only through a prepared statement at the start of the event.
Following the meeting with dining services employees, about 17 trustees, eight members of Concerned Pomona Students (the student group organizing the ongoing vigil outside Alexander Hall), five Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) senators (three of whom are also part of Concerned Pomona Students), and several members of the administration (including Oxtoby, Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum, and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Seth Allen) met over lunch in the Smith Campus Center (SCC) to discuss ways to improve avenues of communication between students and the Board.
The meeting supplanted the scheduled meeting of the Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees, chaired by trustee Lynn Yonekura PO ’70, which is ordinarily closed to all students except the President of ASPC. In response to requests for a meeting with trustees from Concerned Pomona Students, Feldblum and ASPC President Nate Brown PO ’12 worked with Yonekura and other trustees to modify the structure and agenda of the meeting. An editor from The Student Life was also invited to the meeting, though all recording devices were forbidden.
At both the worker-trustee meeting and student-trustee meeting, several private security guards stood by along with several members of Campus Safety. According to sources familiar with the additional security presence, the non-Campus Safety officers were carrying firearms.
Attendees of the faculty and student meetings spoke highly of the discussions that took place.
“The dialogue with both the students and the faculty was very constructive, and coming out of that there was greater mutual understanding,” said Efron, who attended both meetings. “I hope that led to greater understanding in a positive way, but I also think that there are some responsibilities on us (the Board) and the administration to respond to some very specific things that both of those constituencies put forward, and we will try to address those requests in the most constructive way we can.”
“I’m not necessarily saying that every single item that was requested of us we’ll be able to accommodate,” Efron added. “But we’re approaching this from the spirit of… [trying] to be as accommodating as we can be while being consistent with what we think is good governance and good principles.”
1. Faculty-Trustee Meeting: Tuesday, Dec. 13
Following discussions at Tuesday’s faculty-trustee meeting, which was closed to The Student Life, members of the faculty amended a resolution that was not discussed at last week’s faculty meeting that, if passed, would have resolved that the faculty “lacks confidence in the leadership of the Board of Trustees to be a proper steward of the community of Pomona College.”
As of Wednesday evening, the amended resolution calls for an “ad hoc committee representative of the Faculty… charged with investigating the decision-making and other processes leading up to the recent firings of Pomona College employees,” according to a draft of the resolution that was provided to TSL. The proposed resolution, which will be voted on at today’s faculty meeting, also “requests the Board of Trustees and the Administration to cooperate fully in this fact-finding by providing properly redacted documents, by allowing access to all decision-makers for interviews, and by directing the College’s attorneys to provide information and documents to the committee.” The committee would be charged with producing a report “at the latest one week before the March meeting of the Faculty.”
History Department Chair Victor Silverman, one of the authors of the amended resolution and one of the faculty members who met with trustees on Tuesday, said the proposed investigation would aim to provide clarity on the events surrounding the allegation that was made to the Board last spring and on the subsequent decisions that resulted in the document reviews.
“There are people who have made arguments that there was nothing else the Board could do, and in fact many of the members made that argument [on Tuesday], and there are many among us, including me, who say, ‘Well, actually, there were a lot of different alternatives possible, a lot of different courses of action that could have been taken, and a lot of ways that this could have been managed differently, and we want to know why they weren’t taken,’” Silverman said.
“I think before the idea of modifying the resolution for [today] is that before we want to take a very serious step of voting no confidence, we want to be absolutely clear about what happened and why it happened, because maybe there isn’t a need for a vote of no confidence, or maybe there still is,” he said. “But until we have the facts clearly established, we’re not going to be able to make that decision.”
Silverman said that while the committee would request that the Board and the administration cooperate by providing documents and information about the allegation and auditing process, the investigation—if approved by the faculty—could still move forward.
“The way that we’ve rewritten the resolution is to have an investigation done by the faculty and to ask for the cooperation of the Board and its attorneys and of the administration,” he said. “If they don’t give it to us, we will still be able to conduct an investigation and write a report. It just won’t have all the evidence that we would like to have for it, and that really we would need to be fully clear about it.”
According to Silverman, the faculty-trustee meeting also elucidated some details regarding the handling of the allegation that was made to the Board in the spring.
“[We were told] that actually only one or maybe two [trustees] ever saw the allegation letter, the original complaint letter,” Silverman said. “Basically we were told that the complaint was received by the Board Chair, [and] the Board Chair passed it on to the Audit Committee [of the Board of Trustees], but whether or not he actually passed the letter or just that there was a complaint, I don’t know. These are the kinds of things that we really need to learn.”
According to trustees Eckstein and Buckley, who spoke to TSL after the student-trustee meeting, the complaint was sent to Efron, the Board Chair, who then passed it to the Audit Committee of the Board of Trustees. The Audit Committee is composed of around six trustees, though neither Eckstein nor Buckley knew the exact size of the committee. Because of this process, they said, most members of the Board have not seen the original allegation letter, and many, including them, were not made aware of the audit until after President Oxtoby had been notified in September that his administration was cleared of having a policy of not checking documents.
“I haven’t seen the letter,” Eckstein said.
“I haven’t [seen it] either,” Buckley added. “I don’t want to.”
Eckstein said trustees like Buckley and him were not shown the letter due to confidentiality reasons and because it was not necessary that anyone other than the Board Chair and members of the Audit Committee see it.
“It was the letter that launched the investigation, and the people who needed to make the decision to assign it to the committee, the committee to send it to the lawyers, have seen the letter,” Eckstein said. “At this point, we know that a serious allegation was made, we know an investigation was done, we know the results of the investigation, and we know we had to act on the facts that we received. So what is contained in the letter specifically can’t change any of that.”
“I know it’s interesting, but it can’t change anything we’ve done,” he added. “Nothing can change.”
Eckstein, Buckley, and Efron all said that advice from Sidley Austin guided the decisions of the Board.
“The only reason the Board had any involvement in this was that the allegation was made that the President and the administration had a policy of not reviewing the documentation presented by workers to determine whether people could be legally hired, and that it had gone on before this administration,” Eckstein said. “And our lawyers told us, and I believe it to be the case, that the only way you determine if that was in fact the policy is to dig into the weeds.”
Efron said he consulted with Sidley Austin immediately upon receiving the allegation.
“[Sidley Austin] was the counsel we used, and we had no reason to believe they were giving us anything other than good advice,” he said. “We’re not experts in employment law, and we basically followed the advice given by our counsel. Had we thought it was bad advice, it’s ultimately our decision. I want to be clear: they give us advice; we make the decisions. But we had no reason to believe that their advice was anything other than first rate.
“There are a lot of examples of when people mishandle complaints—bury them, don’t pursue them. A recent example would be Penn State,” Efron added. “I don’t think it would have been good for Pomona to have not handled this in an appropriate manner, and that’s all we tried to do: to be responsible, and, as a fiduciary for the college, to handle the complaint in a responsible manner.”
2. Worker-Trustee Meeting: Wednesday, Dec. 14
At Wednesday’s worker-trustee meeting, recently terminated workers, along with current dining services employees, spoke directly to the four trustees present.
Following an introduction by Buckley, students Saul and Juarez read an opening statement in English and Spanish, respectively.
“We are aware that day-to-day decisions concerning Pomona staff are undertaken by the administration,” part of the statement read. “Yet due to the extraordinary circumstances of these past few weeks, we hope that a direct conversation with those who were most affected will encourage the Board to consider this group’s needs in its long-term decision making.”
Statements from workers touched on several topics, including allegations of intimidation from managers and supervisors regarding unionization efforts, unresponsiveness from the Office of Human Resources (HR) to worker concerns, uneven pay increases that some workers alleged were made in response to calls for unionization over the last two years, requests for neutrality during a union vote (an agreement on the part of managers and the college not to discuss unionization in the workplace), personal stories of the impact and consequences of the document reviews and Dec. 1 terminations, complaints about the competence of workers who were hired in the wake of the Dec. 1 terminations (including an allegation that one replacement worker nearly set one of the dining hall kitchens on fire), calls to clarify among dining services employees that no one in dining services made the original allegation to the Board (which Buckley confirmed at the meeting), and requests to re-hire the workers who were terminated.
Nine employees spoke at the meeting, at least three of whom were terminated employees. The event lasted for about one hour.
At one particularly emotional moment, a terminated worker who had been at Pomona for 23 years described the pain she experienced on Nov. 7 when the notices of deficient paperwork were distributed to employees.
“I always felt proud of having a job at Pomona College, and today I feel discriminated, I feel humiliated, and always I’ve wondered why this had to happen,” she said through a translator. “Why did they let me go now, and why didn’t they do it 23 years ago?” she said, crying as she did.
“I can’t speak anymore,” she said, as a nearby student comforted her.
Another terminated worker recalled how, having received a large raise over the last two years from Pomona, she and her husband had purchased a house, and had in fact been living in their new home for one week when she received the letter of deficient documentation, which eventually led to her termination. She too began to cry.
At the close of the meeting, each of the trustees made brief comments to the workers.
“You aren’t numbers; you never were numbers. Each of your stories is a personal tragedy, particularly for those who were let go,” Eckstein said. “And I can’t tell you how important it was and is for you to speak to us so we can convey that to the rest of the Board.”
“I would like nothing better next year at this time to have a meeting to see all of you back,” he added. “But we understand that we’re dealing with an immigration law that really doesn’t make a lot of sense and needs a lot of change, and there are a lot of people on the Board who are working to change the law at the federal level.”
Buckley concluded the meeting by assuring the workers present that she would bring at least two issues raised at the meeting to the larger Board: the question of how managers handle the topic of unionization while in the workplace, and complaints about the responsiveness of HR to worker concerns.
After the meeting, workers said they felt the trustees listened, but they questioned whether any action would be taken.
“I think that the trust is broken, but when I was speaking I could see in their eyes that they were listening, that they were being affected by what was happening,” one of the terminated workers said through a translator.
“The workers have been asking for the same thing over and over again,” said Rolando Araiza, a current employee and leader of Workers for Justice (WFJ), the pro-union group of dining hall workers. “I think the people who have to make the [next] step are the administration and the Board to [allow us] a fair process to vote for a union.”
3. Student-Trustee Meeting: Wednesday, Dec. 14
Immediately following the worker-trustee meeting, trustees, administrators, and students gathered in the SCC Hart Room to discuss the requests made by Concerned Pomona Students for improved avenues of communication between students and the Board.
After introductory comments from Student Affairs Committee Chair Yonekura and ASPC President Brown, representatives from Concerned Pomona Students delivered prepared statements outlining their concerns with the nature of the document checks, their experiences struggling to get in contact with members of the Board, and the five requests they made in their Dec. 5 open letter to the Board.
Those requests were the following: “An audience with the Trustees during their time on campus” (achieved and thanked for by students at the meeting), “A commitment from the Board to never again initiate a document re-verification process”, “The establishment of a permanent position on the Board to be filled by a student representative”, “The creation of a set of procedures by which the Board reports its actions and recent decisions to students”, and “The development of a process by which students can request the establishment of a comments period regarding prospective Board decisions.”
After introducing their requests, the representatives from Concerned Pomona Students opened the floor to discussion. Trustees asked the students about their use of existing pathways of discussion with the Board, including the annual Trustee-Student Retreat, which takes place during the Board’s quarterly meeting in October. Students said they appreciated this opportunity, but said they felt those discussions were too “circumscribed” and often did not allow for one-on-one conversation with trustees, even during the dinner at the end of the Retreat.
The discussion then turned to the proposed comments period and ways to improve dialogue between trustees and students regarding Board decisions. Students assured trustees that, if they would be receptive to a commenting period, the onus would be on students to solicit comments regarding Board decisions. Some trustees pointed out that discussions around Board decisions are often restricted by limited time and, if a comment period were implemented, it could be difficult to convene the Board or build a consensus among the trustees regarding responses to comments or criticisms of its decisions. One Board member also said that the Board would need to know if an issue on campus was significant enough or had affected enough people to warrant a response.
A student suggested that the Board of Trustees website, which is hosted on pomona.edu, could be more frequently updated with notices and meeting minutes. Board meeting minutes are currently not approved and posted online until the Board’s next meeting. Board members seemed to be in favor of the idea of more timely posting of meeting minutes, but they acknowledged that there are some things that can’t be posted due to concerns over confidentiality or sensitivity of the information.
When a trustee asked whether ASPC could act as a sufficient representative organization of the student body through which the Board could communicate with students, several Concerned Pomona Students, including those with ASPC Senate positions, pointed out that with such a diverse range of students at Pomona, ASPC Senate can’t adequately represent all students’ views and perspectives. These students urged more direct avenues for communication with the Board for all Pomona students, regardless of their involvement in ASPC.
Near the end of the meeting, several suggestions for improved communication between the two groups were made. Trustees agreed to convene a Trustee-Student Task Force to discuss avenues for communication between students and trustees, which Dean Feldblum later told TSL was expected to be headed by trustee Jason Rosenthal PO ’92 and which should release its findings by the end of next semester. It was also suggested that trustees share a dinner with representatives from ASPC Senate at each of their quarterly meetings and that trustees participate in a periodic conference call with students.
Meeting attendees from all parties seemed excited about the discussion that took place and optimistic that positive change could be achieved.
“[Of the three meetings,] I would say the most concrete suggestions were made in the student meeting—setting up the task force, creating avenues for discussion,” Eckstein said.
ASPC Commissioner of Off Campus Relations and member of Concerned Pomona Students Alice Chan PO ’14 also spoke highly of the meeting.
“I thought it was really promising,” she said. “I think a lot of [the trustees] felt they really had to make changes, which I was surprised about—institutional changes, not just gestures that [indicate that they] feel bad.”
“Of course, it all depends on whether we can keep them accountable, keep making sure they’re following through,” she added.
Throughout the meetings, trustees emphasized that their role in the document reviews, as in all matters concerning the college, is meant to be advisory, rather than day-to-day operational.
“The Board typically is not involved in the day-to-day running of the college and the administration, so we don’t get involved in those issues per se,” Buckley said of concerns raised during her meeting with workers. “But having heard what we’ve heard, we can certainly let the Board and the administration know that there are those issues, however they want to address them.”
Silverman pointed to this advisory role of the Board as something to discuss going forward.
“I think we’ll all benefit from having a more open and clear relationship with the Board of Trustees that respects the nature of the institution and has clearly defined roles for the different parties within that,” he said. “As a matter of general principle, a Board of Trustees has a very limited role in how a college like this should run. And they have a very important one, but it’s quite constrained. And we need to be really clear about what that is, what their role is.”
“I think they are, and they want it to be,” Silverman added. “I think we’re hopefully moving towards a clearer, more open relationship through this process. We’d like to keep going in that direction.”
Update: On Thursday, members of the Pomona College faculty discussed the amended resolution mentioned in this article at their weekly meeting. They discussed but failed to pass a further amended resolution that would have resolved that the faculty request that the Board of Trustees conduct its own investigation into the decision-making process surrounding the handling of the allegation against President David Oxtoby’s hiring practices from last spring and resultant document reviews prior to the faculty conducting its own investigation, which the initially amended resolution had proposed. With time expiring in the meeting, the faculty voted to postpone a vote on the newly amended resolution until its next meeting.