Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Raging Bull of MATC

By - Jun 18th, 2001 08:16 am
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For eight years, Milwaukee Area Technical College President John Birkholz has terrorized his staff and even the board members who hired him, while alienating members of the business community. The good news is that Birkholz is retiring and a new president is being hired; the bad news is that it will take the college many years to overcome his legacy.

“Instead of building bridges with the community, he pissed everyone off,” says MATC board member Paul Pedersen. “There are a lot of partnerships that could have happened that didn’t because John was at the helm.”

Pedersen says that Birkholz often lectured Pedersen and his fellow board members as though they were “a bunch of clowns.”

“He would berate board members and tell us we didn’t know what we were doing,” says another board member. “He would go absolutely ballistic over the least little thing.”

“He explodes,” says one local school official. “I’ve been at meetings where he just explodes. He really has tantrums and just gets his way.”

Birkholz also alienated the Friends of 10/36, who provide most of the support for public television, calling the group “the enemy” of MATC.

But Birkholz is hardest of all on his staff. “He threatened you with your job every damn day,” one staff member once complained. “Everyone around there is scared.”

“There’ve been all kinds of equal employment suits under him,” one member of the administration told me. One former employee, Robert S. Palinchak, sued Birkholz, contending that Birkholz subjected him to “open hostility, endless insults and obscenities” and “constant demeaning and derogatory comments.”

Economics teacher Mike Rosen, who is head of the teachers union at MATC, is a supporter of Birkholz, but he notes the toll on administrative personnel under its president.. “If you look at the administrative team from four or five years ago,” Rosen says, “they’re almost all gone. Between the level of deans and Birkholz, there’s not much left.”

Birkholz’s rapport with the private sector was very poor. At meetings with business leaders, he would be “sullen and uncommunicative,” says one PR person who observed him in action. “If [MATC] were to reach out to the business community, they’d have more success getting the kind of state [funding] increases they need.” Instead, the percent of the MATC budget provided by the state has declined under Birkholz.

“There’s more partnership building that has to be done,” board president Sheila Cochran admits.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Birkholz tenure is that he was never supposed to anything more than an interim president of MATC. That’s how he was hired in December 1992, in the wake of news articles about his tenure as president of Kenosha’s Gateway Technical College that described him as “intimidating” and “autocratic.” But Birkholz joined the MATC board committee handling the search for a new president and apparently convinced the committee he was the best choice. So Birkholz was appointed the permanent president in 1994.

Three years later, the board again initiated a search for a successor, only to be told by Birkholz that he had changed his mind about retiring, and would continue in the job. This search, too, ended with Birkholz again continuing as president.

Why did the board continue to tolerate a man who was so abusive of his employers? “It’s a lay board of unpaid volunteers who were hard put to say we knew better than him how to run the institution,” says one former board member.

And why is Birholz so prone to tantrums? Cochran offers a diplomatic explanation:”This is a man who has a passion for technical education. He carries it personally. He often talks about how his father came to this country and this is the school that educated him. John knows what it means to come from nothing. So he’s going to fight for it. I think it’s the style of the man that people react to, not the policy.”

But that style has decimated the school’s administrative infrastructure and hurt the public image of MATC. “I don’t think he had a good PR image,” Rosen says. “There’s a lot of sentiment that we need someone who is dynamic and attractive to the business community. The board wants someone who’s a cheerleader.”

By comparison to Birkholz, it appears, just about anyone would be more cheerful. The new choice for MATC president is Darnell E. Cole, who last served as vice president/chancellor of Ivy Tech State College Northwest in Gary, Indiana. He will take over for Birkholz on July 1st. Here’s hoping he knows how to smile.

Bits and Pieces

“How can a Democrat win? Ignore the consultants,” says Ed Garvey, in a recent column on the governor’s race for Wispolitics.com. But as one Democrat notes, “Ed ran three times with this strategy and lost every time.”

James Walsh, a Republican congressman from New York, has dubbed our own Senator Herb Kohl the “The Darth Vader of the dairy compact.” For the anything-but-colorful Kohl, a slap like that is really a compliment. Kohl, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, is a leading critic of these compacts, because Wisconsin farmers will not benefit.

Eugene Kane‘s Sunday column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel started out with a smart observation that the debate over school choice is stridently polarized, setting us up for a middle ground position by the columnist. Instead, Kane simply explains why both sides have a valid point and never reaches any conclusion except to blame politicians who dare to take a stand. But given that both sides on the choice debate are right, how can a politician ever be wrong?

Going slow in D.C.: “When I was governor, I’d have an idea in the morning and I’d have people working on it the morning and have it partially implemented by the afternoon,” Tommy Thompson told the Washington Post. Nowadays, writes New York Times columnist Gail Collins “Mr. Thompson has an idea in the morning and by the afternoon he will have had lunch.”

Correction: Last week we ran excerpts from an attack on me and listed the wrong website for the full article. If you want the full-text of the man who called me a “sheepish wild-eyed hungry looking fellow,” dial up BlackMinute.com. Tell them Bruce sent you.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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