Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Can’t MATC Get A Good President?

By - Jul 9th, 2001 10:22 am

Is it possible that no one wants to be president of Milwaukee Area Technical College? The MATC board spent months searching for a new leader, and announced Dr. Darnell E. Cole of Gary, Indiana was chosen “from more than 50 candidates.”

“Anytime you end up with a candidate by default, it’s disappointing.”

But according to one board member, all the finalists interviewed by the board withdrew their application. “I think anytime you end up with a candidate by default, it’s disappointing,” the source says.

Now, Cole has written board members saying his arrival “will be delayed for six weeks due to recent surgery” on his back. Board member Peter Earle calls it “a twist of fate that’s been handed MATC.”

“People wonder if he’s ever coming in,” says another board member. “I don’t know if he will complete his three year term.”

That might sound like a gloomy assessment, but MATC’s recent history does not inspire optimism. Two of its last four presidents had disasterous regimes: William L. Ramsey resigned under fire because of financial improprieties and Barbara Holmes was let go after accusations of cronyism and wholesale personnel problems.

Holmes was then replaced by interim president John Birkholz, but the board’s attempt to find a permanent president stalled after three of the four finalists for the job withdrew their application, and the fourth played coy. The board gave up and appointed Birkholz the permanent president in 1994. Three years later, the board again initiated a search for a successor, which fizzled and ended with Birkholz again continuing as president.

Birkholz, too, caused considerable controversy (see our past article, “The Raging Bull of MATC”), and as recently as last March, the nine members of the board voted unanimously to fire him. But according to two board members, the board’s president Sheila Cochran changed her mind and decided to keep Birkholz, who retired on June 30.

Cole has served as chancellor of Ivy Tech State College in Gary, Indiana, a community college covering seven counties, since 1991. The college is far smaller than MATC: it has an enrollment of 4,237 students and a budget of $25 million, compared to MATC’s 65,000 students and $240 million budget. One board member doubted whether Cole could make the adjustment to handling MATC, but Earle calls Cole a “very good and capable leader. He is a collaborative team builder. He has the ability to work with all sectors of the Milwaukee metropolitan area.”

“There has not been a lot of trust among the leadership at MATC.”

Earle does not specifically deny that every other candidate for the job withdrew but says “from the first interview, Cole was my first choice. I think he will improve the culture at MATC”

Observers often talk about the “culture” or “climate” at MATC in negative terms. “I think it’s been divisive,” says a board member. “There has not been a lot of trust among the leadership.”

Another board member says there has been an increasing tension between blacks and Hispanics at the school. Earle says Cole, who is African American, is “a very good communicator, very low-key,” which could help the situation – when he actually arrives to take the job.

SPENCE KORTE’S JOB OFFER: New State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster was criticized for not appointing anyone from Milwaukee to her administrative team, but it wasn’t for want of trying. Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Spence Korte confirms he was offered, and turned down, the job of Deputy State Superintendent. Burmaster then offered the job to Tony Evers, who opposed her in the primary and formerly held administrative jobs in central Wisconsin and Fond Du Lac.

“I think Libby was doing her utmost best to get somebody from the Milwaukee area,” Korte says. “I was flattered.”

So why turn the job down? “After 28 years in the Milwaukee Public Schools, you don’t walk away from that very easily,” he says. “I have a great affection for Milwaukee and the schools.”

Korte, however, had expressed reservations about whether he could work with the new Milwaukee school board, after two new candidates allied with the teachers union were elected in the spring election. Did Burmaster assume Korte was ready to move on? “I’m sure that was part of her thinking,” Korte says. “Everything was up in the air then.”

But Korte seems more positive about the new board now. “I think we have enough in common that we can work together,” he says.

Given that Milwaukee is the source of most arguments over education in the Capitol, it’s unfortunate someone from this city didn’t gain the number two position in the state Department of Public Education. For that matter, it’s been an awfully long time since someone from the state’s largest school district served as state superintendent That would be Lorenzo D. Harvey, a Milwaukeean who served from 1899-1903.

But Korte believes Burmaster will be sensitive to Milwaukee. “One of her best skills is she wants to listen and learn,” he says.

Short Takes

Ald. Jeff Pawlinskis license plate reads “Politx.” And lobbyist Moira Fitzgerald‘s license plate, which you’ll find behind a white Saab, reads “MOIRA,” naturally. Fitzgerald, by the way, was recently seen having dinner at Café Coquette with talk radio man Mark Belling, who sometimes has Fitzgerald as a guest on his TV show.

And why did representatives Marc Duff (R-New Berlin) and Frank Urban (R-Brookfield) turn down the opportunity to run for the state senate district of Margaret Farrow? The likely reason is this seeming advancement would have actually been a demotion because they would have been mired in the minority in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Even Republicans apparently think there’s not much chance of taking over that house for some time to come.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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