Schoolyard Bully

Metro-Dade Community College president Eduardo Padron has won a reputation as a take-charge leader -- and an intellectual thug

The story of Eduardo Padron is one of the best-known local-boy-makes-good yarns in town. After emigrating from Cuba in 1961, Padron enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College and went on to earn a doctorate in economics from the University of Florida. He then worked his way through the ranks at his two-year alma mater, from economics professor to president of the Wolfson Campus to, in 1995, district president -- the man charged with running all five of the school's campuses.

The son of a union organizer, Padron came to the top spot with a pro-faculty reputation. He even made the faculty's short list of recommended candidates for the job. And he still considers himself a friend of the faculty. There's only one problem: The faculty doesn't share that opinion. Less than three years into his busy tenure, Padron faces a horde of professors in open revolt.

Many consider Padron to be an autocrat who has eliminated hundreds of staff employees, shuffled others around at his will, and restructured the school's spending priorities with little regard for faculty input. This perception was the decisive factor in the teachers' March vote to unionize. But it was Padron's actions after the union vote -- when he decided unilaterally to abolish the faculty senates that had existed since 1969 -- that infuriated the faculty.

None of MDCC's 775 full-time teachers is threatening to strike, but only because it's illegal under state law for any public employee to do so. Union leaders did toy with the idea of filing an injunction against Padron in circuit court to contest the elimination of the senates. Instead they decided to lodge a complaint with the state agency that oversees public employees' labor issues.

A compact, soft-spoken man of 53, Padron is trying to maintain a veneer of calm. "This institution has gone through significant change in the last two and a half years, since I became president," he says carefully. "And that's very scary for a lot of people. The reforms have been built on the back of the students, on the back of the support staff, and especially on the back of the administration. We have about 440 fewer staff than when we started, and none of those have been faculty."

Padron insists that the turmoil will blow over, and the institution will move forward. The faculty, though, shows no signs of calming down, especially in its criticism of Padron's leadership. In recent weeks Padron has been compared to a rogue's gallery of dictators -- Hitler, Pinochet -- and renegade professors have begun holding meetings of senates-in-exile. So notorious is Padron that he has earned comparisons of late to Miami's number-one public enemy, Fidel Castro. Among the jokes currently making the rounds at MDCC:

Question: Why is Eduardo Padron in Miami?
Answer: Because Cuba wasn't big enough for both of them.

After a fifteen-year stint as MDCC's district president, Robert McCabe retired in 1995. He is widely regarded as the man who helped build Miami-Dade into one of the country's top community colleges. Still, more than one faculty member has described the twilight of the McCabe administration as a little "sleepy."

Eduardo Padron was the wake-up call. When he took the reins of MDCC in 1995, his mandate from the board of trustees was clear: economic efficiency. Surveying the fiscal landscape, Padron saw a $182.3 million annual budget that had $3.3 million in cost overruns -- in violation of state law, which requires a budget surplus. With state funding sources drying up, and with community colleges stuck below four-year universities and public school districts in Tallahassee's spending hierarchy, Padron knew it was time for some major belt-tightening.

He looked around for opportunities to shift money away from what he saw as nonessential areas and toward those that would directly benefit the school's 30,000 full-time students. Among his top priorities was upgrading the college's antiquated computer systems.

His first move was to put the kibosh on a major construction project at the Medical Center Campus, freeing up some $41 million. He saved some more money by firing people. On what has come to be known as "Black Friday," March 29, 1996, Padron laid off 119 employees, some from his own office. Every campus was affected. He also eliminated 280 vacant positions that had not yet been filled. No faculty members were laid off, but many were spooked at the sight of staffers being walked to their cars by campus security guards.

Other controversial moves were in the offing. In December 1996 Padron decided to consolidate the school's intercollegiate athletics programs. Miami-Dade had four athletics administrations on separate campuses, and many teams from different campuses in the same sport. Padron created a single centralized athletics administration and eliminated eleven of the school's sixteen teams.

To the delight of the trustees, the president was acting like a take-charge CEO. But his swift and decisive managerial approach was less heralded among the faculty. It wasn't that professors necessarily disagreed with the changes Padron was making. They took exception to how he was making those changes; specifically, to his perceived tendency to ignore the input of MDCC's faculty senates.

MDCC had five such senates, one for each campus. Professors elected senators on their respective campuses; these senators then chose representatives for the collegewide senate consortium. Like traditional faculty senates, MDCC's senates spent much of their time addressing academic concerns. But they also considered issues such as wages, hours, and working conditions. While the senates lacked the power of a union, which can negotiate a binding contract, they made recommendations to the president about labor issues.

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