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.

Codified under the board of trustees policy numbered I-80, this unique arrangement had helped thwart four previous attempts at faculty unionization. Anti-union forces (including the administrations of Robert McCabe and Peter Masiko) successfully argued that a union at MDCC was unnecessary, given the faculty senates' expanded role. But this role was predicated on the assumption that MDCC's president would heed the senates' recommendations. It is here that Padron ran afoul of the faculty.

In late 1996 he reshuffled the system's campus presidents, moving some between campuses and others into district-level positions. He filled vacancies by appointing interim presidents. They were administrators, and he was technically not required to consult with faculty leadership before making such a change. But the senates had always participated, in an advisory way, with all similar staff decisions. Ginger Parker, an accounting professor at the Kendall Campus and former faculty senate president there, recalls that Padron called senate leaders into his office at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday to tell them the transfers had already been made.

"The senate presidents work very closely with the campus presidents," Parker says. "It was a blow to people. Bill Stokes had been campus president at Kendall for fifteen or sixteen years and was very well respected. I asked Dr. Padron at the meeting, 'Why are you moving Dr. Stokes?' He said, 'Because I need him at North.' That was his only response." (Eventually Stokes was moved from the North Campus into a district position; he has since left Miami-Dade to work in the private sector.) Padron also ignored the senates' recommendation that he establish a separate screening committee to help select each campus president. Instead, he instituted what some faculty called a "generic" screening committee: one body to screen all applicants for any presidency.

Last September, when he applied this method to the position of academic dean -- the chief administrator for curriculum issues -- at each campus, many faculty moved from unease to alarm. "I get this call from Padron at like 11:00 p.m. that he's appointing five interim academic deans with no input from the faculty," recalls Pam Singer, a nursing professor at the Medical Center Campus and former senate consortium president. "The faculty were livid, but his attitude was, 'They're interim, I don't need input.' I was like, 'What?'"

Singer's reaction reflected the frustration felt by many of her colleagues: "I'm not going to have someone on my campus that I haven't established a working relationship with. That's just not good educational policy. Now you're cutting into how good a job I can do in the classroom. When he starts cutting into that -- the academic side, setting curriculum -- that's when faculty get upset. I said, 'That's it!' This person is just a totalitarian person, and I'm not going to work in a totalitarian system."

Many faculty saw Padron's disregard of senate recommendations as a harbinger of how he might deal with labor issues. Would he simply read their requests, then proceed to ignore them?

The faculty also has more fundamental concerns about Padron's educational philosophy. Some question Padron's commitment to liberal arts as opposed to vocational training. Mark Richard, a labor lawyer who teaches in the paralegal program at Wolfson Campus, is afraid that Padron, an economist, is too wedded to the needs of Miami's biggest employers. He complains that the president has shown signs that he wants to turn the college into a vocational school to churn out American Airlines and Burger King employees.

Others wonder where Padron stands in the war on tenure being waged at college campuses across the nation. In 1996 and 1997 Padron declined to give continuing contracts (MDCC's version of tenure) to a total of 68 professors who had finished the required three years of service. Padron cited potential funding problems at both the state and federal levels those years. A few weeks ago Padron did grant continuing contracts to all eligible professors. But Padron has mentioned that tenure itself may soon become a thing of the past, and not just at MDCC. "The public out there has no sympathy for academia guaranteeing jobs for life," Padron says. "I think tenure is not going to be there for long."

The growing trepidation over Padron's management style did not go unnoticed by Mark Richard, Pam Singer, or Jim Jackson, a social sciences professor at Kendall who served as president of the senate consortium. All three had been leaders of previous, unsuccessful union drives. They now saw an opportunity to revive the unionization question. This past October, they and a handful of others met around Singer's kitchen table to discuss another campaign to form a local chapter of the national union, American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The next meeting filled Singer's living room, and included some people who had previously been anti-union, such as Parker.

By unionizing, the organizers posited, the faculty at MDCC would gain a lobbying voice in the state legislature through the national union. They pointed out that MDCC was an anomaly in South Florida; the faculty at Florida International University, Broward Community College, and Palm Beach Community College have all been unionized for at least a decade. But the real catalyst for this new effort was Padron. Union supporters knew they had to tap into the growing discontent over his presidency.

That discontent was greater than anyone realized. "In eleven days nearly 70 percent of the faculty signed cards saying they wanted the union," says Richard, president of the newly elected union. "You only need 30 percent to call an election."

The campaign that followed was a heated one. The pro-union side, with strong support from the AFT, produced a slew of four-color flyers featuring testimonials from faculty, which appeared in professors' mailboxes. Padron cranked out memo after memo to both faculty and administrators questioning the motives of the union organizers and emphasizing that a union would create an adversarial relationship between faculty and administration -- a we/they mentality that clearly already existed.

Some of his dispatches had an unmistakable ring of threat. In a February 2 memorandum to all faculty, for instance, Padron stressed the potential economic risks of voting for a union: "Our faculty could come out with more," he wrote, "they could come out with the same; it is just also possible that they could come out with less."

The week before the election, Padron dropped a bombshell. He announced his intention to eliminate the faculty senates and several collegewide committees if the faculty voted to unionize.

In justifying this move, Padron pointed to a 1978 opinion MDCC's administration obtained from the state Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) in response to a previous unionization drive.

Back then, PERC -- the agency that oversees collective bargaining issues for all public employees in Florida -- noted that faculty senates and a union were "not necessarily" mutually exclusive, and in fact coexisted harmoniously at most schools. In MDCC's case, the opinion notes, once a union is in place, the senates "must arrest the exercise of any jurisdiction directed towards the goal of modifying 'wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment.'"

Padron's memo asserted that this PERC decision meant he had to suspend I-80 -- and thus the faculty senates it created -- if the union were voted in. "This in no way is a threat; it is the fact," he intoned.

Actually, it was an interpretation. And not an especially strong one. Nowhere in the PERC decision does it say anything about suspending or eliminating a faculty senate, even if such a body did overlap the purview of a union.

Not all faculty were eligible to vote for the union; 138 department chairs and coordinators were considered management for the purposes of collective bargaining. Of those faculty who were eligible, nearly 90 percent turned out for the election; the vote was 403-183 in favor. The following Monday, March 9, Padron suspended the senates. On the Kendall Campus, the dirty work fell to the academic dean. She and a team of custodians arrived at the senate and consortium offices around 9:00 a.m. They changed the locks on the doors. They removed office furniture. When no key could be found for the file cabinets containing some 30 years of senate records, they forced them open. Padron issued a memo that day informing senators that they had until noon the next day to clear out any personal effects; the administrative staff who worked in those offices was reassigned elsewhere.

Union president Richard says he and many faculty saw these actions as blatant retaliation.

"I told Dr. Padron on Monday, around noon, 'Hold on a minute. Assume that your position [on closing the senates] is legitimate, which it is not. Well, the only one that could complain that you are somehow doing something improper [by letting the senates continue to exist] would be the union. I'll put it in writing that the senates can continue to exist. The union has no objection. We're supporters of the senate, provided of course that we agree that their jurisdiction isn't wages, hours, and working conditions.'

"And he laughed. He was teasing me. 'Professor Richard, are you supporting the senate? You're the union, I'm trying to do you a favor and exclusively recognize you.' I said, 'You're not doing me any favor. What you're doing is playing a game that, at best, looks like fascism.'"

Padron maintains that he was obligated to act as he did. Even if the union endorsed the continuing existence of the senates, he insists, there was no way to prevent senators from discussing union issues. That might constitute unfair labor practices, for which the union could sue the university. "And then we are the ones who are liable," Padron notes. "The administration is responsible."

On April 3 some 40 MDCC senators from all five campuses gathered on Florida International University's Tamiami Campus. They were wearing black armbands in memory of ... well, themselves. Technically, they no longer existed, as senators anyway.

The grumbling ranks of Miami-Dade profs, the foot soldiers at the lowest tier of higher learning, trickled into the student government meeting hall just past the Pollo Tropical inside FIU's Graham Center. Many of these erstwhile senators could (and still might) write a monograph or dissertation on the events that led to the pro-union vote and the dissolution of their senates. But if you were to limit them to a fill-in-the-blank question, "Whose fault is it that you're sitting here with a piece of black crepe paper tied around your biceps?" the answer would be unanimous: Eduardo Padron.

The student government chamber at FIU is a steeply descending lecture hall with a half-dozen tiers of tables and swivel chairs looking down into a pit with another table and a podium. As the room reached about a third full, the host of the first meeting of the Miami-Dade Community College Faculty Senates-in-Exile stepped up to the lectern. There was no microphone, but the room wasn't that big. Betty Morrow, the president of FIU's faculty union local, spoke loud and clear.

"For many years we'd hoped that Miami-Dade would unionize," she declared (FIU's faculty union is a chapter of the National Education Association, a national union larger than the AFT). "Then we had a certain administrator who just played right into our hands." Raucous laughter and applause rose from the crowd, which included about ten members of both FIU's union and its faculty senate, and a representative from Broward Community College's faculty senate. Morrow went on to read a proclamation from her union chapter stating that "the actions of Miami-Dade Community College President Eduardo Padron are violative of all notions of academic freedom and fair play," and urged the MDCC Board of Trustees to reinstate the faculty senates.

She then gave way to her counterpart from MDCC, Mark Richard. "We have in this room 50 scholars who believe in academic freedom enough to say that Eduardo Padron is not going to destroy academic freedom in South Florida," said the thickset, mustachioed lawyer/professor. "We're not going to let it happen." He waited for a wave of applause to subside. "Eduardo Padron is an academic bully," Richard stated. "Eduardo Padron locked the doors at America's premier open-door institution. And he did it with such administrative arrogance that it offended the sensibilities of the entire academic community -- locally, statewide, and nationally."

Richard then announced what the union is doing about Padron's dissolving of the senates. First, the union has filed a complaint with PERC. Second, he and Jackson have been in touch with the prestigious American Association of University Professors (AAUP) about imposing sanctions on the college.

Some two weeks after this meeting, Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the AAUP, did send a letter to Padron and board of trustees chairman Martin Fine. The letter stated that the abolition of the entire senate structure without consulting the senators themselves was "inimical to sound principles of academic government."

Kreiser allowed that the AAUP's findings are based solely on input from faculty, but he urged Padron to respond. As of press time, he had not.

Bruce Davis, a health and wellness professor and gymnastics coach at the North Campus, was not at the Senates-in-Exile meeting. Although he was the faculty senate president for his campus at the time of suspension, he is a strong supporter of Padron and an opponent of the union.

He's also a member of the body the union side has called, variously, the "Vichy Committee," the "Junta," and the "Eduardo Padron Palace Brigade." Padron appointed this seventeen-member ad hoc Faculty Commission after he dissolved the senates. Its members include several former faculty senate presidents. (Though all of them are professors, more than half are considered management and did not participate in the union vote.) The commission's charge: Create a plan for a new body that provides faculty a chance to offer input but that does not conflict with the presence of the union.

Davis, a trim, bearded fellow in jeans and a red polo shirt bearing a "USA Gymnastics" logo, sits at a small desk among the Nautilus machines of the North Campus weight room and extols the fiscal virtues of disbanding the faculty senates. "When Dr. Padrón did that, he saved $700,000 a year," Davis says, pointing out that all senate officers had been released from some of their teaching duties, and that support staff and equipment had been allocated to the senates and the consortium.

He stresses that the senates weren't really doing a good job of representing the faculty on any issues, whether on the academic or negotiation side. "Over the years, I didn't really feel that our consortium meetings were well planned," he admits. "There was a lot of flying off the handle. A lot of times the resolutions that were sent to Dr. Padron were emotional. The truth of the matter is that the senates were a good place for a lot of people to shoot their mouths off, and not do their homework, and not follow up with it."

Davis cites a recent instance in which senators requested more time away from classes, and another in which they requested the right to vote on the board of trustees equal to that of the board members, as typical of the kind of frivolous or fruitless resolutions the senates would generate.

The faculty's overriding dissatisfaction with Padron is founded more on institutional inertia and fear of change than anything else, Davis avers. The senates continually criticized Padron's predecessor McCabe, Davis notes, for hiring additional administrators when more and more classes were being taught by part-time faculty. "The faculty were the ones who insisted that he downsize. Then [Padron] downsized, and they got angry that he downsized," Davis says. "They weren't used to a person that would tell you what he was going to do, and then do it. And he'd do it fast."

Davis and his colleagues on the ad hoc commission have come up with a plan for shared governance they hope will be superior to the senates in dealing with academic issues. (It's not quite finished yet, so he won't elaborate on its structure.) He still worries about the union, though, noting that MDCC professors had amassed some fairly sweet benefits under the old system, such as being able to bank their overtime and spend it as weeks, months, or years of paid time off.

"I would hate to see us lose any part of our fringe benefits in union negotiations. This is stuff that we thought was put to bed forever. What we've heard is, everything is negotiable. If everything remains the same, and it's just a question of ironing out new salary increases for people, then that's not too bad of a deal. But Dr. Padron already gave us five percent the last two years. Is the union going to get us seven percent? Is the union going to get us ten percent?"

Unionization, Davis concludes, was a needless overreaction to Padron's leadership style, which deserves praise more than anything. The positive effect of Padron's leadership on the student body is easy to see, Davis says. The addition of numerous student computer labs and the upgraded networks for students, faculty, and staff, have made MDCC "the second-most-wired campus in the country."

Far from comparing his boss to any nefarious totalitarians, Davis sees a more patriotic precursor for Padron's leadership style. "I compare him to Harry Truman: The buck stops here. Firing MacArthur? Dropping two atomic bombs on Japan? Those were tough decisions, but Truman knew they needed to be made. Frankly, I believe that Dr. Padron has saved this institution."

Padron's boss, the board of trustees, has backed his abolishment of the senates and his forming of the ad hoc commission. Most of the trustees contacted for this story, however, declined comment, not wanting to risk an unfair-labor-practices charge from the union.

In fact, only chairman Martin Fine, an attorney with the firm of Holland & Knight, would comment. When asked if Padron might have stopped short of eliminating the faculty senates, as Richard suggested, Fine sniffs, "One thing we're not going to do is take administrative direction from Mark Richard.

"In my opinion, we have a superb chief administrator, and he saw fit to do it this way," Fine continues. "There could be some trustees who don't feel as strongly as I do. But you either have to support him with a great deal of conviction and good feeling, or I think you're headed for disaster."

Eduardo Padron sits under the gaze of a large neo-Cubist charcoal drawing of a horse and rider. He wears a starched collar and cufflinks that look like small gold coins. His graying hair and mustache are trimmed close, his brown eyes gaze placidly through his round wire-rims. He crosses his legs and leans back in the gray faux-leather chair ("The same chair as when I got here. I haven't changed it," he notes) in his spacious but Spartan office on the fourth floor of the Wolfson Campus main building.

The president is composed, even at ease. The small plastic button pinned over his heart reads Students First! He coolly insists that he's not a union-buster at heart, and recalls the lesson he learned from his father, who unionized some of Cuba's biggest sugar mills before the revolution: "In order for the union to exist, there must be an enemy," he states. "If there is no enemy, there is no need for the union." The union campaign succeeded in part, he observes, because it was able to cast him as such an enemy.

Nonetheless, Padron insists, he never ignored faculty input through the senates: "I didn't agree with every recommendation. I have to say that. Because otherwise, you don't need a president. But I agreed, I would say, with more than 90 percent of the recommendations."

Because he didn't do exactly what the senates recommended every time, pro-union faculty were able to use his reforms as fodder for their campaign. "The fear has been there, and a lot of the propaganda that came from [union] headquarters was on the issue of [staff] layoffs, and the potential that 'this could happen to you,'" he explains.

Although the union won resoundingly, Padron refuses to accept the idea that he has alienated most of the faculty. He blames the current strife on organizers such as Mark Richard, Jim Jackson, and Pam Singer. These hard-core unionists, who consciously "infiltrated" the faculty senates after the last failed drive in 1993, are the ones who have used scare tactics to vilify him.

Padron maintains an even, almost avuncular air while speaking. He doesn't fidget or shift in his chair. To emphasize a point, he merely wags a blunt index finger. But his rhetoric -- complaining about union "infiltration" and "propaganda" -- is just as charged as that of the faculty leaders. And he is just as convinced of his righteousness. His tone is, if not angry, at the very least accusatory.

As he describes his exchanges with the union and senate leaders immediately after the union victory, a sardonic grin flickers at the corners of his mouth. He seems genuinely confused about why faculty leaders would argue that I-80 wasn't strong enough, then complain when he abolished the policy after they unionized.

"[Union leaders] were saying, 'I-80 is ineffective, I-80 doesn't work,'" he recounts. "Then the election takes place and all of a sudden they reverse that. All of a sudden, it's 'I-80 is wonderful, we want I-80.'" Although Padron is trying to evince bemusement over the faculty's reversal, he comes across as mocking them.

He expresses no remorse about dissolving the faculty senates. In fact, Padron declares, the senates as they had existed were troubled, especially since unionists got involved in the leadership. "If you look at the agenda for the senates for the last five years, it's hard for you to find an academic issue there." (Jim Jackson, who as of now was the last senate consortium president MDCC will ever have, vehemently denies that the senates gave short shrift to academic issues.)

"They called for a meeting in exile," Padron says, allowing himself a chuckle. "They do all these dramatic things, and who goes? Less people than the eleven people on [union] stationery." The actual number was at least 40. "You know, things can get very childish."

As for the group derisively known as his "Palace Brigade," Padron is appalled that anyone would question its legitimacy. Creating the committee was a demonstration of his belief in shared decision-making. "I think we have a great body of faculty here, and they are characterized by a lot of integrity," he says, his hands steepled. "I don't think that being elected or being appointed makes any big difference."

The ad hoc commission's recommendation for a new faculty government should be completed sometime in May. The union awaits a ruling from PERC on whether Padron acted improperly in disbanding the senates. If the AAUP is not satisfied with Padron's response to its letter, the group will sanction the college -- a black mark in academia. Meanwhile, the union is building up its membership in preparation for contract talks with the administration. Richard estimates these talks will begin in late summer.

Padron remains unrepentant. He shakes his head. "Frankly, if I had it to start all over again, I would do it the same way," he says with quiet intensity. "We have been very serious about, you know, putting students first. And the best thing we have going for us -- I've said this before and I will continue to say it; the union hasn't changed my mind -- the thing that makes Miami-Dade what it is, is its faculty. We have an incredibly talented, dedicated faculty who are second to none in this nation. That is the greatest source of my pride.

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