A. Zachary Yamba, twice named president of Essex County College in Newark, received a standing ovation Tuesday from students, faculty and staff after he promised to help–again–bring the struggling two-year college back from the brink of disaster. HIs return was cheered despite his warnings that the school was in “disarray” and that “morale was low.”
Yamba, 77, who was first appointed president in 1980 and served until his retirement in 2010, has been asked by the school’s trustee board to serve at least another 90 days while the trustees figure out what to do about the president it suspended just a few days ago, Gale Gibson Gayle.
“When I came into the building, I felt as if the spirit had gone out of the institution,” he told a college-wide meeting, speaking without notes a day after he resumed the office he had served for so long.
Yamba was first selected as president at a point when the college was about to lose its academic accreditation because of a variety of academic and fiscal problems, including political interference by members of the trustee board. Then he was a dean at the college but also the scion of a politically active family in Ghana. He already had decided to return to the African nation to take up a political post.
He reversed that decision and then spent three decades building a reputation for himself as a public leader of integrity–and for the college as an institution with great potential. Yamba could be controversial–battling both city political leaders and state governors–but the devout Catholic and regent at Seton Hall University was always admired for his personal honesty.
In an extensive interview, Yamba said he had been troubled for “some time” about what was happening at Essex. He has maintained close ties with staff and faculty at the institution.
“I was receiving many calls from people who were concerned about what was happening at the college–and I was concerned primarily about the nature of those calls. They suggested people at the college were divided against themselves, saying terrible, scurrilous things about each other–and no institution can survive that way,” he said.
Yamba said he had no intention of returning but many of those who called pleaded for him to come back.
“I was asked to say ‘yes’ if I were asked to come back and I thought about what I would do,” he said.
Then, when Bibi Taylor, the head of the board, called several days ago to ask Yamba to return, he said he was ready to accept the offer. The South Orange resident said he would come back for a salary of $1 but was told the college would pay him $15,000; he said he would direct that the money be sent to four charities.
“In some ways, this crisis is more serious than the crisis the college faced in 1980 because, then, the college was united in its desire for genuine change,” he said. “Now, the college is divided.”
The trustees have provided few hints why it suspended Gibson but the revelation she had retained Alan Zegas of Chatham, one of the state’s premier criminal defense attorneys, suggested the charges against her were more than just policy differences with the trustee board. Zegas represents David Wildstein, the former aide to Gov. Chris Christie who has pleaded guilty in the so-called Bridgegate scandal and is expected to be a witness at trials of other Christie aides.
The trustee board is expected to meet today.