A prominent Newark clergyman raised the spectre of disorder in the city’s streets unless Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo acts quickly to restore the academic independence of Essex County College , plug a budget shortfall at the school, and help the two-year college remain open and fully accredited.
“We could be back in 1967,” warned Bishop Jethro James, chairman of the Newark/North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen and one of a number of leading religious figures who are pressing DiVincenzo to act, invoking the memory of civil disorders that rocked the city a half-century ago and resulted in the deaths of 37 persons.
“Those of us who were around 50 years ago fear it could happen now,” said the bishop, pastor of Paradise Baptist Church.
Students who rely on Essex, he said, are afraid it might close—and choke off access to higher education and a better future. At the same time, they are angry and frustrated by the direction of national political attitudes toward minority students.
No understanding of what’s at stake
“There is a complete lack of understanding of what’s at stake here.”
He said he and other members of the clergy, calling themselves the “Faith Leaders of Essex County,” met with DiVincenzo and demanded the immediate resignation of the entire trustee board and the resignation of the college’s vice president for finance, Joyc e Wilson Harley, a former county administrator and DiVincenzo political ally.
The religious leaders and others have charged that Harley, with support of a majority of trustees, has blocked the efforts of its newly elected president, Anthony Munroe. Munroe, who took over in May, is the fourth Essex president in seven years.
The trustees and its favored vice president have to go
Munroe and his supporters say the fractured governance of the college is one of the most serious problems identified by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the accrediting agency. If the college loses its accreditation, it would lose its legal status as a degree-granting college in New Jersey and its students’ access to federal scholarship aid.
DiVincenzo told the religious leaders he backed Munroe “100 percent” but was unable to take the steps they demanded, including removing the entire trustee board, firing Harley, and increasing funds to the college.
“We believe he was posturing,” said Bishop James. He pointed out that, nearly 40 years ago, when the college faced a similar crisis, the entire board resigned, clearing the way for a new board that, in a few months, appointed A. Zachary Yamba, who led the college for 30 years, from 1980 until 2010.
Yamba served most of the last year as an interim president after two presidents who succeeded him in office left in a continuing leadership crisis.
Bishop James said the clergy members—and others– want Munroe to have clear authority over the college’s administration, possibly with Yamba as a consultant working temporarily to support him.
“We’re going to stand with President Munroe,” said Bishop James. “And it’s time for the county executive to put his money and his influence where his mouth is.”
He said he had personally tried to persuade Wilson Harley to resign but she refused.
“We told the county executive he has to do whatever he needs to do remove her,” he said, adding the religious believed her remaining in office was an “impediment to progress and the process of leadership.”
Munroe and Wilson Harley clashed directly recently when the new college president tried to appoint a chief fiscal officer for the college but the board refused after Wilson Harley circulated a memorandum criticizing Munroe’s choice.
How does a vice president defy her boss and stay on?
It is highly unusual for a college president to be rebuffed on a major leadership appointment because of a subordinate’s opposition to the choice. The subordinate—Wilson Harley is a vice president of the college—would probably be fired by the president. But, in this case, Wilson Harley had more support on the trustee board than Munroe did.
The faith leaders also included Rev. Ronald Slaughter, St. James AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church; Rev. David Jefferson, Metropolitan Baptist Church; Rev. Lanel Guyton, St. Matthew AME Church, Orange; Rev. Joseph Hooper, St. Luke AME Church; Rev. Linda Ellerbe, Israel Memorial AME Church, and Rev. Cynthia Jackson, Allen AME Church.