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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, July 28, 2017

Bad leadership or politics? Motlow president’s fall




One day he was the golden boy, touting Motlow State’s success and posing with the governor for the signing of the Reconnect Act. The next, seemingly, he was gone with the wind.

At least publicly, everything was grand as Anthony “Tony” Kinkel helped Gov. Bill Haslam meet his Drive to 55 effort to put certificates or degrees in the hands of half of Tennessee adults by 2025. With limited space and resources, Kinkel pushed the Tennessee Promise scholarship at Motlow, the state’s fastest-growing community college, bolstering student retention, graduation and fundraising.

He was ready to take on the Reconnect Act, as well, making plans to offer more adults college scholarships at Motlow’s four campuses and satellite sites.

But bubbling underneath the hoopla was a Tennessee Board of Regents investigation into Kinkel’s leadership style stretching back to 2015, not long after former Chancellor John Morgan recruited him to point Motlow State in the right direction.

The TBR audit turned up disgruntled staff, low morale and a series of missteps by Kinkel, even though he led Motlow State’s ascension to one of the top JUCOs in Tennessee, even garnering a mention in The New York Times.

It was enough to destroy the board’s confidence in the newcomer. And he was forced out three weeks after shouldering up in late May with the governor, state legislators and TBR officials in the Reconnect signing at Motlow’s Smyrna campus.

Legislative action

The departure was so abrupt some legislators met with Gov. Haslam to find out what the heck happened.

“I was concerned about it. I wanted to make sure the procedure was done correctly,” says state Sen. Jim Tracy, a Bedford County Republican who represents Moore County, where the main Motlow campus is tucked away in a pocket of woods donated by the family of the late John Reagor Motlow, a former state senator and president of Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg.

The problems found by the TBR audit appear to have more to do with personnel than with ethical shortcomings, Tracy points out, adding he read the report and understands some people weren’t happy with Kinkel, though he talked to others who were pleased with Kinkel and his performance.

“I think Dr. Kinkel comes in, he’s not from the system, he’s from outside the system. He probably was doing things differently than had been done before. Don’t know that 100 percent,” Tracy says. “He’s pretty aggressive and out front. And probably it’s just different from what they’re used to, and that may be part of the situation.”

State Sen. Janice Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican, had similar concerns and called for an audit by Tennessee Comptroller’s Office to ensure the TBR investigation and report were done correctly.

“That gets to be a pretty small universe,” explains Bowling, describing part of Tennessee’s higher education atmosphere.

Bowling points out the audit didn’t take Motlow’s growth and academic progress into account, preferring instead to focus on unhappy staff members who called in with complaints about Kinkel’s style.

“It didn’t seem appropriate to act as though he’d had a poor performance when the data seemed to indicate otherwise,” adds Bowling, who, like Tracy, heard the good, bad and ugly about Kinkel.

Neither Bowling nor Tracy say they found anything in the report compelling enough to demand a long investigation or dismissal.

Comptroller’s Office spokesman John Dunn says the office received Bowling’s request and referred it to the Division of State Audit, which will review the issues as part of its next audit of Motlow State. The division would not audit the TBR report but would do its own investigation and draw its own conclusions, Dunn adds.

The Comptroller’s latest financial audit of Motlow State, released last week, shows no additional findings.

Gov speak

Ironically, Kinkel lost confidence from the very Board of Regents he hoped would maintain primary control over community colleges when the governor’s FOCUS Act was introduced to restructure higher education administration. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission was expected to take on a stronger role.

Kinkel might have made a tactical error, as well, by criticizing the governor’s plan to offer outsourcing options to Tennessee’s colleges and universities for facilities management and grounds work.

The former Motlow president said two years ago he saw no sense in moving decision-making for facilities to a “for-profit bureaucrat” concerned only about the bottom line rather than a student who needed the lights to stay on in a biology lab in order to graduate.

He also maintained a close alliance with former Chancellor John Morgan, a critic of Haslam’s outsourcing proposal. Kinkel called Morgan’s early retirement in January 2016 a “terrible loss” for Tennessee while some Republicans celebrated it.

The state hired Flora Tydings as TBR chancellor in December 2016 after nearly a year with David Gregory as interim. That might have been the undoing for Kinkel as Tydings vaulted from the presidency at Chattanooga State Community College following a short time there after 15 years at Athens Technical College in Georgia.

The TBR contends Tydings wasn’t the driving force behind the investigation into Kinkel. But he sure didn’t have her support either, nor Haslam’s.

“I have a great deal of faith in Chancellor Tydings, and when we brought her in to lead Tennessee Board of Regents, we did a lot of work to make sure she was the right person,” says Haslam, addressing the Kinkel matter late last week.

“And she, I think, had a great deal of confidence in the audit, that this was the right move for Motlow State, not just for now but for the long term. So, again, we hired her to do her job. I’m gonna let her do her job, and I have great confidence in her.”

Tydings appointed Hilda Tunstill to run Motlow temporarily, moving her up from a vice president’s post during a national search.

What went wrong

Oddly enough, Morgan brought Kinkel here from the other side of the country to redirect Motlow. And by all appearances, he was doing the job, including obtaining $28 million from the Legislature to build a badly-needed classroom building at the Smyrna campus.

But he had too much working against him. Aside from accusations he led through fear, pressure and intimidation, the report compiles a list of black marks against Kinkel ranging from efforts to manipulate information to make himself look better during the investigation to berating the coordinator of Tennessee Promise in a phone call while trying to get a list of students.

Kinkel then forwarded that list, complete with students’ personal information, campus-wide. He also included the name of an alleged campus rape victim in a report to his leadership team, incorrectly sending out private information, the report states.

The list of indiscretions is lengthy, including allegations of pressuring teachers to give basketball players good grades and even hiring an assistant coach for a position he wasn’t qualified to take.

As a result of the probe, the audit committee advised Motlow State to take several steps, including revising its hiring policy, setting up a process for all personnel action, developing policies for contact between the athletic department and administration with faculty and handling confidential information, just to name a few.

Tydings gave Kinkel a draft of the report, and he responded by saying he was “mortified” by the idea he put a “sense of fear” into some employees.

Devastated by the TBR draft report, Kinkel denied pressuring any professors to hand out grades for ballplayers and hoped to rectify the situation. Tracy and Bowling both say they believe he should have been given the opportunity to do better.

“My preference would have been … if they have some concerns with Dr. Kinkel, and this would go with anyone across the board, if they haven’t done anything unethical, if they haven’t done anything that would warrant being fired, at least give them an improvement plan and give them an opportunity to address those concerns,” Tracy explains.

The analysis

But he wasn’t that fortunate.

Instead, he’ll have to depend on the comptroller’s audit to clear this mark from an otherwise stellar record, one including a stint as a state lawmaker in Minnesota.

No matter what the comptroller finds, though, Kinkel is persona non-grata in Tennessee government. Even if he were to regain a job or had kept his Motlow presidency, the board would have been looking over his shoulder every day.

And despite playing it nice right now, calling the Motlow State staff and administration one of the best he’s ever worked with, one gets the feeling he’ll let it all hang out when his contract ends Sept. 30.

In an at-will work state, his best bet would be to move on, because that’s what the TBR will do, continue the Haslam Drive to 55.

As Tracy points out, one of Kinkel’s biggest drawbacks was his personality. He was probably too aggressive, too quick to make changes, and he was an outsider. Not only does he have a Northern accent, he made his bones outside the Board of Regents. And he came here at the request of Morgan, who’s no longer in the loop to protect him.

Despite a convincing letter from retired Motlow State professor Janice Harder questioning the statistics and validity of the TBR audit, his days are done here.

It’s a little odd, considering Tennessee doesn’t let many college presidents go. In fact, some are still working despite transgressions much worse than Kinkel’s. But they had better politics. Kinkel just didn’t have time to build up his political weapons in this part of the South.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger and Memphis Daily News.