Preface: The following essay was written by a person that works within the USG and wishes to remain anonymous. We at Georgia Watch understand the difficulty that whistleblowers face and will always protect the identity of those that wish to keep their identities hidden. It is presented to you here it it’s entirety and unedited. Only today it was announced that a “merger” may be in the works between Georgia State and Georgia Perimeter College.
I have respectfully requested that my authorship of this post not be disclosed for reasons that are apparent given the topic of discussion.
I have read with interest the events chronicling both the rise to success and the unnecessary end of Dr. Anthony Tricoli’s presidency at Georgia Perimeter College (GPC). While I have not worked directly with Anthony I have worked directly within the University System of Georgia and other Systems, both public and private, in other states. I deeply understand the politics of power and how those who hold it can feel threatened based upon their own insecurities or the public revelation of their past failures. Over many years, I have developed a close friendship with Anthony, and we have many mutual friends still within higher education across the United States.
It has been said, “in order for evil to reign, all it takes is for good people to do nothing.” Before opining about my friend Anthony, and his story of travail and woe, I am reminded of two key leaders in contemporary times—Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a Lutheran theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. Dr. Bonhoeffer, who completed graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and returned to Nazi Germany, publicly resisted the Nazi regime, challenged Hitler’s genocide, and was imprisoned at Tegel military prison for 18 months; while at Tegel he wrote his seminal “Letters and Papers from Prison.” In these works he espouses concepts of equity, exposes injustice, and argues for the human dignity and rights of all. Sadly, Dr. Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945 following a court-martial on April 8, 1945 absent any witnesses or any defense.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was arguably the father of the American Civil Rights Movement, and, as a result, he suffered much including his imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama and ultimately his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Dr. King drafted and released his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on April 16, 1963, which parodies the aforementioned “Letter…” released earlier from Dr. Bonhoeffer—albeit a different subject matter. In his “Letter” Dr. King states “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere….”
While both of the great leaders above made the ultimate sacrifice for their convictions—their lives—it should be noted that both men were of great moral character and integrity. Both Bonhoeffer and King stood up for justice and exposed injustice in their society of the time. I believe that Dr. Tricoli and his story is very similar absent the obvious historical context and gravity of the past time.
Dr. Tricoli is a leader of integrity, a man of high morals and strong ethical behavior. We too often hear those words and phrases get bandied about in various circles today, but in leadership it has a very distinct meaning—uncompromising, honest, direct, and doing the right thing for the right reason. Anthony Tricoli is such a person. I would encourage educated people all type to further explore the resource documents previously referenced on this topic and his case for a full picture of the facts surrounding the successes achieved by Dr. Tricoli during his tenure as president at GPC. Chief among these is the phenomenal enrollment growth that extended educational opportunities to thousands more students of color than were previously enrolled when Anthony assumed the presidency of GPC in 2006.
Additionally, and speaking directly to Dr. Tricoli’s leadership style, is the rapport that he had and continues to enjoy at a distance with faculty, staff and students at GPC. This last point is important as to anyone who has ever worked in administration in higher education can attest, to facilitate change, while being inclusive of faculty, staff and student constituent groups, and, most importantly, garnering respect among those groups in the process, is a feat not many can achieve—Anthony did.
Dr. Tricoli’s end story at GPC is indeed a sad one, a terrible loss to the State of Georgia, to oppressed students, and to higher education in America. Axioms such as “no good deed goes unpunished” come to mind. I was also reminded of history—specifically when those in power seek to maintain power, or not be embarrassed, while cloaked behind government protection; in the latter case—sovereign immunity. The doctrine of sovereign immunity, in theory, was to prevent frivolous legal challenges from hindering the affairs of government or the state. Of course, when those charged with determining the frivolity of certain actions are at risk themselves of being uncovered or worse yet, losing their powerbase or their positions, then the objectivity of such a doctrine is simply ignored.
In order to appreciate the political backdrop in which Anthony, or any USG president, works, one must understand the University System of Georgia Board of Regents and their role as the often described “third arm of state government.” In Georgia, state government consists of the Georgia State Senate, the Georgia State Legislature, and the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.
Some history is in order here. Georgia, in responding to the regional accrediting commission (SACS) recommendation to the University of Georgia during the Eugene Talmadge administration of the 40’s, created the Board of Regents (BOR) to oversee governance of the University of Georgia and the other institutions within the USG—the University System of Georgia. This was necessary because many Southern states were restricting the rights of African American citizens and failing to comply with federal desegregation laws affording citizens the right to enroll at institutions of higher education. It is important to share here that GPC became a majority African American institution under Dr. Tricoli’s leadership from 2006-2012, and not everyone in Georgia was happy about that occurrence. This change in demographics didn’t occur under the radar of the USG, in fact Dr. Tricoli actively and vigorously pursued increasing the college-going-rate of African American students, strengthening programs for African-American males, and he made a tremendous difference in this regard. His very visible work began in 2008 with Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Congressman Hank Johnson and continued through 2012. Today GPC enrolls, retains and graduates more African-American students than any HBCU in Georgia.
Anthony also actively sought to increase the population of Hispanic students in Georgia’s colleges by creating a scholarship program that would enable that particular student population to afford a college education. In 2010, Anthony finalized an agreement with the Goizueta Foundation to create GPC’s Educational Achievement Program (GEAP). This $500,000+ grant enabled Anthony to create a scholarship and retention program to increase success among Hispanic students at GPC. This program continues today and has enabled literally thousands of Hispanic students to earn a college education.
Anthony’s efforts to support the increase access to college for Hispanic and African-American males into the USG by way of the two-year college he led was touted as the quiet handshake “deal breaker” inside the hallowed hallways of the South’s old guard….the USG. This became the foundation upon which Dr. Anthony Tricoli’s career was ultimately undone in Georgia.
As talks of a merger between GPC and Georgia State University became louder, Anthony’s actions which were expanding GPC’s reach into the minority community did not fit into the USG’s long term plans, in particular, those of a merger with Georgia State University. Anthony was slated for removal shortly after Erroll Davis abruptly left the University System of Georgia (Davis was the first and only African-American Chancellor of the USG).
Stepping back, SACS threatened UGA with rescinding their accreditation unless Governor Talmadge ceased and desisted with his attempts of governing the state’s flagship university—specifically, maintaining the policy of segregation. The legislature responded by creating the Board of Regents and charging them with the governance of The University of Georgia and other USG institutions. (In short, this ensured that Governor Talmadge and future governors could not directly interfere in the day-to-day operation of the state’s tax payer funded public colleges and universities and this satisfied the SACS recommendation pertaining to that Standard of Accreditation.)
Following the establishment of the BOR the state legislature passed and the governor signed into law granting the BOR “constitutional authority” or status which simply means that the BOR has the authority to set their own budget, hire and fire chancellors, faculty, and staff, as well as establish their own funding formula which is forwarded to the state legislature for approval annually. A case can be made that the BOR is the “third arm of state government” after the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches because they enjoy such autonomy. Granted, this autonomy was necessary during the racial abuses of the past, but citizens should question if this is still necessary, after all, the state’s other system, the TCSG, does quite well with its funding being determined and allocated by the legislature in the same manner that all the other state agencies receive their tax-levied funds.
So, how it works is like this. Governors are elected and then they make appointments of 6-year terms to regents from the state’s districts and some “at large” regents. These regents then set to govern the USG’s 30 institutions and are advised by administrative staff at the “System Office of the USG” in Atlanta. Meetings are held monthly and, in the past, the public was not afforded a time to address the body. I understand that to appear on a meeting docket as a member of the public is a very timely and cumbersome process requiring some advanced approvals. As you can see, these appointments as regents are political. This governance system affords the System Office staff great power in determining the direction of the USG and its multi-billion dollar budget.
The Governor still has “indirect” influence as evidenced in the case of former Chancellor Tom Meredith. Chancellor Meredith was an educator and former President in Alabama prior to being named as Chancellor of the USG. When the legislature refused to fully fund the “funding formula” for the USG, Tom Meredith announced that the USG would simply raise tuition to make up the difference. While the constitutional nature of the BOR gave him that authority it probably is the case that the governor still had influence in his continued employment as Chancellor Errol Davis quickly replaced Chancellor Meredith during the following year. Then when Erroll Davis (an African-American man from the north) suddenly left the USG, Dr. Tricoli found himself alone.
With the aforementioned history one can appreciate further the context within which USG institution presidents, including Dr. Tricoli, must operate. System Office staff interpret policy, forward recommendations, and discharge action to and from the BOR. Communication to the BOR and individual regents from USG presidents and others must be first vetted by the System Office staff and, if approved, is transferred through the System Office filter. In short, the individual regents are business leaders and philanthropists who depend, almost 100%, on communication coming in and from the System Office staff.
The other dynamic that must be considered in the story of Dr. Tricoli, or any college or university president, is that he or she cannot lead alone. Institutions of higher education are some of the most complex organizations which one can oversee. Many states, Georgia not being one, allow collective bargaining at public institutions translating into multiple unions representing various constituent groups (i.e., faculty, classified staff, campus police, administrators, and graduate students). Additionally, most full-time faculty enjoy protection afforded by tenure and should be given a voice in decisions related to academic and professional matters (in California this is codified in statute). This gives rise to Academic Senates on campuses as well as the many committees comprised, in some cases of faculty exclusively, and in others, of administrators, students, and faculty. Also, students are represented by Student Government Associations with a strong voice whose officers duly elected by the student body and their members are on committees as well.
Today higher education is under intense pressure to remain in compliance with extant and new federal and state regulations ranging from Title IV (federal aid) to Title IX (sexual assault, harassment, athletic gender parity, EEO) only to name a few. Also, during times of compressed budgets and increased competition from intra-system institutions, the private and for-profit sector, not to mention heightened attention to regional accreditation commission standards, college and university presidents are assailed at every corner with challenges. To this end, they must depend upon trusted lieutenants (usually vice presidents) to oversee respective areas around the institution. If this trust is breached then the president assumes responsibility, and, if he or she is a person of integrity, they take the hit personally and not throw any other administrator under the bus. Hence, the tenure of many presidents is only a few years. Dr. Tricoli had to rely upon his Chief Financial Officer to provide accurate facts and details about the college’s budget; which, by the way, we all know now that he failed to do; thus placing Dr. Tricoli in the worst position possible.
While this backdrop has been lengthy it is necessary to understand the general expectations placed upon a college or university president as well as the specific expectations of working within the USG. Dr. Anthony Tricoli not only advanced the mission of GPC, increased exponentially the enrollment and number of campuses, afforded transfer to 4-year USG institutions to thousands more students via guaranteed agreements (TAGs), saved hundreds of jobs, stimulated the local economies hosting GPC campuses, received numerous national awards, and was officially acknowledged and praised by former Chancellor Errol Davis, he did all of this while maintaining the respect of both students and faculty. This alone is identify and acknowledged by all as a phenomenal accomplishment.
Dr. Tricoli’s integrity remained intact, and his leadership was always focused upon what was best for GPC and the students, staff and community of that institution. One need simply review his accomplishments and converse with faculty and students of the institution to confirm these facts. Also, reviewing past issues of the GPC student newspaper concerning their opinion of his leadership will yield very positive opinions of Dr. Tricoli.
Life is not fair. The unjustified and undeserved public finger pointing at Dr. Anthony Tricoli is evidence of this. Read the voluminous documents where Anthony makes his case and consider the poignant facts raised in the evidence he provided and you cannot resist coming to the conclusion that he was not a good president, but a great college president who was damaged by the kind of people we do not want running our educational systems in America today. Too, the following questions will surface in your mind, and these were not answered in this case:
- Why was Anthony Tricoli not afforded a due process hearing by the BOR where he could respond to claims while documents containing facts and witnesses, with testimonies, would be presented and cross-examined prior to ending his contract?
- Why was a fine man of integrity and excellent leader of people left to seek relief in the courts in an effort to clear his name and resume his career either at GPC or at another college or university?
- Why did this case never make it to courtroom in front of a jury trial as requested in Dr. Tricoli’s original complaint? Why was Anthony Tricoli never allowed to speak before the judge? How could it be that the judge in this case believed that Anthony Tricoli didn’t have a contract for employment, and therefore no right the position as GPC’s president? Why did the USG and Attorney General work so hard to keep this story from getting in front of jury?
- Why was the protection afforded under sovereign immunity applied in the light of so many damning “undisputed facts” that would have required multiple governance officials within the state to give an account of their actions in the case of a college president who had done so much good for so many people?
- What role did a possible merger between GPC and Georgia State University play in all of this? Is it true that the USG simply wanted Anthony Tricoli out of the way so they could merge these two institutions without hearing from Anthony about the value of keeping GPC a distinct and separate educational institution focused on access to education for all students, black, brown and white?
- Finally, what can we as Georgia tax payers and voters do to ensure that the BOR is more transparent and open with regard to all of its meetings, public comment, staff actions, appointments, terminations, budgets, expenditures, revenue streams, and most important, inclusive of all constituent groups it represents and affects—faculty, staff, students, parents, and the general public? (This should not be the exclusive purview of USG staffers.)
In summary and in my opinion, Dr. Tricoli’s efforts at reform and educational success for all races of students at GPC was recognized and lauded nationally and at the institution by students, staff, and faculty, but viewed as a threat by others within the USG who did not enjoy similar success and recognition. Anthony was hired as an innovative president from the west coast to advance the mission of GPC and, as evidenced in remarks and performance evaluations concerning him by his hiring boss, Chancellor Erroll Davis, accomplished that.
Anthony was and is recognized nationally as one of America’s best two year college presidents to ever lead a community college. In addition, Anthony has been recognized by the AAUP, the NCMPR, NACADA, and the Chair Academy as one of the Pacesetters of American modern day higher education.
Unfortunately, given the politics, opinionated reasons, and structure described above, Anthony’s success ultimately resulted in his demise. Thwarted trust, betrayal, false allegations, the absence of due process, and protectionism cloaked as “Sovereign Immunity” were all part of Dr. Tricoli’s end and ultimate undoing.
Similar to Bonhoeffer and King, Dr. Anthony Tricoli has the foundation and conviction of truth, justice, and equity on his side, but unfortunately, greater forces and the threat of exposure prevailed, and justice and truth once again remain suppressed. While Bonhoeffer and King were on a global stage and affected positive change for millions of people, Tricoli shared their conviction for truth and justice and his voice, as was theirs, remained suppressed from the common layperson of their respective epoch. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. paid with their life. Dr. Anthony Tricoli has paid with his good name and his career……unjustly. America has lost a great and fearless college president.