We love you Dr. Conco?

Published 2:52 pm Friday, April 3, 2015

We’ve been took. Mighty badly took.

This line paraphrased from the musical “Big River” came to mind as the news started coming out of Paul D. Camp Community College on Tuesday about President Dr. Paul Wm. Conco. I was floored because every interaction I’ve ever had with Dr. Conco has been positive.

In my first week on the job, the community college was one of the first visits on my “learn about the community” tour. The president was kind and open.

Since then, every time I have seen him in the community he has been a cheerleader for the college: at city council meetings, at school board meetings and at the college itself.

Sometimes the over-the-top enthusiasm made me roll my eyes, but it had been no different from any other community college system leader I’ve ever worked with. It was to be expected.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde persona that Dr. Conco seemingly had, on the other hand, was not something I saw coming.

The assumption was that he was a funny and well-liked leader for our community college system. To the contrary, his former employees didn’t wait until lunch on the day of the announcement to start removing him from the website.

Many saw Mr. Hyde, but it seems that I wasn’t alone in only seeing Dr. Jekyll. Chancellor Glenn DuBois of the Virginia Community College System said he would have never agreed to a search for a new president if the state had realized the condition of the community college.

Conco, who admitted he wanted to be a cowboy when he was younger, had almost ridden off into the sunset before the chancellor got wind that everything may not be exactly as it appears.

The former PDCCC president, who was set to retire in June, would have set up his successor to potentially fail. The fallout may have never come close to the shadow of the reputation Conco had built up.

The chancellor’s words brings me to another thing that happened on Tuesday. Fittingly, it was in the Regional Workforce Development Center at Paul D. Camp Community College.

For the post-legislative session breakfast, Western Tidewater region delegates Rick Morris and Roslyn Tyler were present to talk about the General Assembly.

One topic Morris hit on was about the importance of the Freedom of Information Act. He had sponsored a bill — which was not passed into law — to make it a misdemeanor to knowingly violate a FOIA request. It was all about empowering the people to know more about government, be it local or state.

In response, the crickets could be figuratively heard in the background.

Later, in more than 200 words, Tyler said a lot of nothing about actually solving the problem when asked about the rising costs of higher education. She did urge students to utilize the community college system before attending a four-year institution, while also mentioning adding yet more scholarships. Those thoughts drew a lot of applause from the crowd of mostly high school and community college students.

That’s not an indictment against either Tyler or the children. She’s not the first politician to pander to a crowd, and she will not be the last. This is also certainly a big concern for that age group, and her suggestions might help lower the student loan debt for those starting at a community college, as well as those who get the scholarships. But it won’t actually lower tuition — it might even help it continue to rise.

This isn’t about that, though, it’s about the response when you sugarcoat a real issue versus when you try to take a real hard look at a problem.

Open government isn’t a sexy issue. It’s really important, though. We can’t trust the government to watch over itself with our tax dollars. We also can’t trust officials to be completely honest or open with us.

The college is a perfect example. In the past, when approaching the leadership on campus about stories, I’ve met resistance.

There is a certain line they made you walk — it had to be all positive. As a result, any communications were funneled through the president’s office.

In fact, when I was on campus on Tuesday, one employee admitted that he had received an email from the college’s administration telling staff they could not talk to The Tidewater News without directing it through the front office.

Certainly, there are stories that come out of the college that are going to be positive. There’s nothing wrong with telling those stories.

However, when a newspaper is only telling stories about issues that skate along the happy and well-lit surface, there is potential for a dark underside, if it exists, to go unnoticed.

For five years people have reportedly been bullied, and those who did not put up with it were shown the door. More than a dozen staff members were forced out. And just how many secretaries did Conco go through?

A difficult work environment is terrible for employees, but sometimes a hard-line boss gets results.

Well, let’s look at those results. In a state that ranks 40th in graduation plus transfer rate, Paul D. Camp Community College ranks 16th out of 23 colleges with a rate of 30.6 percent — that’s in the 24th percentile nationally. Even worse than that, the college is in the 10th percentile across the nation in first-year retention rate. The school is third in the state with what it spends per student at $11,345. That figure is in the 50th percentile across the nation. The school is seventh in the state comparing salary to cost ratio at 81 percent. This is all according to collegemeasures.org.

In summary, the system is right in the middle of the pack nationally with funding and is near the bottom in a few measurable results.

These statistics are a little dated, and it would have only measured a couple years of Conco’s tenure. It’s hard to imagine the situation has improved when considering the chancellor’s comments about holding off the presidential search amidst the many challenges the college is facing.

The problems are certainly not all Conco’s fault, but he helped cover them up. Covering up warts is a natural human reaction. In the case of something like a community college, though, it should be the opposite of what people do.

Thinking back to “Big River,” it’s hard for people to solve a problem when they have no idea what’s going on. After the sideshow charlatans had tricked the townsfolk through a song and dance routine, the people reacted to get them. Unfortunately, they were fooled so badly that they went in the wrong direction.

Part of the response to Tuesday’s news will be a desire to help from those who care about the college.

That’s going to be wonderful to see, and if they are allowed to truly understand where the problems are, I bet they make a difference.

Hopefully, officials with the college and state system will be more open to actual discussion of the issues than they have been so far.

If they refuse, this sideshow may have yet another verse.

Cain Madden is the managing editor of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at cain.madden@tidewaternews.com or 562-3187.