Looking at the college’s highest–paid administrators is fun. It’s a story The Chronicle does every year, and it always gets a lot of buzz from the college community. But the Form 990s, the federal tax documents we use to figure out who tops the highest paid list, also tell a story about Columbia’s tenuous and occasionally litigious relationship with its administrators.
Seven of Columbia’s 10 highest-paid administrators from 2011–2012 no longer work at the college or are in different positions now, and the college is currently being sued in federal court by two former administrators for wrongful termination and discrimination.
That’s not a great track record.
Some Columbia administrators left without much noise. Former President Warrick L. Carter retired one year before his contract was up, taking Chief of Staff Paul Chiaravelle with him. The former deans
of the schools of Fine & Performing Arts and Media Arts, Eliza Nichols and Doreen Bartoni, stepped down from their positions but still teach at the college. Eric Winston, former vice president of Institutional Advancement, retired Aug. 30.
Some administrators left inexplicably. Former Provost Steven Kapelke left suddenly and mysteriously in 2011. Annice Kelly, former vice president of Legal Affairs and general counsel, recently disappeared from the college’s directory without explanation.
Some former administrators have pursued legal action. Columbia’s former CFO Michael DeSalle, a highest-paid veteran, filed a wrongful termination suit in 2012, claiming retaliation for supporting Zafra Lerman, former head of the Science Institute, who was fired in 2009. Lerman, who was also a top 10 highest-paid administrator from 2009–2011, filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the college in 2010.
To be fair, Columbia isn’t the only college being sued by past employees. Namita Goswami, a former professor at DePaul University, is currently suing the university for job discrimination. Roosevelt University is also being sued by a former employee, John Miller, for discrimination. But Columbia’s issues are heavily focused and litigated among members of the college’s top administration.
The mysterious disappearances and onslaught of lawsuits point to a problem larger than high turnover. In fact, administrator turnover can be good. But administrators and employees should leave Columbia with good experiences, not ready to contact their lawyers.
It’s clearly not money these administrators were upset about. The college paid them handsomely, as evidenced in our Front Page story. So what is the problem?
The severe lack of transparency under Carter makes it hard to tell. My best estimation, after reading hundreds of pages of legal documents and talking to people familiar with the higher ranks, is that the problem was politics. People felt they were fighting for their jobs and programs, especially during the prioritization process.
Hopefully, those days are over now that Carter has been replaced by President Kwang-Wu Kim. There is always a certain amount of turnover when a new president takes over, so the college will likely see more rotating administrators, but it’s up to Kim to make sure those who leave do so without any harsh feelings (or lawyers).