Kinkel speaks out on Motlow resignation
By Kelly Lapczynski, Staff Writer
Former Motlow State Community College president Anthony Kinkel started a new job in Minnesota on Tuesday; but he’s still fighting to clear his name here in Tennessee after a Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) audit criticizing his “integrity, treatment of employees and handling of personnel matters” forced his resignation in June.
With a resignation effective date of Sept. 30, Kinkel remained on the Motlow payroll for months after the audit’s release, unable to comment on its allegations. Now he can say publicly that he believes the TBR report to be the result of a flawed investigation into complaints from a handful of employees who had become disgruntled with sweeping, but necessary, changes at the college. Changes, Kinkel said, that he initiated with the full support of TBR.
A changing campus system
Opened in 1969, the Moore County Motlow campus was the first of what is now a four-campus college system. It would be 1988 before new facilities opened in McMinnville and Fayetteville. The Smyrna site in Rutherford County, opened in 2006, is the newest of the four.
Through each expansion, Moore County remained the college’s “main campus.”
But by the time Kinkel stepped in, in 2015, Motlow had become the center of a student population explosion – due both to the implementation that year of the Tennessee Promise Scholarship and the growth of Rutherford County.
When it opened, the Smyrna satellite campus was, like its sister campuses, a rural site. But in the decade since, Rutherford County has become one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. Today, the “almost urban” site pulls nearly half of Motlow’s enrollment – just under 3,000 of the college’s 6,600 students systemwide this fall – and is one of the fastest-growing campuses in the nation.
“Smyrna right now has more students than Tullahoma and Fayetteville combined, and within two years it will have more students than all three combined,” Kinkel said. “In most states, Smyrna would be its own college.”
With the majority of students now centered in Rutherford County, Kinkel – with the support of then-TBR Chancellor John Morgan – initiated efforts to “reimagine” the college, reflecting the shift of its gravitational center. But, he said, those efforts were met with resistance.
“The minute you adjust the structure to reflect where all the students are, you’ve got, understandably, people back here in Moore County who see, in their minds, the erosion of the center of the universe being here,” Kinkel said. “And, frankly, it’s no longer here. So I had to manage that dynamic that no one could control.”
But shifting focus to Rutherford County wasn’t the only change Kinkel initiated.
At Motlow, Kinkel was an outspoken advocate of workforce education in a changing Tennessee economy, taking particular note of the state’s growing automotive industry.
“We produce more cars now than Detroit and Motlow State is in the fertile crescent of that manufacturing,” Kinkel said. “That didn’t exist 40 years ago (when the college was founded).”
To address the unmet high demand for skilled workers, Kinkel began to shift Motlow’s offerings to include, alongside its academic degree programs, industry standard technical certificate programs.
These programs, offered in partnership with area employers, included dual enrollment options, allowing students to earn college credits while still in high school. And, through these programs, students who wanted a “good-paying, working-class job” would be able to enter the workplace after two years’ training.
But, Kinkel said, these offerings were a shift away from thinking, “you go to Motlow and then you transfer.”
“We’ll always be the number-one transfer college to MTSU, but many people who live and work around Moore County don’t want to move or they can’t afford to go to UT (University of Tennessee) or Vanderbilt; they want to get a new profession here. So we began to change and offer terminal programs. That got some folks alarmed.”
Despite the alarm, “the reorganization that we did was working,” he said.
“We went from the bottom third of performance to number one – in two years,” he said. “And this fall, I’m proud to say – building on the work that our team did — for the third year in a row they lead the state in enrollment, which is unprecedented.”
Not only were students enrolling, they were coming back.
Motlow College last year topped the state for retaining its Tennessee Promise students and graduation rates were up. Participation in internal fundraising nearly tripled, with 65 percent of employees donating to the college’s foundation, up from 23 percent. And Kinkel’s efforts to persuade state legislators of the need for new buildings on Motlow campuses resulted in Gov. Bill Haslam allocating $40 million in this year’s budget to new buildings in Smyrna and McMinnville.
“Those things don’t happen by accident,” Kinkel he said. “We’re number one because our team and everyone working together to achieve all those things that we achieved.”
A letter of appreciation signed by Smyrna and Rutherford county leaders, state Sens. Jim Tracy and Bill Ketron, and state Reps. Mike Sparks and Dawn White in response to Kinkel’s resignation recognizes these successes.
It reads that “by every professional measurement,” Kinkel was “one of the most successful presidents to ever lead the college.”
Despite these successes, the earth had shifted beneath Kinkel’s feet.
“What I’ve learned in life is that more people die coming down from Mt. Everest than getting up,” said Kinkel.
“We climbed Mt. Everest. We were the top of our profession in Tennessee,” he said. “We got to Mt. Everest, but I couldn’t get down alive.”
A changing TBR
Coming down from Mt. Everest, Kinkel first entered the “death zone” when Morgan – who not only supported Kinkel’s “reimagining” of the college but had specifically brought him here to do it – suddenly resigned from TBR in protest to Haslam’s FOCUS Act.
The act, which removed the state’s six universities from TBR governance, spurred a flurry of board resignations. After Morgan left in January 2016, a number of vice chancellors followed. David Gregory was named interim chancellor, but he too would leave the system after a year. Each resignation chipped away at Kinkel’s support system at the state level.
“That sort of memory and that support and that understanding of why I came left,” he said. “Leading at that level, you have to have the support from your board and your chancellor. Which I had. Until they all left.
“What we did was working but it wasn’t without some pain by people who said ‘my world is being turned upside down’.”
Pipeline to predecessor
One of the problems with turning the world upside down, Kinkel said, was that anyone at the college who found the changes dizzying had a direct pipeline to his predecessor, MaryLou Apple, whose retirement from the college was followed by her appointment to TBR. And, because many of his efforts to “reimagine” the college ran contrary to the goals of his predecessor, Kinkel said, complaints about his performance did not fall on unbiased ears.
“I’ve worked in five states with some of the best community college presidents in the country. I don’t know a single one that would ever come to a college where the previous president is now their boss,” Kinkel said. “It’s horrible practice. I have nothing personal against MaryLou Apple, but if you’d have told me ‘do you want to leave your great job in Wichita, Kansas, leading the best community college in the state and come to Tennessee but, oh by the way, the former president is going to be one of your bosses,’ I would have said ‘no way.’ No way would I subject myself to that.”
Calling an audit
Kinkel questions the timing and motivation of the TBR audit, coming just one week after Gregory left the system.
Under new chancellor Flora Tydings – recommended for hiring by Apple – the TBR in February launched an audit that would, through a public process, openly revisit personnel complaints that had, under Morgan, already been declared “without merit” in a private process.
Kinkel asks, “Who ordered that?”
“In my 32 years of being a dean, a faculty member, a senator, a state director and a president at four institutions I’ve never seen a situation like this,” Kinkel said. “Not one penny was missing; not one relative or mistress was hired; and not one law broken. They found some disgruntled folks and they purposely sought them out and said ‘tell me what you don’t like’.”
Possibly flawed result
Whatever the motivation, the audit report was scathing.
Though it’s true that it found no fiscal or legal improprieties, the audit determined that Kinkel had used “fear, intimidation, hostility and condescension as motivational tools” and had pressured employees to take unreasonable workloads or do things they felt were inappropriate.
The findings against Kinkel were primarily personnel concerns, but they didn’t stop there. There were allegations that he’d manipulated information pertinent to the investigation itself, pressured teachers to give athletes better grades than they earned and distributed students’ personal or private information.
Kinkel did not address these findings specifically, but said the report is “full of hearsay and statements taken out of context.”
And, he said, “We were never given an opportunity to respond at all. There was no opportunity.”
According to the report, 85 percent of the employees interviewed cited low morale at the college as a serious concern. However, Kinkel and colleagues – most notably professor emeritus Dr. Janice Harder – question the validity of those statistics.
In a seven-page letter to the governor detailing what she believes to be the flaws of the audit, Harder points out that “the auditor interviewed only 47 of the approximately 235 employees” at the college and “auditors talked primarily with those who had been seemingly adversely affected by the organizational restructuring.”
Furthermore, Harder notes that three of the six members of the systemwide audit committee were from the Motlow service area. Apple among them.
The potential irregularities of the TBR audit are now, Kinkel said, the subject of an investigation at the state comptroller’s office, which has the broad authority to review Tennessee community colleges and the TBR.
John Dunn, a spokesman for the state comptroller’s office, did not confirm or deny that such investigation is underway; but did confirm that the office “has been made aware of concerns related to the Board of Regent’s audit of Motlow State.”
In July, the issue was referred to the office’s Division of State Audit to be reviewed as part of the next scheduled full audit of the college. Such audits are completed every two years. The results of the next college audit will be released in late summer 2019.
The comptroller’s most recent audit, released in July, showed no additional findings.
An injured reputation
“I believe in justice,” Kinkel said. “All I want is my name. My name is important to me. The work that we did here and that I’ve done my entire career is important to me. There’s no way I could become the head of a state board if all these things were true,” he said, referring to his new position as executive director of the Minnesota Board of School Administrators. “To not be able to defend myself for four months was very hard.”
“I want people to know their president here did a darn good job and worked every day for these students,” he said.
Calling the situation a “dose of humility,” Kinkel said, “Maybe the lesson here is not everything in life is based on performance. There are things that happen sometimes that you can’t control. This has tested me and my character more than anything I’ve ever done. We talk to our students a lot about setbacks and how to process that. Maybe it was time for me to learn that lesson myself.”
Search for new president begins
Next week, with a public forum set for 9 a.m. Tuesday, Motlow College will begin its search for Kinkel’s replacement. Kinkel wishes them well.
“The challenges aren’t going to go away,” he said. “Smyrna isn’t going to stop growing.”
But, he said, whoever comes in next is going to inherit “a really, really strong college with a terrific financial condition.” Reiterating his successes, he said, “We left the cupboard pretty full.”
The public forum will be held in the Marcum Technology Building, Room MT-112 on the Moore County campus. The TBR search advisory committee will convene immediately afterward, at 10 a.m. in Room MT-105, to discuss the procedures and timeline for reviewing candidates and selecting finalists for Motlow’s seventh president.
That meeting is also open to the public.