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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

Zero Tolerance for Human Mistakes

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Because of the strong connections between Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and the job market, unions have always exerted a powerful influence on how the premier job training institution in the state is run.

 Every one of those unions strongly represented on MATC’s board has a clause in its contract to prevent the peremptory firing of any employees arrested for first-time drunken driving. It’s a matter of simple fairness to give employees who may have an alcohol problem an opportunity to undergo treatment and possibly change their lives forever for the better.

 I was given such an opportunity 20 years ago and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. But it seems such basic fairness is not accorded to everyone, even at the hands of a board with strong representation from unions that champion protecting the livelihoods of their own employees in such circumstances.

 Last week, after refusing to allow any public testimony and meeting behind closed doors for four hours, the MATC board voted 6 to 3 to immediately fire President Darnell Cole, who was charged with first-offense drunken driving the week before.

 No board members publicly explained their votes. The motion to terminate Cole said the action was “based solely on conduct which occurred on Feb. 8 and the early morning of Feb. 9,” which almost certainly is not the whole story.

 In his eight years as president, Cole stirred strong opposition from the MATC teachers’ union and others. One long-time opponent said privately before the vote that the drunken driving arrest would be used to try to remove Cole because he’d been “a disaster for the college.”

Open Discussion Needed

 If there were performance issues, they needed to be discussed publicly. In the absence of any open discussion of other issues, citizens have no way of judging the validity of any complaints against Cole. They can only judge the firing by comparing the treatment of Cole to the way others in similar circumstances have been treated.

 Over the years, many prominent citizens have been arrested for drunken driving in this state. They have included a senator, a congressman, a state attorney general and the head of a nationally powerful right-wing foundation.

 None immediately lost his or her job before even being convicted of a misdemeanor first offense.

 Of course, it’s always bad timing to be arrested for driving under the influence at the same time the local newspaper is in the midst of a relentless public crusade against drunken driving. But fair treatment really shouldn’t depend on the whims of newspaper editors.

 MATC employees and students are used to being denigrated in the local media as if educating students for skilled trades and technical professions were somehow less important than other forms of higher education. I’ve always recommended to those who look down on technical education that the next time their toilet is plugged up, they should call a philosopher.

 Since Cole’s attorney has promised legal action, there’s unlikely to be any real public discussion for some time to come of the reasons why Cole wasn’t given the same consideration as others.

 That will allow many people to speculate. Unfortunately, some could even leap to the conclusion that it might have something to do with race. After all, Cole, an African American, faced criticism for receiving a high salary as college president, a criticism that seems never to have come up in the case of every white college president in the country.

 In a perfect world, everyone would agree that the president of the institution of higher learning in Wisconsin that graduates more African Americans than all of the other state colleges combined deserves to be well paid.

 Oh yeah: Some also claimed Cole was arrogant and surrounded himself with well-paid cronies, something that has never been true of the chief executive of any other college or private corporation anywhere in America.

 Some racial suspicions may even be fed by the vote on the firing. The three board members who voted not to fire Cole were African American. All but one of the six who voted against him were not.

 There may come a day when racial motives are not suspected whenever a decision is made behind closed doors to remove one of the few black leaders of a major institution in Milwaukee. That day has not yet come.

 In the absence of very much public information, the kind thing to do would be to give the board the benefit of the doubt and assume that the peremptory firing of Cole had nothing to do with the poisons of racism.

 Unfortunately, using intolerance toward human beings who make mistakes as the public excuse for the firing could become just as poisonous for anyone else who ever makes a mistake.

 What’s your take?

 Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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