Rocky’s trustees stand behind president

2010-05-17T23:29:00Z Rocky’s trustees stand behind presidentMARY PICKETT Of The Gazette staff The Billings Gazette
May 17, 2010 11:29 pm  • 

The Rocky Mountain College Board of Trustees is standing by the college president in the wake of a recent lawsuit.

In the civil suit filed May 3 in state District Court, Rocky’s development director, Shari VanDelinder, claimed that President Mike Mace yelled and screamed several times at her and one time backed her against a door during one of his tirades, punching his finger against the wall on each side of her head.

He also threw a chair one time and pounded his fists on a desk another time, she claimed.

The verbal abuse was so extensive that she became ill and had to take medical leave from her job, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which was filed against both the college and Mace, included several other claims, including that board chairman Barb Skelton should not have handled VanDelinder’s grievance because of business dealings that Skelton had with the college and Mace that posed a conflict of interest.

Four trustees sat down with a Gazette reporter on Monday to discuss some of the allegations in the lawsuit.

Skelton and board members John Jones, Larry Campodonico and Mary Underriner were present as well as Dan Burkhart, director of marketing and public relations for Rocky.

Jones is an attorney with the Moulton Bellingham law firm, which represents the college on legal matters. He attended as a board member, not as legal counsel.

The trustees admitted that Mace has had problems with anger.

“It’s no secret that Mike does raise his voice at times and at times inappropriately,” Jones said, adding that trustees have talked with Mace about it.

Mace has fully cooperated with trustees in trying to control his emotions.

As he became more frustrated with his problems with VanDelinder, he hired at his own expense an “executive consultant” to work on managing his anger and improving his working relationship with VanDelinder.

Following the consultant’s advice, Mace invited VanDelinder to lunch one time to get to know her better.

That lunch went well, said Campodonico, and things improved between the two for a while.

“Then it shifted, and he doesn’t know why.” Campodonico said.

After Skelton reviewed a grievance filed by VanDelinder, Skelton told VanDelinder that she wanted the development director to stay at Rocky.

Skelton also talked to Mace about raising his voice and asked him to continue working on anger management, and he has done so at his expense.

The recent anger management consultations are in addition to anger management classes that Mace was required to complete as part of the resolution of a misdemeanor battery charge in Indiana in 2007, for which he spent one night in jail.

Despite Mace’s volatility, he has “done great things for Rocky,” Jones said. “He’s a good fundraiser, is well-connected and has a good business mind.”

He also has a good rapport with students, trustees said.

“He loves those kids, and they love him,” Jones said.

Trustees praised Mace for taking Rocky’s physician assistant program, which was on probation several years ago, to being ranked 15th in the country by its accrediting agency.

During the time Mace has been president, the PA program became a master’s program, and two other master’s programs were started.

“Some people say he’s autocratic,” Campodonico said. “But, when he picks the right people, he gives them their head,” allowing them to accomplish a lot.

Trustees also are pleased with a possible uptick in enrollment.

The college also has 236 deposits from students who say they plan to attend Rocky this fall. That’s a 71 percent increase in deposits over last year at this time.

The lawsuit also addresses the process by which VanDelinder’s complaints about Mace were dealt with at Rocky.

Trustees on Monday acknowledged that VanDelinder went to the Rocky human resources department to report her problems with Mace.

After she filed a grievance with Skelton, Skelton talked VanDelinder about those problems and also with Mace and 19 other people.

Skelton’s report included a suggestion that VanDelinder have a new manager so she would have less direct contact with Mace.

VanDelinder rejected that proposal, the trustees said.

Then, because trustees were so determined to solve the problem between Mace and VanDelinder, they proposed appointing a five-person panel to review the case. The panel would consist of two panel members suggested by VanDelinder, two college administrators and the fifth person chosen by the four panel members.

That was the proposal on the table when the lawsuit was filed, they said.

Contacted Monday, VanDelinder said that she disagreed with the way that her problems with Mace were handled by the college.

When she started to have problems, she had at least two meetings with Mace and a staff member at each as a witness.

When that didn’t solve the problem, she had another meeting with Mace and Skelton, but that still didn’t solve the problem.

Then she went to human resources office and was told of several options, which included filing a lawsuit or filing a grievance. She was warned against filing a lawsuit and was given the example of the way a lawsuit by a former employee against Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos had brought internal problems into the public eye.

After that visit, things did get better between her and Mace for a while, and then soured again.

VanDelinder said she didn’t want to file a lawsuit, didn’t want to hurt Rocky and hoped to resolve the issue in-house.

So she filed a grievance outlining her problems with Mace to Skelton, as she had been advised to do by the human resources office.

When she filed the grievance, she didn’t realize that only Skelton, whom she considered to have conflicts of interest with Rocky and Mace, would be the only person investigating the matter.

When Skelton suggested getting a new manager for VanDelinder, VanDelinder declined that offer because she had had different managers in the past who had failed to protect her from abuse from Mace that she said had made her sick.

That’s when she went to an attorney.

VanDelinder and her attorney, Tom Singer, proposed that an independent investigator be hired to conduct an investigation and make recommendations to the board at a meeting attended by VanDelinder and Singer.

But, in the end, trustees rejected VanDelinder’s proposal, and VanDelinder rejected the board’s proposal of a five-person panel, Singer said.

To correct problems at Rocky, an investigation needs to go deeper and talk with former employees as well as current employees, who might be concerned about losing their jobs, he said.

“Our perception was that there was a strong need for an independent person,” Singer said Monday. “This has gone on a long time, and nobody is stepping up to solve the problem.”

The lawsuit also said that one or more trustees have resigned in protest over the board’s failure to address Mace’s inappropriate treatment of employees.

Skelton and Underriner confirmed that one board member had resigned recently, but said they could not comment on why.

Former Trustee Harry Cuff of Billings said last week that he had recently resigned from the Board of Trustees but declined to comment about the reasons why.

Two “new” trustees will join the board on July 1 — William Ballard and Rick Larson, Underriner said.

Both have previously served on the board. Ballard is a past board chairman.

VanDelinder said Monday that she still is development director and still on leave from the college, but is looking forward to getting things resolved.

“I love the school,” she said.

Board members also said that the lawsuit “is a bump in the road” and that it doesn’t tell the true story of Rocky.

“The kids are great, the faculty and staff are great,” Jones said. “It’s much bigger than Mike. It’s bigger than us.”

“It’s all about the students,” Campodonico said.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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