At a special board meeting this week, the Clark College Board of Trustees revealed an investigation into four reports of discrimination at the Vancouver, Washington, community college. They say in at least one case, Clark’s nondiscrimination policy was violated. 

“We’ve taken these complaints very seriously,” trustee chair Jane Jacobsen said.

Clark College in Vancouver, Washington.

Clark College in Vancouver, Washington.

Molly Solomon/OPB

After a brief executive session Tuesday, the trustees unanimously voted that one of the complaints, related to an employee’s salary, detailed a situation that violated the college’s code on discrimination and harassment. Trustee Paul Speer said the employee’s pay disparity has been “retroactively remedied.”

And while the three other claims were not found to breach the college’s nondiscrimination rule, Speer said, “there is information obtained from the investigation that the board finds concerning.”

Since early June, the board has been evaluating discrimination complaints against the college. Specifics about the allegations have not been made public yet, but they appear to touch on former Clark President Bob Knight, who stepped down in July. 

School officials, for example, responded to a public records request from OPB by citing a Washington state statute that prevents them from releasing information on employees who are under investigation for a discrimination grievance. The college said it was legally required to wait 10 days to confirm if the grievances under review are connected to Knight.

The board hired Seattle firm D Diamond Consulting to investigate the four allegations, according to a $13,000 contract dated June 28. The outside investigator recently submitted findings to the board.

Details of the investigation have not been released publicly but have been the focus of at least nine executive session meetings since June. The board has divulged little information on the nature of the complaints and has withheld the identities of the complainants.

“This is a personnel matter affecting college employees and their right to privacy, and so we will not be making comments on the investigation or the report except where it pertains to process and policy,” Jacobsen said in a prepared statement after the meeting. “But we want to underscore our commitment to the students, the college and the community.”

On Tuesday, trustees directed interim President Sandra Fowler-Hill to update and review several college policies they say contributed to the concerns raised in the investigation. They proposed the college update its policies on the performance review of the college president and members of the executive cabinet, establish standard practices for setting salaries for employees serving in interim positions and establish a roadmap for complaints made against college leadership, including the president, executive cabinet members and trustees.

The board gave Fowler-Hill until the end of March 2020 to make those changes.

In an email to Clark employees and staff Wednesday morning, Fowler-Hill thanked the board of trustees for their work responding to the investigation.

“My intention is that we take the action steps outlined and move forward together as a college,” she wrote. “Clark College is committed to making this a safe, inclusive learning environment for all our employees, faculty, and our students. We commit to supporting diversity and equity in everything we do.” 

A Stalled Job Search

Former employees at Clark College have described a campus climate that felt unsafe and unwelcoming, and cultural problems have left some people of color feeling alienated and triggered resignations from faculty and staff. They complained of microaggressions and a culture from the top that minimized their experiences and failed to advance people of color. 

The school has also been a target for white supremacist activity. Last year anti-Semitic and racist flyers were found on campus, prompting a series of community meetings to discuss the incidents.

It’s also been one year since the college fired its head of diversity, equity and inclusion. Clark College has not found a permanent replacement, despite a months-long hiring search and $35,000 spent on a Portland-based search firm. Emails obtained in a public records request show former college President Bob Knight abruptly called off the hiring process in late May.

In a June 18 email to the hiring committee, Knight explained his decision and pointed to problems with the search firm process, fairness and equity concerns, and questions raised about finalists who did not meet the minimum qualifications advertised for the job.

In the weeks before that decision, emails show Knight focused on one candidate specifically: interim director Rashida Willard. 

In several emails with the search firm, Knight questioned whether Willard’s qualifications met the minimum standards for the job. According to the posted job description, those included a Master’s degree or equivalent experience “contributing to large-scale initiatives within diversity, equity and inclusion.” The job also required at least three years of experience in a senior-level diversity position.

The search firm responded that they believed Willard had the skills to be successful in the position, and pointed to previous diversity work she’d done, plus her eight months as the interim office of diversity and equity director at Clark College

“The field of diversity is relatively newer which also translates to less executive roles in the field,” said Rochelle Fleischer, a consultant with the search firm 180one, in an email responding to Knight’s concerns. “It was our interpretation that Clark wanted to be as inclusive as possible when using ‘senior-level, diversity-related position.’”

Shortly after that exchange, a meeting was called with Knight, the search firm, the college’s human resources department, the head of the search committee, and the college’s legal counsel. The following week Knight announced his decision to postpone job interviews, and eventually the hiring process.

In an email thread that followed the internal announcement, many on the search committee were upset with Knight’s decision to cancel the job search, just days before finalists were scheduled to interview on campus. 

Knight said it would be up to the next president to decide how the search process for the diversity, equity, and inclusion job will move forward.

Editor’s Note: Clark College Board of Trustees member Paul Speer is currently a member on the OPB Board of Directors.