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Wednesday, July 6,2011

Which way will college go post-Light/Erickson?

By Terry Smith
The indictments of former Hocking College President John Light and his wife, former top college official Roxanne DuVivier, last week on first-degree misdemeanor charges say a lot about the changing power dynamics at the Nelsonville institution.

Until about two years ago, Light who had led the community college nearly from its founding in the late '60s -- presided over Hocking as a (usually) benevolent dictator. Under his leadership, the college grew and progressed into an institution with an identity that uniquely fit rural southeast Ohio and its economic strengths and needs.

As long as things were going well, the college Board of Trustees usually let Light have his way with staff, policy and management. Why fix something that's not broken?

As last week's indictments -- five first-degree misdemeanors, one against Light and four against DuVivier -- suggest, this style of hands-off board management had an unfortunate but predictable result. The college became Light’s own fiefdom, where critics from that time said he exerted patronage and reward his favored subjects, including his wife, with preferential treatment, including little or no supervision.

The charge against Light -- filing a false financial disclosure statement in connection with travel -- raises serious questions about whether the travel he got reimbursed for always had direct benefits for the college. In filings with the state, he allegedly understated the amount that the college paid for his travel expenses over six years, to the tune of more than $46,000.

While the prosecutor for the Ohio Ethics Commission did not accuse Light of having the college pay for bogus travel, about the only reason to understate these expenses (except for incredibly inept book-keeping) would be because you, yourself, had doubts about their legitimacy.

As for DuVivier, who became a top official at the college during the latter part of her husband's term, she's charged with three counts of conflict of interest as a public official and one count of having an unlawful contract. Without getting into the gnarly details, suffice it to say that she's accused of improperly feathering her own nest while on the college's dime and time.

For years, reports coming out of the college suggested that some of Light's top officials were playing fast and loose with basic work requirements, including attendance. And trustees during those years sometimes complained that they had a very difficult time getting financial data from Light and his administration.

The charges and their details suggest that the old saw, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," applied to the Nelsonville college during Light's reign, and that it finally came to a head.

Both Light and DuVivier are expected to plead to the first-degree misdemeanor charges, with no jail time for either, and a restitution demand for DuVivier. Light isn't expected to have to pay anything.

When Light retired two years ago, alas, it opened up a yawning power vacuum at the college. Intense competition arose over who would fill the vacuum and how. The trustee majority miscalculated in hiring Ron Erickson as the new president, not considering what would happen if he actually followed through on promised reforms from the Light years.

For better or worse, Erickson also got in the way of the Board of Trustees imposing some authority over a college that they felt had lost control over under the previous president.

The future is unclear for Hocking College. The past several years of turmoil have badly shaken morale at the institution, and the recent forced ouster of Erickson has polarized the college even further.

The key question moving forward for Hocking is whether the trustees will finally get it right in terms of their selection of a new president, and then whether they'll place him or her in a situation with the right balance of board control and autonomy.

Hocking College's record in these areas up to now doesn't instill confidence that they'll hit the jackpot this time. On the other hand, there's always the law of averages.


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