Chairwoman: COD 'in a good place going forward'

A year ago, Deanne Mazzochi said one of her goals was to make the College of DuPage "boring" again.

At the time, it seemed like an impossible dream.

She had assumed the duties of chairwoman of a sharply divided board of trustees at the Glen Ellyn school that had redefined the word "contentious."

She was trying to replace Kathy Hamilton, who had unexpectedly stepped down as board chairwoman in December 2015 without warning or explanation after roughly seven tumultuous months.

As vice chairwoman, Mazzochi seemed the logical successor, but three of the five other trustees refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of her new role.

The college was still searching for a president to replace Robert Breuder, who was fired amid state and federal probes into COD's spending and administrative practices.

The Higher Learning Commission, which provides accreditation for college, had placed COD on two years' probation for failing to act with integrity in its financial, academic, personnel and auxiliary functions. That decision threatened the value of a degree from COD.

And with the board deadlocked at 3-3, neither side could amass a quorum to even meet and there was no hope of agreement on appointing a seventh trustee to break the stalemate.

But despite the odds, a year later, Mazzochi seems to have gotten her wish.

The school once again is moving forward, she said during a recent interview with the Daily Herald, and "we've gotten a lot more boring."

Trustees Dianne McGuire, Erin Birt and Joseph Wozniak used to butt heads with Mazzochi and her allies on the board - Frank Napolitano and Charles Bernstein - at meetings, but those conflicts have become rare.

Now McGuire, Birt and Hamilton's eventual replacement, David S. Olsen, aren't seeking re-election. Instead, three new faces will join the board after April's election.

Meanwhile, the college - under the leadership of new President Ann Rondeau - this month will submit an assurance filing to the Higher Learning Commission. The nearly 40,000-word document makes the case for how COD meets all 21 of the HLC's criteria for accreditation - not just the issues that led to the sanction.

The school also will host a comprehensive evaluation by April. The HLC will decide later this year if COD's accreditation will remain intact.

"It's my belief that we are fully compliant with all the HLC standards and that we will be taken off probation," Mazzochi said.

She said the assurance filing provides evidence that COD has remedied past issues and is "in a good place going forward."

"We're in a position where if there is a problem, we have the capacity, ability, knowledge and willingness to self-correct," Mazzochi said.

She said that wasn't the case when COD was hit with a string of controversies in 2014 and 2015.

The firestorm began in May 2014, when a Breuder email surfaced detailing his plans to secure a $20 million state construction grant. Breuder suggested in the email the college put then-Gov. Pat Quinn on the spot by publicly thanking him for the promised grant at a COD graduation ceremony. The grant was withdrawn after the governor's office learned of the email.

COD was thrust into the spotlight again in January 2015 when the board approved a $762,868 buyout of Breuder's contract. The controversial severance package led to a series of federal and state investigations into the college's spending.

It also prompted Hamilton to support Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein for the COD board.

The "Clean Slate" group captured all three board seats at stake in a 12-candidate race. In April 2015, they were sworn in, and the new board majority wasted no time implementing its agenda, which began with hiring a law firm to investigate the college's operations, and authorizing the Illinois Auditor General to conduct a performance audit of the college. Breuder also was placed on administrative leave and was terminated in October 2015.

But then Hamilton abruptly resigned on Dec. 13, 2015. The HLC decision was announced just three days later.

As vice chairwoman, Mazzochi suddenly became the face of the board.

"I certainly didn't expect to be in that position," she said.

A dispute over how to fill Hamilton's seat led Birt, McGuire and Wozniak to begin boycotting meetings.

The gridlock lasted for two months until Illinois Community College Board Chairman Lazaro Lopez - forced to act because COD trustees were unable to pick a successor - named Olsen to the board.

Despite the boycott, Mazzochi said she didn't want to delay addressing the HLC's findings.

"With the issuing of the HLC letter, the goal was not paralysis," she said. "We have a target. Let's move."

So Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein continued to meet even though other trustees wouldn't.

"Even though the board wasn't meeting to take final action on items, we still got work done at those meetings," said Mazzochi, adding the sessions made it possible for the board to get a lot accomplished once Olsen was seated last February.

A presidential search committee also continued its work. Mazzochi said that was important because she didn't want the college to lose candidates.

"Over 300 people applied for that position," she said. "As we've seen from Dr. Rondeau, she's an extraordinarily talented person - very much in demand. Other candidates were also very much in demand."

Despite calls by some to restart the search process, Mazzochi said it was important for the institution to move forward.

"The feedback I was getting from our stakeholders was that they wanted new leadership," she said. "They wanted it sooner rather than later."

In the end, trustees in May hired Rondeau, a retired Navy vice admiral, as the sixth president of COD. She started July 1.

The board has since hired John Kness, a former assistant U.S. attorney, to become the school's first in-house attorney.

School officials also agreed to address the results of the Illinois Auditor General's performance audit. Released in late September, the report suggested 19 areas the college needs to improve.

It said COD's board needs to increase its oversight in a broad range of areas, including evaluation of the college president, handling of construction contracts, overall transparency and members' understanding of their elected roles.

In November, trustees approved a two-year contract extension with the school's full-time faculty members. The deal was quietly negotiated without controversy.

"What it reflects is that we as a board are trying to set a new institutional tone," Mazzochi said. "Dr. Rondeau is trying to set a new institutional tone. To the extent we were able to do that and work to achieve a good outcome successfully, I'm glad for that."

Looking ahead to this year, Mazzochi said she expects the board, administration and faculty to return to their proper roles. For the board, that means focusing on policy issues, budgeting and strategic planning. It also will conduct more outreach efforts to solicit community feedback.

"That's really what the board is supposed to be doing," Mazzochi said. "We're supposed to set policy, approve the budget, make strategic decisions and be the true oversight arm between the taxpayers and the institution."

College of DuPage Board Chairwoman Deanne Mazzochi says the school has moved beyond controversies, investigations and political divisions and now is focused on keeping its accreditation. Bob Chwedyk/Daily Herald, May 2016
  One of the turning points for the College of DuPage was the appointment of new President Ann Rondeau, left, with Mazzochi. Joe Lewnard/
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