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CEDAR RAPIDS — Turmoil over Coe College’s commitment to diversity reached a crescendo during the private school’s recent presidential search, leading two trustees to submit scathing letters of resignation and students to hold protests Thursday.
Protesters have asserted the issues go beyond the trustee resignations and relate to diversity issues across campus — but they cited the Oct. 25 resignation of longtime trustee Darryl Banks, a Black man who graduated magna cum laude from Coe in 1972 and was elected its last Rhodes scholar 50 years ago.
“We are at a historical and critical juncture at Coe College. No longer can we afford to sit and wait for slow and incremental change,” a Student Senate message read. “The board’s failure to recognize the racial and systemic nature of the incident with Darryl Banks proves that board leadership does not value or understand diversity, equity, and inclusion to the fullest extent necessary.
“The board is in need of structural reform to fix this inherently structural issue.”
In his resignation letter to Coe Board of Trustees Chair Carson Veach, Banks said that “nothing has made me prouder than trying to make Coe a more diverse and inclusive community college.”
But he also spelled out his mounting frustrations on that front, which culminated during the search for a new Coe president over the summer — following David McInally’s retirement Jan. 1, 2021.
The board named business administration and economics professor David Hayes, then vice president for advancement, to serve as interim president during a national search, which spokeswoman Natalie Milke said netted a “large candidate pool.”
She confirmed three finalists were considered for the job, participating in confidential interviews on campus. Trustees, who number about 50 in all, on Oct. 1 chose Hayes to continue as president on a permanent basis.
Banks’ resignation letter reveals discord during that Oct. 1 meeting.
“Over the past year as institutions across the country have grabbed this ‘urgency of now’ moment by aggressively addressing racial justice, diversity, and inclusion, I have become increasingly frustrated and concerned that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within the Coe community have suffered from a lack of affirmative and aggressive focus and commitment by the board,” Banks wrote. “Unfortunately, my mounting concerns were reaffirmed during the Oct. 1, 2021, full board meeting.”
During a discussion of the search committee report, Banks said he shared “diversity and inclusion concerns brought by the BIPOC Presidential Search Committee members regarding the search committee deliberations.” But he was then accused of lying by a fellow board member, according to his letter.
“After reporting the incident, I was accused by the board leadership and the Trusteeship Committee, without any factual evidence, of being untruthful and dishonest,” Banks wrote. “For the board leadership and the Trusteeship Committee to make such deceitful accusations is an assault on my character.”
Banks took those actions as a “clear indication that the board leadership does not have the will for frank discussions regarding diversity and inclusion or the capacity to advance a meaningful commitment to social and racial justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Thus, Banks said, he could not continue on the board.
“Over the last six years, it has been an honor to work with David McInally and his team as they made transformative progress and demonstrated a solid commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at Coe,” he wrote. “I only hope that those years will not become known as Coe’s ‘Prague Spring of 1968.’”
Veach, the board chair, said the trustees have since created a new code of conduct with clear expectations of how they should interact with each other, per the protester demands. Trustees also are considering adding students and faculty to the board.
Veach apologized for the board’s handling of the exchange.
“This situation should have been addressed immediately by the board at the meeting,” Veach wrote in a message. “It was not. This failure represents a need for the board to assess its policies and procedures. We regret and apologize for the mishandling of the situation that took place at that moment.”
He reported the trustee “who used some sharp language” has apologized to Banks and the board “while maintaining their opinions.” Veach said the board tried to persuade Banks to stay.
Upon learning of Banks’ resignation, a group of “committed individuals to diversity, equity, and inclusion at Coe College” drafted a letter to administrators and issued a list of demands. In that letter, they reported that trustee Alan Anderson, who got his Coe degree in 1978, stood with Banks and also resigned.
Anderson wrote that during the contentious meeting, a trustee called Banks a “baldfaced liar” when Banks raised his concerns.
“I have never witnessed such uncivil, uncalled-for, and reprehensible conduct during my time on the board,” Anderson wrote. “What is worse, this repugnant statement was not promptly met by a direction from the chair for an immediate apology and a reprimand.”
When Banks asked for an apology, board leadership said it had already investigated his comments about diversity considerations during the search and concluded his concerns were lies, according to Anderson’s letter.
But questioning whether any such “investigation” had occurred, Anderson noted no one interviewed Banks or any staff, faculty, or students on the search committee.
‘Neither fair nor open’
Anderson, in his letter, also slammed the presidential search, suggesting the selection process was “neither fair nor open.”
“The result was preordained from the moment the interim president was appointed over a more-qualified individual,” he wrote.
Additionally, Anderson said, despite the group’s charge to consider a diverse pool of candidates, “the committee did not do so.” Anderson called the selection process opaque and indicated trustees were asked to sign an “unenforceable confidentiality agreement” to participate in interviews. He said he did not sign.
Reporting 42 percent of faculty who participated in interviews opposed hiring Hayes, Anderson noted “nearly all” of the minority students wanted someone else.
‘No selection process is perfect’
In a statement provided Thursday to The Gazette, Hayes said he and the administration value the community’s voices and supports the right to protest peacefully. He also said the college is looking to identify a full-time diversity leader who will report to him.
“We have begun to receive financial gifts to support that effort, and we are eager to work together with key stakeholders to make the position one that serves Coe well now and into the future,” Hayes said.
“While it will take time, we are optimistic that our campus community will give us the grace and support necessary to listen, think critically and take actions that make Coe College a place everyone can be proud to call their home, where all people feel welcome and supported,” he said.
Veach defended the search process and decision. He said minority candidates were advanced through the process, although three white men were chosen as finalists.
“No selection process is perfect, but it was determined, after extensive review, that our process was thorough and fair, and the outcome was legitimate,” Veach said. “I can say without hesitation that the results were rightfully determined — and that David Hayes is the best leader chosen from a vast field of qualified candidates.”
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