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Ex VP Agnew’s Lawsuit Shows Bergen Needs Better Hiring Practices

By Emanuele Calianno, Editor-in-Chief.

Last January, Executive Vice President Brian Agnew resigned from BCC due to allegations of sexual harassment towards multiple women at the college.

The allegations came to light when Brandie Bookhart, a former employee, filed a lawsuit against him. Shortly after the news broke out, reports surfaced from other schools where Agnew had worked, with many other women detailing a pattern of predatory behavior. Officials from those universities, which include Rutgers and Montclair State, declined to comment on personnel matters. 

Agnew, who was suspended in October of 2019, has been gone from BCC for almost a year. And yet, as the search continues for a replacement to Interim President Anthony Ross, Agnew’s alleged conduct continues to be a problem for the college, one that points out a painful fact about Bergen’s leadership.

Along with Agnew, Bookhart is suing the college and the Board of Trustees for negligent hiring practices. Bergen insists that it followed due process, and remains committed to the safety and well-being of its community.

No one would accuse Bergen of knowingly hiring an alleged sexual predator. However, the argument can definitely be made, as Bookhart says, that the college “should have known [he] was a threat to women.”

I have been at this college for over eight years (yes, I know). During this academic odyssey of mine, I have gained a knowledge of the administration unlike that of most students. And the truth is, Bergen has made questionable hires at the executive level for a long time. 

My first semester in the spring of 2012 bore recent news that President Jerry Ryan had been fired for, amidst unusually high dropout rates, racking up personal expenses (mostly restaurant and bar bills) in excess of $100,000. But even before he left, he had lost the confidence of the faculty. News circulated that Ryan had been fired from previous jobs for poor job performance, and it was widely alleged among the faculty that he had a drinking problem. 

Ryan was replaced by B. Kaye Walter, whose tenure as president marked some of Bergen’s most tumultuous years (pandemic notwithstanding). The college was at an impasse with faculty over contract negotiations for over two years, a dispute that cost hundreds of thousands in tax-payer dollars. Faculty and students complained of a hostile work environment, and the college made national news for accusing a Game of Thrones-loving professor of having violent ideation.

At a Faculty Senate meeting in 2014, Walter was loudly berated by faculty, with a professor telling her to “f****** go back to Texas.” Reports began to surface from Walter’s previous workplace of a similar pattern of hostility, and of a nondisclosure agreement signed before she left. In 2017, the Board terminated Walter’s contract one year prior to expiration.

Walter is now deceased, and Ryan has long left the state to work elsewhere. I don’t write about them simply to attack those who cannot answer for themselves, but because their tenures at BCC show that the college failed to learn key details about its candidates, to the detriment of the community. Details, I might add, that were easily accessed by the faculty and The Torch. 

In fairness, these two former presidents were not appointed by the current Board of Trustees, which has almost completely changed from the time I first enrolled. Community colleges are very much run by local politics, and leaders in Bergen County at the time had appointed a Board that fit its conservative agenda. 

The new Board, made up of many dedicated educators instead of businessmen and real estate lawyers, has steered BCC in a much healthier direction, and appointed better presidents than in the past. Dr. Michael was a fine president (except for his judgement on Agnew); so is Dr. Ross, who is seeing us through our roughest moments. However, the hiring of Brian Agnew does fall on the current Board, along with the damage that might have been done had he become president.

Agnew was hired by Redmond and the Board as the number two executive at the college. At the time, Redmond was readying himself for retirement, and it is entirely plausible that Agnew was hired as his eventual successor. 

During his time here, Agnew reportedly laid out plans to make significant changes to various departments and offices, which multiple staff and faculty members described as “trying to take control.” Many described him as a “micro-manager” and “power-hungry.” 

Bookhart is also suing Gwendolyn Harewood, the Human Resources Director for BCC, who she says was complicit in Agnew’s behavior, and sexually harassed her as well. Faculty members who were part of the committee that hired Harewood said that she had been brought on by Agnew himself. In the context of the lawsuit, he was essentially picking an HR manager who would cover for his sexual predation.

If the allegations against him are true, this would mean that the Board was gearing up to appoint yet another president who would have torn collegial relations apart, and posed a serious threat to the safety of the women who work here.

The Administration may say that its vetting process is limited to official channels and background checks, and they cannot find out information that may have been kept under wraps in a non-disclosure agreement. But if Bergen keeps repeating the same mistake over and over, isn’t it time to admit that they need a new plan?

I will finally graduate at the end of this semester, leaving Bergen in the same position I found it back in 2012: with an interim president, and an ongoing search for a new president. The past decade has been rocky for BCC, largely due to administrative chaos. With the hardships facing us in the coming months, our community needs to know it has sound leadership at its helm, and that the Administration and Board will have implemented better hiring practices this time around.

Corrections: an earlier copy of this article incorrectly had B. Kaye Walter’s name as Kaye B. Walter. Also, it did not include Redmond’s involvement in hiring Agnew.

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