New College of Weirdness

The stories coming out of the school point to a common S.F. malady — leaders expect everyone to drink the Kool-Aid

New College of California, the small liberal arts college occupying two former mortuaries and an ex-home for unwed mothers on the 700 block of Valencia, has lately offered a veritable seminar on news of the weird.

Take the story about how the college in 2003 launched a three-year master's program called "Activism and Social Change." By 2007, the newly trained protesters were ready to help topple the university administration.

"We were the ones who rose up," said Tori Jacobs, a candidate for the activism degree, days after university president Martin Hamilton resigned last month amid a records-keeping scandal. "Our whole class erupted. And we started to organize."

There's also the story about how techniques perfected by modern Nigerian Internet scammers were allegedly employed in the humblest form of fraud: cheating on grades.

"The allegation that I was giving him a degree in exchange for [the bogus promise of] a million bucks — that is just degrading to my soul," Hamilton was quoted as saying late last month, after quitting amid accusations he altered a student scam artist's transcript.

And there's the one about the poetry professor at the left-wing college who, inspired by the godfather of modern U.S. conservatism, led a movement for creating more rules.

"Barry Goldwater said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance," said Adam Cornford, a professor in New College's poetics program who also serves as representative of the good-governance Faculty Council, which he helped organize. "Honest communication and shared governance within an organization is also eternal vigilance."

These stories emanate from a crisis at New College, where the Western Association of Colleges and Schools (WASC) has threatened to yank accreditation unless the school makes dramatic changes. Hamilton had helped lead the school along with professors Mildred Henry and Peter Gabel since 1978. WASC detailed allegations that Hamilton had changed the scamming student's grades — allegations that he and those close to him deny. Faculty and students demanded that Hamilton leave, and he resigned Aug. 2.

As bizarre as these stories may seem, New College is suffering from a type of disease that's utterly commonplace in the world of complex organizations. It's called Founders' Syndrome, in which charismatic leaders think they can run complex community service organizations by force of personality, rather than via plans, processes, and rules.

"Founders' Syndrome tends to settle out to a core carcass of people who are loyal. They may not even be competent," says management consultant Carter McNamara, author of Founders' Syndrome: How Corporations Suffer — and Can Recover. "The organization, with all of its people, tends to count on the charisma and the persuasion of the founder to accomplish growth. Instead, it needs to come from a solid foundation of plans and policies."

Though McNamara was not familiar with the New College case, he's aptly described the current crisis at New College, and a situation familiar elsewhere in this town.

San Francisco, a gathering place for nonprofit organizations and little-pond Napoleons, should keep an eye on New College's Founders' Syndrome case study. We should root for interim president Luis Molina as he seeks to put in place procedures, programs, and institutions that allow the college to function without depending entirely on its leaders.

Then let's shift our gaze to the rest of this city's menagerie of charismatic-leader-run labor unions, charities, churches, and other organizations.

I'm thinking of Larry Mazzola and his family-run plumbers union, Randy Shaw and his self-identified Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and the many other local organizations that falsely conflate organizational strength with control by a forceful leader.

Founders' Syndrome is best understood as a misnomer; it doesn't necessarily refer to the founder of an organization, but rather to an individual or group of individuals who cling too long to organizational control. It could be someone who's helped bring an organization through tough times, or who's simply been in charge forever. The trio running New College for the past 30 years meets all these criteria.

In 1978, New College faced an even worse crisis than in 2007. New College president Les Carr invited near financial collapse after newspapers reported his offer to sell honorary New College Ph.D. degrees for $25,000 each. Carr was pushed out and Hamilton, Gabel, and Henry took over administration of the school as a "collaborative leadership" team.

The passing of the baton was fortunate, to say the least. Carr went on to found a Marin County college whose misleading promises to students led to it being shut down at the request of the state attorney general. Next, Carr founded an Internet-based school accredited in the Republic of Malawi, which was described in the journal International Higher Educationas an international "diploma mill."

New College, meanwhile, grew from the handful of students who had initially met in 1972 in the Sausalito living room of accused pederast John Leary to a 1,000-student college in the Mission District that offers bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees. It's now considered a refuge for students with a progressive bent, producing socially conscious activists, lawyers, and other professionals.

"I think we were trying to run it more like a community, in a way, than like a straight-line organization," says Henry, who over the years served as school president and academic vice president, among other posts. "We were very interested in knowing people as people, rather than this impersonal way that sometimes happens in organizations, I guess."

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