Community college professors say Board of Regents member has conflict of interest

·6 min read

Oct. 10—Community college professors and the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system are clashing again, this time over a Board of Regents member who also works for a law firm employed by CSCU.

David Jimenez, a board member since 2014, is a principal at Jackson Lewis, a law firm that primarily represents the Board of Regents in grievance arbitrations and unfair labor practice charges, CSCU spokesperson Leigh Appleby said. The firm also provides "advice and guidance on contract interpretation issues, Connecticut labor law services and assistance with investigation support," Appleby wrote in an email.

As confirmed by both CSCU and faculty union representatives, the system has paid Jackson Lewis $370,997 for services between Jan. 29, 2018, and May 37, 2021.

However, the firm does "not represent the Board of Regents in matters of collective bargaining" and is not in any way involved in union negotiations, Appleby noted.

Still, professors question the motives of the connection and point to Jimenez as an example of how consolidation of Connecticut's 12 community colleges has corporatized the system. While professors believe there's still hope to defeat that merger, CSCU anticipates it will be completed — marked by the launch of Connecticut State Community College — for the fall 2023 semester.

"The fact that while one of the regents is a principal for that law firm and they're actively using that law firm for such a large part of business, how can they not view that as a conflict of interest?" asked Seth Freeman, a professor of computer information systems at Capital Community College in Hartford and president of the 4Cs, the community college union. "The Board of Regents found some argument that because Jackson Lewis is not involved in contract negotiations, somehow it's not a conflict, but they're involved in grievance arbitrations with the unions and other interest arbitrations. We face their lawyers across the table when we go to arbitration or we go to the labor board."

In a Sept. 21 news release, the 4Cs circulated a petition to demand CSCU fire Jackson Lewis.

Lois Aimé, the director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College and member of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents, and other professors repeatedly called Jackson Lewis a "union-busting law firm."

According to its website, Jackson Lewis provides "institutions with the critical legal skills and knowledge, and also a depth of understanding about higher education," including in "labor relations" — specifically "faculty and student organizing" and "collective bargaining and grievance representation."

"The conflict is that while he's on the board, the board is directing monies to his firm," Freeman said. "It's compounded by the fact that they're also a union-busting law firm, so it's kind of twofold in why we have a problem with it."

Appleby said Jimenez has never profited from the business CSCU gives to Jackson Lewis, that he's never directly or indirectly been a part of directing the hiring of the law firm, and he's not at all involved in matters the firm has attended to for CSCU.

"In fact, he has recused himself from all discussion of matters involving Jackson Lewis in any way, to the extent that he even removes himself from meetings where Board of Regents members receive updates on employee investigations conducted by the firm," Appleby wrote in an email. "He is firewalled from all matters pertaining to the Board of Regents in his role at Jackson Lewis and recuses himself from all matters involving the firm (that) come to the Board of Regents. Jackson Lewis is not involved in the Board of Regents' negotiations."

Still, Aimé said Jimenez's two CSCU roles are inherently conflicted.

"It doesn't matter whether he is or has been involved in negotiations or not because he is a member of the Board of Regents, therefore he can speak to people who are involved in negotiations and he could be secondarily involved in these conversations," she said. "It doesn't matter whether he's directly involved in negotiations or not, he's sitting on the Board of Regents. That in itself is the conflict of interest."

Freeman added that "it's hard to fathom" how a principal for a law firm that received more than $370,000 from the CSCU wouldn't profit at all from the arrangement.

Lauren Doninger, a professor of psychology at Gateway Community College, also noted that the hiring of an anti-union law firm was antithetical to what the state's community colleges try to teach.

"We know that the path for students to raise themselves up to have sustainable livable wages, is to be able to find unionized positions so that they are protected, so that they can organize and have some power," she said. "So, to talk out of one side of their mouth about how they want equity, they want to raise up all students, and simultaneously to court a firm that explicitly works to eliminate unions is the height of hypocrisy."

Appleby praised Jimenez's seven-year tenure on the Board of Regents and noted CSCU sought guidance from the Office of State Ethics regarding him, which "concluded that as long as he recuses himself from matters related to Jackson Lewis ... no conflict exists."

"Rather than attempting to distract, obfuscate, and score petty points in the press, let's sit down at the bargaining table, engage in good faith negotiations and come to terms on a fair contract," Appleby added.

Jimenez did not respond to a request for comment.

Diba Khan-Bureau, professor and program coordinator of environmental engineering technology at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, as well as the legislative liaison for the American Federation of Teachers, warned of the implications of this alleged conflict of interest and its connection to consolidation.

"They're trying to bust the community colleges union while they're trying to do consolidation, it's crazy," she said. "Teachers at Three Rivers are already thinking about getting out if the consolidation continues this way." She and her colleagues fear that under a consolidated system, "We won't have any real say at the local level."

In September, state Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, who co-chairs the legislature's Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, called himself a "merger skeptic." He said the greatest hurdle to the consolidation is the "enormous amount of work that has to be accomplished in order to take the program offerings of 12 separately accredited community colleges and put them in a single course catalog for one community college."

"There must be broad support among the faculty about the academic changes that need to be implemented prior to successfully integrating a single institution," he said.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said Wednesday that she, state Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, and others are working on putting a bipartisan community colleges caucus together.

"We tasked the professors with coming up with two or three priorities before we convene the caucus," she said, "just so we know what they want."

s.spinella@theday.com

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting