Carolane Williams does not flinch when confronted with the particulars of her difficult year, which included an employee uprising and unwanted scrutiny from the leader of the state.
"I knew I was going to have to tough it out," says the woman who has led Baltimore City Community College for the past five years.
She regards the backlash as a natural byproduct of bold leadership, though others have accused her of pressing ahead on questionable decisions without regard for useful input.
After a turbulent year marked by internal conflict, probation from its accrediting agency and sharp criticism from Gov. Martin O'Malley, the college is finally making positive strides, according to Williams, board Chairman Gary Rodwell and faculty president Chima Ugah.
"The current climate is like night and day compared to last year," Ugah says. "It was toxic."
Ugah's comments come 13 months after the faculty issued a vote of no confidence in Williams' leadership, citing poor communications and autocratic decision-making.
That was only the beginning of the president's troubles. In July, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education put the college on probation, saying the institution lacked any comprehensive method for assessing student achievement. If the college, with an enrollment of about 7,000, does not show progress during a review this spring, it could face a devastating loss of accreditation.
Then, in September, O'Malley overhauled the college's board, appointing five new members. "The governor has been disappointed with the lack of progress," a spokeswoman said at the time, "and he believes now is the time to infuse the board with new leadership."
Williams did not take O'Malley's rebuke quietly. In a letter, dated four days before O'Malley announced his new appointments to the college's board, Williams said she was bothered by a "disparaging" comment the governor made during a phone conversation between the two. She said O'Malley had criticized her and the board for "not taking the interests of students seriously."
"I really regret having to write this letter, but I must say your call was most disturbing to me," Williams wrote, before outlining some of the college's successes. "Never before have I been so berated and felt so disrespected."
Rodwell says he was also surprised by the governor's dissatisfaction, because the college had significantly increased its number of graduates and its enrollments in science, technology, engineering and math, all areas of interest to O'Malley.
Asked three months later for her reaction to O'Malley's criticisms, Williams smiles and says, "Who am I to question the governor of the state?"
A spokesman for O'Malley says the governor has no new comment about the college or its leadership.
But Williams, Rodwell and Ugah all say the new board has been helpful in getting the college on track.
Ugah, a professor of information science, says, "With the newer ones, we have a lot of people asking the right questions, people with educational backgrounds."
The new trustees, who include a Venable attorney, downtown business leaders and representatives from Morgan State and Johns Hopkins universities, deferred comment to their chairman.
"I think the new members are magnifying the need for data-driven accountability," says Rodwell, who has served on the board since 2009.
He, Williams and Ugah also agree that the Middle States probation has unified the campus behind a single goal.
"It has, by necessity, demanded more frequent and effective communication among faculty, staff and the administration, more intense collaboration on measuring student learning outcomes," Rodwell says. "There's a shared sense of urgency about getting the college off of probation."
"That is the underpinning," Williams says. "If we don't have accreditation, we might as well all pack our bags and go."
When Williams came to Baltimore in 2006, she took over an institution that had already endured years of turmoil. Low graduation rates and daunting needs for student remediation had long since become the norm.
Her predecessor, Sylvester McKay, resigned in 2004 after an unflattering report from the Abell Foundation revealed that the college spent $700,000 on math teaching software without making a plan to assess its effectiveness.
It took the state nearly two years to find a full-time replacement. Williams, who had served as provost at Broward Community College's North Campus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., arrived promising a "new day."
Williams, a community college product herself, talks about the work as a calling. "I know what that college did for me," she says. "I believe this is what I'm supposed to be doing, and my faith in God helps me stand firm on what needs to be done, no matter what happens."
Williams made several significant changes early in her tenure. The college moved classes out of its highly visible Inner Harbor campus on Lombard Street, saying the costs of maintaining the building outstripped the benefits to students.
Meanwhile, the college took control of 19 acres adjacent to its main campus on Liberty Heights Avenue. "Now we have room to grow," Williams says.
Williams saw rampant inefficiencies in the academic programs. She could not understand, for example, why the college needed separate programs for medical, legal and business secretaries. She says that many students accumulated years of credits without moving to complete any specific program.
Of the class that began college in 2005, only 16.8 percent of BCCC students either graduated or transferred to another institution, the lowest rate in Maryland. No other community college in the Baltimore area had a rate below 32.5 percent. Those figures are the latest available from the state.
Williams ultimately recommended the elimination of 14 degree programs and nine teaching positions. Before she could take her plan to a board vote, the faculty voted no confidence in her leadership.
She says she never expected the changes to go through without a fight. "This was not a Carolane Williams vote of no confidence," she says. "This was going to happen to whoever was pushing this agenda of change. It's one of the casualties of war."
Williams says she faced widespread skepticism, in part because faculty members had watched previous leaders fail to generate momentum for their reform efforts.
"Any organization that has been through that much turmoil, it becomes the modus operandi," she says. "For the faculty, it became, 'That's how we address issues. Whatever it is will go away.'"
That is not how faculty members viewed their conflict with Williams. At the March meeting where the board approved her suggested program reductions, several professors said they had tried to offer constructive input through faculty panels and had been ignored.
Ugah says Williams was a vague communicator and delegated faculty concerns to underlings instead of addressing them directly. "There were a lot of frustrations," he says.
The board ultimately backed her program eliminations, despite concerns raised in the General Assembly, where legislators withheld $1 million of the college's $93.5 million state budget until the planned cuts were explained.
Rodwell, who voted to approve Williams' program changes, says he understood both sides of the dispute.
"Change is uncomfortable for almost any institution — but especially in an environment with a long history of revolving door leadership, as BCCC had endured for years before Dr. Williams' arrival," the board chairman says. "Many faculty and staff were predisposed to have doubts and suspicions about proposed changes from new, aggressive leadership. In that respect, some discord was destined to happen. Certainly, better communication along the way would have helped."
Williams and Ugah agree that things have been different with the college's effort to get off probation. Faculty are heavily involved in determining learning goals and assessment methods for each academic discipline. Williams hired a director of curriculum and assessment and a testing consultant to help with the process. She says the college has already revamped goals and achievement measures for about 700 courses.
"We really are making progress," she says.
Ugah says Williams now listens attentively when he brings concerns and that she is allowing the faculty to "drive the process."
Williams, Rodwell and Ugah all say they're confident that Middle States evaluators will be impressed with the college's progress report, due in March, and with a subsequent campus visit. If they're correct, the college's probation could end in June.
Williams says her belief in the college has not dimmed, that the institution can provide hope for thousands of Baltimore students and boost the city's work force.
"Do I regret coming here?" Williams says. "Not at all. No one likes to be on probation. But can we move beyond? You bet."