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President's moves at D'Youville College lead to lawsuits, unprecedented staff turnover

President's moves at D'Youville College lead to lawsuits, unprecedented staff turnover

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Sister Nancy Kaczmarek

Sister Nancy Kaczmarek, a nun who worked at D'Youville College as an education professor until she was fired in 2018, stands Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, on the sidewalk in front of D'Youville on Porter Avenue.

Sister Nancy Kaczmarek was the only nun still teaching at D’Youville College when President Lorrie A. Clemo eliminated the college’s education department and fired its six faculty members.

“It is one of the most painful things that has ever happened to me,” said Kaczmarek, who had taught for 37 years before being fired. “I loved D’Youville. I was proud of being a Grey Nun representing D’Youville. I did good work and had wonderful colleagues, wonderful students, and I was making a difference.”

Kaczmarek, a member of the order of nuns that founded D’Youville in 1908, sued the small Catholic college in federal court in January, alleging Clemo discriminated against her because of her age and because she’s a nun.

Kaczmarek’s case is among seven federal lawsuits against D’Youville since Clemo took over in 2017, replacing Sister Denise A. Roche, a Grey Nun who had been president for 37 years before retiring.

Most agree that Roche’s lengthy tenure – an eternity by college presidency standards – made D’Youville ripe for wholesale changes.

But current and former staff said Clemo’s efforts to put her stamp on the institution have been marred by questionable spending, unprecedented employee turnover, disregard for the traditionally collaborative nature of decision-making in higher education and a lack of interest in maintaining the Catholic elements of the college’s mission.

Clemo, in recent months, also is being taken to task for:

• Furloughing nearly 60 staff members from April 2020 to January 2021, without pay and benefits; 

• Spending money on a presidential suite renovation in the college’s main administration building and on a college athletics nickname change during a global health pandemic and national turmoil over systemic racism; and,

• Regularly referring to D’Youville in public statements as a university when the state still classifies it as a college. 

Lorrie Clemo

D'Youville College President Lorrie Clemo.

The News spoke with 16 people who are or were recently affiliated with the college, and many of them said they were alarmed by the volume of employee turnover over the past three years. Five sources estimate more than 200 people have retired, resigned or were fired since 2017, at a campus that according to federal data employs about 490 people overall.

“The best of the best are resigning, and the ones that were still really good, she’s pushed out,” said Karen Panzarella, a longtime faculty member. “We’ve had turnover of probably over 230. I mean, people lose track. We can’t even keep track of everything.”

'Industry in severe disruption'

Pamela Say, who is vice president for institutional advancement and handles media inquiries, said in a statement to The News that the college’s staff turnover was within normal ranges for colleges.

“At times institutions may be at the high or low end. This is not unheard of and reflects an industry in severe disruption,” Say said. “Change is disruptive for organizations and for individuals, but the changes we have made have allowed us to create a foundation many institutions lack.”

Say also said the college furloughed a “small percentage” of its workforce as a “direct result” of the pandemic, but she did not specify how many.

“This is not unlike what many of our peers have done,” she said. “We are likely going to be calling people back but recalls will not occur until the semester begins and we have a pulse on where we stand with enrollments and revenues."

Say said in her email statement that cases related to the federal lawsuits against D'Youville had previously been dismissed by the state Division of Human Rights or the U.S. Equal Employment Commission.

Neither Clemo nor Say would agree to be interviewed for this story, despite requests going back to July 22.

Jamel Perkins, chairman of D’Youville’s board of trustees, said he would “defer comment” until he and Clemo have an opportunity to meet with The News' editorial board. Perkins later instructed other board members in an email not to discuss the college with News reporters.

58 put on long furloughs 

Some D’Youville employees credit Clemo for spearheading the college’s $20 million plan to create a facility known as the Hub on Buffalo’s West Side that will train health care professionals and provide clinical care. The teaching facility, a partnership with Catholic Health, is under construction at Connecticut Street and West Avenue.

But faculty sources said they have been left out of decision-making and kept in the dark about finances, even as the college navigates growing uncertainty and upheaval in the higher education landscape. The college had $86 million in revenue and $79 million in expenses, according to its 2017 form 990 tax return, the most recent available.

Panzarella said she’s concerned D’Youville’s Middle States accreditation will be in jeopardy because professors have no input in the governance of the college, and “shared governance” is a requirement for renewing accreditation. A college can’t operate without being accredited.

Many small colleges across the country are facing significant financial strain due to Covid-19, and Clemo isn’t the only local college leader under fire. Faculty groups at Medaille College and Canisius College recently voted no confidence in the presidents of those institutions, over concerns about their handling of fiscal challenges that have been present for years and are being exacerbated by the pandemic.

Medaille President Kenneth Macur caused a stir in May by invoking an “act of God” clause in the faculty handbook that allows him to fire people at will. Canisius College President John J. Hurley recently announced plans to lay off 25 professors and 71 staff to help stem a projected $20 million deficit in the college's $75 million budget for 2020-21.

Clemo hasn’t divulged exactly how many staff were furloughed. Last week, she told a News reporter that the college had “no plans for personnel changes or academic program closures in the coming year.”

But Marge Goodman, president of the D’Youville College ​Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the faculty bargaining unit, said in a recent statement that the chapter had tallied 58 employees who were put on furlough.

“The DYC Faculty Union has many grave concerns about happenings in the college,” Goodman said. 

Jeremiah Davie, president of the Faculty Senate, a body that represents faculty in shared governance of the college, said the Senate views the staff turnover, federal lawsuits and furloughs as “matters of significant concern.”

The Senate has had input with the administration in the development of new academic programs, modification of syllabi and educational goals for courses, but it has less direct involvement in decisions made outside of educational matters, Davie said.

Employee sources said Clemo was using the Covid-19 pandemic to justify the furloughs without revealing any financial information on why they were necessary. The college has strong enrollment numbers and is continuing to hire new employees and advertise for open positions, sources said.

Sources also said the furloughs are, in effect, layoffs, because health insurance coverage and other benefits have been cut, forcing furloughed employees to seek employment elsewhere.

“They found their way to push everybody else that they wanted out of there,” said one longtime employee who is among the furloughed.

5 HR directors in 3 years

The turnover at D’Youville includes five people who served as director of human resources in three years, as well as three different enrollment directors and two leaders of “mission integration” since 2016, sources said. Fired staff have been escorted off campus by security.

In addition to the federal lawsuits, the college under Clemo has been the subject of several complaints lodged with the state Division of Human Rights, the U.S Equal Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board.

Clemo required fired employees to sign nondisclosure agreements as a condition for receiving a severance package that amounted to three months of pay, sources said.

Some current employees spoke to The News only on the condition that their names not be used, because they feared they would be fired for speaking critically. The college has staff sign a “confidentiality agreement” that says they can be fired for disclosing “information of any kind, nature, or description whether written or oral concerning any matters affecting or relating to your services for the college or anyone associated with the college.”

Critics: Catholic mission neglected

For years, D’Youville quietly built a strong reputation for producing graduates, primarily from Western New York, who were well-prepared to move into work in the health professions, including occupational therapy, nursing and health administration. The college has about 2,150 full-time and 900 part-time students and 238 faculty members.

Clemo, who formerly was provost and vice president at the State University of New York at Oswego, said at her introduction as the first lay president of D’Youville that the college was ready to become a “world-class institution.” Prior to Clemo, the 14 presidents were all members of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.

Clemo focused almost immediately on finding ways to move employees out, according to the college’s former marketing and communications director, Colin Nekritz.

“She wanted to clean house from the get-go. She wanted to remove all traces of Sister Denise, with a vehemence that was irrational in my mind,” said Nekritz.

Sister Denise Roche

Sister Denise Roche, then-president of D'Youville College, cuts the ribbon on the college's Academic Center on May 12, 2010. Roche was succeeded in 2017 by Lorrie Clemo.

Nekritz said he found himself in Clemo’s crosshairs when she insisted that he refer to D’Youville in marketing materials as a university, even though the state Education Department hadn’t granted approval for the college to become a university. Nekritz refused to do it.

“You can’t call yourself something you’re not, especially in New York State,” he said.

He was fired in 2019, but didn’t sign the nondisclosure agreement, he said.

The college has placed ads recently that describe the institution as “Western New York’s #1 rated National University.” In July, it put out a media release announcing a new logo and mascot that identified the institution only as “D’Youville” and made no reference to it being a college. The second sentence of the release reads: “Yesterday, the university revealed the school’s new logo and mascot in a video release on social media.” D’Youville is referred to as a university two more times in the release.

In her email statement, Say said the college had “achieved national university designation,” but she did not elaborate.

Although it no longer has any nuns or priests on staff, D’Youville continues to operate as a Catholic college. Two nuns serve on the board of trustees, as does a monsignor who is pastor of a Catholic parish in Amherst.

Clemo’s critics, though, claim that the Catholic mission gets short shrift. They point to the removal of Catholic artifacts from the main administrative building, the lack of a Catholic chaplain or minister on campus and the departure of the Rev. Robert J. Perelli, a Catholic priest, as vice president for mission integration after less than two years in the post. Jeff Papia, hired in 2019 as chief mission officer to replace Perelli, left D’Youville two weeks ago for a job at Hilbert College in Hamburg.

'The nun must go'

Kaczmarek and four of her colleagues in the education department had tenure when they were given 10 days of notice and dismissed in 2018. The professors were working at the time on revamping the department’s offerings to attract more students, including developing an online master’s program for students in India.

The college then used curricula created by the fired faculty for an online program in 2019 that was taught by college administrators and part-time adjuncts, according to the lawsuit.

In their answer to Kaczmarek's lawsuit, the college's lawyers said the education department was retrenched due to low enrollment, and they denied that the college restarted an online program using administrators and adjuncts teaching curricula developed by the retrenched faculty members.

In addition to her faculty job, Kaczmarek was D’Youville’s part-time archivist, a post that also was stripped from her in 2018.

When Goodman, the faculty union president, appealed in a meeting for Kaczmarek to be reinstated as archivist, Mimi Steadman, vice president of academic affairs, responded by saying the archivist post was created for Kaczmarek and “the nun must go,” according to court papers.

The college denied that in court papers, and maintained it did not discriminate against Kaczmarek.

Kaczmarek said she “wholeheartedly supported” Clemo’s hiring and looked forward to working with a new president who could take the college to another level.

Instead, what she sees now is an administration ignoring the college’s heritage, she said.

“I separate the administration from the institution that I loved,” she said. “The institution goes on. Administration comes and goes. D’Youville was founded in 1908. There’s a lot more to it than their presidents or any of the president’s council. So, it was not D’Youville that I was taking to court, even though it was.”

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My byline has run in the Ithaca Journal, USA Today, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the New York Times. I have been a staff reporter at The Buffalo News since 2002 and currently am part of the watchdog team.

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