A revolving door of senior executives under former president’s reign
The trail of firings that marked Stephanie Forsyth’s reign at Red River College underscores not only the rapid turnover of senior executives over four years, but also the success they had since she axed them.
Almost everyone who left the executive offices signed a non-disclosure agreement, and many quickly found good positions elsewhere — Red River did not stop many of the former senior staff from getting high-level jobs at colleges and universities or other public institutions from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
And while the province says the long-term cost of severance payouts could top $3 million, there is also the ugly reality careers appeared to have been cut short solely because of the dictatorial style she employed as head of the province’s largest community college.
Anyone who dared to disagree with Forsyth was history at Red River, says one insider — 16 senior executives were gone in four years.
“If you didn’t agree with her, she moved you out,” said one senior source, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. “The reason she gave the board was she couldn’t achieve her agenda with the people she had.”
Forsyth was president of Red River from September 2010 to the end of last August. Last month, the provincial government released a scathing review of her tenure, marked by questionable expenses and spending decisions and a revolving door in the administration building.
“Nothing I read was new,” said one former senior employee.
The province said Forsyth fired eight senior administrators, including three she had hired, without providing any written evidence of just cause.
But one source said other so-called voluntary decisions to leave were anything but: “(Executives) were brought into the office and given two options — either option, you’re leaving the college. We either fire you, or you leave voluntarily.”
Forsyth is now in Penticton, B.C., where her spouse runs a community agency. She has not responded to numerous interview requests.
Forsyth was engaging and friendly in public, said one source, but at work, “It’s one of those edgy relationships, where you don’t know where you stand.
“You can understand why the board was complacent. They were government appointees. There hadn’t been any controversy.”
Longtime executive Ken Webb left in what was presented as a personal decision, but, said an insider, “She made life so difficult for him, she forced him out.”
Webb, now executive director of the Manitoba Aerospace Association, declined to comment. But, said another insider, it was Webb’s departure that should have set off all the alarms for the board of governors.
“Ken would have come as a surprise to them. That is something you just don’t do — I don’t know you’d find anyone more dedicated to that college than Ken Webb; he was a consummate professional,” said the insider.
Catherine Rushton, who worked for almost two decades at Red River and was saluted by Forsyth for the job she did as acting president before her own arrival, was one of the first to go. She’s now a vice-president at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., and declined to be interviewed.
Said St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard, a former assistant to Forsyth: “I did sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I feel not commenting at this time would be appropriate.”
One source, who like others requested anonymity, said the decision to leave was not mutual: “I did not resign. I was told, ‘You’re no longer here, and here’s your offer.’ ”
The college refuses to discuss severance, though the provincial review reported the eight firings paid out a total of $639,142.46 in severance; the province also listed a cost of $3,082,000 for staff departures amortized over a lengthy period.
That suggests the college borrowed to pay out severance packages and is repaying the loan over many years. Neither the college nor Education and Advanced Learning Minister Peter Bjornson will discuss if Forsyth received any severance.
One of the three people Forsyth brought in and then fired was Stan Chung, now a vice-president at College of the Rockies in B.C. “Sad story — she recruited him, a young man, he brought his entire family here,” said a source.
Chung said from B.C. he signed a non-disclosure agreement when he left.
“Very clearly, when you have that kind of turnover of senior people, it’s a red flag that something is seriously wrong… driving competent senior people out. The fact they got very senior jobs shows the problem wasn’t with them,” said James Turk, for 16 years the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Turk said the governors should have realized at least two sets of senior executives couldn’t work with the president. Turning over the executive team in such a short period should have had the board jumping in, he said, but some top jobs turning over twice in four years is unheard of.
“I don’t know of any organization that would have a wholesale turnover of leadership more than once,” said Turk. “That should be an unequivocal sign that the board should step in dramatically.”
Canadian Taxpayers Federation Prairie director Colin Craig set tongues wagging over his freedom-of-information disclosures about Forsyth’s colourful expenses, but Craig said it was the firings that should have moved the board and the minister — Erin Selby for much of Forsyth’s tenure — into action.
“Too many people let the public and the students down. It’s clear to everyone, she (Selby) should have intervened sooner,” said Craig. It was her successor, James Allum, who finally ordered the government investigation.
“We haven’t seen any kind of an apology,” Craig pointed out. “All the whistleblowers who contacted the CTF were very passionate about the institution and wanted the best for it.”
One insider said laws bar the government from intervening, but, “The board through its chair would have reported to the minister. It doesn’t take a genius to watch the parade of departures. It took an undue amount of time to get down to it.”
Current board of governors chairman Lloyd Schreyer and former chairman Richard Lennon are among those refusing to talk about Forsyth. When Red River got wind the Free Press was approaching governors, it sent a terse message no one on the board would grant an interview.
Red River had achieved tremendous growth and public recognition under former president Jeff Zabudsky, who built up its profile and convinced many young people and school guidance counsellors community college and the trades were as good a career choice as university. He left when offered his dream job at Sheridan College near Toronto. “She kept an unusually low profile,” said one source, who said it’s part of a president’s job to draw positive attention to a school.
One critic said Forsyth did not have Zabudsky’s appreciation for the trades, especially aerospace, technology and heavy construction. “She made a lot more than Zabudsky made. How did the board negotiate a salary like that?” he said. “It was a bad hire — I do know the board was split on the decision to hire Stephanie. There was this real belief, they had to hire someone with an aboriginal background.”
Forsyth said in a 2010 interview she had learned in recent years her father had long failed to reveal the family’s Blackfoot ancestry. She made her priorities the environment and improvements in education for indigenous young people.
Aboriginal leaders and senior educators, including Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, have declined to talk about Forsyth and any achievements she may have made in indigenous education.
Out of the darkness trickles the occasional insight
RED River College’s board of governors’ minutes posted online are generally a barren wasteland devoid of details. Most reports, including the president’s report, simply list their title and note they were received and approved, without listing a single syllable of content.
But, occasionally, tidbits of information make it through into print:
- NOV. 24, 2010: Newly arrived president Stephanie Forsyth praised the work done by vice-president of finance and administration Catherine Rushton, who had served as acting president before Forsyth was hired. A few months later, Rushton was among the first out the door.
- JAN. 18, 2012: The board approved extraordinary policy changes. These came more than a year before the Canadian Taxpayers Federation began disclosing Forsyth’s questionable expenses, but after the Free Press began reporting the turnover in senior managers. Note the use of the word “firing,” one not favoured generally by human resources directors, and the policy only refers to making governors aware — they did not grant themselves any decision-making responsibility:
“The president will ensure the board is to be aware of:
a) relevant trends anticipated to impact the college;
b) anticipated adverse media coverage about the college;
c) hiring, promotion, demotion or firing of senior executives;
d) substantial lawsuits against the college;
e) publicly visible changes at the college.
- The taxpayers federation first disclosed expenses such as Forsyth’s claiming golf shoes in March of 2013. The March 27, 2013, board meeting began with an unusual hour-long session behind closed doors with only the governors and the most senior executives present — no reason or outcome was listed in the board minutes. The April 24, 2013, board of governors meeting is no longer available online.
- SEPT. 25, 2013: The board approved Forsyth’s performance review and approved an unlisted adjustment in her compensation.
- MAY 28, 2014: The board heard a report listing 22 initiatives, programs and projects to improve opportunities for indigenous students, which Forsyth had identified upon her hiring as her top priority.
- JUNE 11, 2014: Forsyth attended what turned out to be her final board meeting. The minutes contain nothing unusual.
- SEPT. 24, 2014: The governors appointed David Rew, a longtime senior executive and a survivor of the Forsyth years, as interim president and CEO. The minutes make no mention of Forsyth. They do, however, mention a Sept. 8 special meeting of the board, which, unlike special meetings in previous years, is not posted online.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2015 A11