Supporters protest threatened firing of Lambert

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Larry Lambert, the embattled Online Instructional Support Specialist, said he may soon be fired by the college.

Lambert said he has not been told the reasons for his possible dismissal and was surprised to be threatened with termination following a brief respite after a semester-long administrative leave. He said he will be the subject of a Skelly hearing Nov. 17 where he will be afforded the opportunity to contest charges leveled at him by a pair of college administrators.

Generally popular among faculty and students he served as administrator of Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS), Lambert said he ran afoul of IT Director Daniel Borges and Dean Mia McClellan during the opening days of spring semester. Lambert temporarily disconnected Blackboard from a new college portal because “hundreds of faculty and students were not able to get it to work,” he said.

The portal was a pet project of Borges, who was described by college employees as “ballistic” when Lambert took Blackboard out of the portal. Lambert said he planned to “work out bugs” and reconnect Blackboard to the portal in two to three days.

He never got the chance. Within an hour of Lambert’s action former Director of Human Resources Marvin Castillo appeared in Lambert’s office to escort him off campus. He spent nearly four months on administrative leave.

Lambert said he was reinstated in June with greatly diminished responsibilities. McClellan and Borges charged him with an array of infractions, he said, including unprofessional conduct with emails, conduct with malice, engaging in hostility, verbal abuse and being physically threatening. He has also been charged with sabotaging Blackboard.

“When I came back from my first suspension, I was isolated into a small office and prevented from performing 99 percent of my job description,” said Lambert. “I was not permitted to interact with faculty or anyone other than by sitting in my office answering phone calls and emails, then entering them into Service Now. I was not allowed to fix any problems and my access to Blackboard was not allowed.”

He said he felt like he was in employment limbo.

“My job description stayed the same,” he said. “My pay rate stayed the same, but literally 99 percent of my job description was restricted, taken away.”

Lambert said he has worked successfully at SWC for 17 years and in higher education for 30. He was held in high regard by most faculty who relied on him to keep Blackboard running smoothly, according to members of the technology committee who said they are supportive of Lambert but fearful of crossing McClellan. He is the recipient of a national award for his skill as a Blackboard administrator. He also received excellent employee evaluations.

Over Lambert’s 17-year tenure at SWC, he said he was only evaluated twice.

The purpose of employee evaluations are to assess the employee’s past work performance and to establish future work objectives.

In Lambert’s evaluations, his attitude, work knowledge, judgment, initiative, communication and leadership of others exceeded expectations, according to the evaluation documents.

Lambert said his trouble with McClellan and Borges began Jan. 30 when the web portal shepherded by Borges failed to smoothly incorporate Blackboard, causing hundreds of instructors and thousands of students to lose data and be locked out. Lambert sent a global email explaining that he needed to separate Blackboard from the portal for a few days to determine the source of the problem and fix it. Within minutes of doing so, he said, Borges and McClellan “became unglued.” Within 40 minutes Castillo was in Lambert’s office to deliver the suspension letter and remove him from campus.

Lambert said he was later charged with sabotaging Blackboard, which he vehemently denied. He also denied “planting a rogue file” in the system, as his charge papers claimed.

Lambert has refuted most of the charges against him and said the college failed to present any evidence that he was a poor employee or bad colleague.

“Where is the file?” he asked. “There is no evidence of this. Accusation of intentional interference of systems with no proof.”

Lambert acknowledged that he had been guilty of unprofessional conduct, including walking out of meetings, but he insisted he was never physically threatening, as McClellan and Borges charged.

“I am 6’2” and 300 lbs, and look like a scary guy to some smaller people,” he said. “I was just frustrated at the consistent exclusion from the Online Learning Committee and staff. I was not yelling or threatening.”

Lambert admitted he wrote some “testy emails,” but he said his emotion came from his love for his job and his desire to serve faculty and students well.

“I’m no angel in this,” he said. “Those emails and stuff were pretty incriminating because I was upset. I was frustrated because the decision process to move from one learning management system to another was deeply flawed.”

Lambert was outspoken about his concerns over the transition from Blackboard to Canvas. He insisted it was unfair of the SWC Academic Senate to compare Canvas and Blackboard Ultra, an updated LMS that was still being tested. Faculty members of the Academic Senate are empowered to choose an LMS because it is considered an academic matter.

“Blackboard has a brand new version that’s coming out and it won’t be ready really until summer, possibly fall,” he said in an article published in The Sun last year. “What the Academic Senate is going to compare with Canvas is ridiculous because that version is going to be gone shortly after they decide to make the decision. They’re going to try to make Blackboard command demo a system that’s not ready to be shown yet.”

Lambert insisted he was trying to do his job, which he said is to serve faculty and students by providing the best possible LMS experience. He said he spoke up because he strongly believed Blackboard was a better LMS and that moving to Canvas would hurt students.

“I’m not fighting Canvas, I was fighting the decision-making data and the information they were using to make the choice,” he said. “Their single most emphasized point of their choice of Canvas over Blackboard was that it was free.”

Canvas offered its system to SWC for free for two years in exchange for a four-year contract. SWC was paying about $130,000 a year for Blackboard, Lambert said.

Canvas will replace Blackboard at SWC in a phased-in 18-month migration period. By summer 2018 all courses that employ LMS will be in Canvas. Borges did not respond to questions about the cost of Canvas.

Lambert said his suspension was unfair and based on personal animosity rather than professional reasons.

“So what happened was when I was brought back and given my charge packet, I was given the decision of my case and what the outcome would be,” he said. “I was never deposed. I was never talked to. I was never allowed to give them my side, and from what I understand, that is common at SWC.”

Lambert, the former president of the classified employees union, said he is dissatisfied with the process of the administrative leave for classified employees because they are very vulnerable to capricious and arbitrary charges and have little power to defend themselves.

“They call it leave, but I call it suspension because it is,” he said. “The whole process is based on hearsay. (It is) not an attempt to find truth, but an attempt to convict, and that’s all that they do.”

Lambert said he voiced his concerns about switching the LMS for almost five years. He was not included in the selection process, he said, though he had more expertise than anyone on campus.

“I was cut out of the entire selection process and they were making decisions based on bad data, erroneous thought processes and irrational kind of direction,” he said. “I’m really very much passionate about online learning and so I’ve worked my tail off for all these years trying to make sure that the online learning program is good and it is.”

Professor of Business Dr. Gail Stockin called Lambert “a visionary” who was essential to bringing online courses to SWC. He is also an expert in learning management systems, she said.

“I’ve known Larry for 18 years and he worked with me and a couple of other faculty because we were some of the first ones who did online,” she said. “Online programs weren’t even in existence and we were really the forerunners in getting courses online because nobody had the vision, but we did and Larry did, too.”

Borges and McClellan were each asked three times for comment, including personal visits to their offices, but declined to be interviewed for this story. Robert Unger, acting director of human resources, said he could not comment on personnel matters that included employee discipline.

Lambert said he is considering filing a lawsuit against the college, Borges and McClellan. Stockin said she did not have all the information about Lambert’s situation, but many people on campus have been repositioned due to problems and given other opportunities. McClellan was one such person.

“Why was Larry not given that same opportunity?” she said. “It seems to me the college is getting rid of the wrong people. Larry was always a hard worker and conscientious. Not everyone we have to work with has been.”

Borges has been severely criticized for years by faculty and students over serial technology breakdowns, a non-collegial attitude and attacks on faculty. McClellan was transferred from Student Affairs to her current post following complaints that she enabled sexual assault on campus, insubordination and for lying about her involvement with a secretive group of disgruntled former students that illegally accessed student records. McClellan is no longer allowed to supervise student programs.

Lambert said Borges and McClellan were “impossible” to work with.

“The working environment was so hostile that I was so stressed with anxiety and fear for my 17-year career that I had an emotional breakdown at a meeting with the VP of HR, McClellan and others about ADA accommodations for an emotional support animal I asked to have on campus,” he said.

Lambert said he is now working as a driver for Lyft and Uber, pending the outcome of his Skelly hearing. Tim Flood, the vice president of financial services, is scheduled to chair the hearing. Flood can either uphold the charges, modify them or reject them. Lambert also has the right to appeal the Skelly hearing ruling.

Struggles with the college have taken a toll on his physical and mental health, he said.

“I’m a physical and emotional wreck,” he said. “It’s scary how these people can destroy a person’s career and a man’s life without solid evidence of wrong doing. What happened to me can happen to anybody.”

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