The newly named chancellor for Community Colleges of Spokane brings decades of experience and glowing references – as well as a dismissal from a Colorado college amid allegations that funds were mismanaged, which has never been fully explained.
Christine Johnson, 57, who currently is special assistant to the provost at the University of Colorado, will take the top job at CCS on Aug. 1. Her base salary will be $210,000.
“Through in-depth background and reference checks, consultation with national community college leaders, conversations with our personal contacts as well as feedback screening committee members gathered from their peers in Denver, we came away with the highest confidence that Dr. Johnson is the right person for this position,” said Greg Bever, chairman of the CCS board of trustees.
Johnson, an educator since 1976, was one of five finalists in the national search for the chancellor job. She replaces Gary Livingston, who has led the CCS system – Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College and the Institute for Extended Learning – since 2002.
Of the five final candidates, Johnson was the only one who has been fired from a position in higher education, confirmed Greg Stevens, Community Colleges of Spokane’s chief human resources officer.
Johnson was terminated in 2007 from her position as president of Community College of Denver. According to a Denver Post story that year, a management audit by Clifton Gunderson LLP found several problems, including $300,000 in unaccounted-for funds due to a failure to fill out purchase orders; more than 100 employees who didn’t have the appropriate paperwork to verify their immigration status or work-visa documentation, four of whom were ineligible to work in the United States; and the gift of money from the college’s general fund to charity.
Johnson, who was the community college’s president from 2001-2007, said she couldn’t discuss the allegations or her termination. “We reached an amicable agreement, part of which was that neither of us would talk about it,” she said Tuesday.
But the Rocky Mountain News in 2007 reported “Johnson said she was held to a different standard because she is Hispanic and that her June 2007 firing was political.” No criminal or civil charges were filed.
Spokane college officials and search committee members were unable to review her agreement with the Denver college or see the independent audit.
Local officials relied on word-of-mouth to further inquire about the allegations, Bever said.
“I put my trust in people I respect in education in Colorado and nationally,” said Earl Hale, former director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and one of the people hired to conduct background checks on the finalists for the CCS job. “I have a lot of faith in their judgment. And they were all consistent in their praise about her abilities.” Scott Mendelsberg, a Johnson friend and former co-worker in Denver, said, “During the whole process she was bound by the legalities not to talk about it, but I can tell you she still has a fantastic reputation.”
CCS’ board of trustees voted for Johnson unanimously, according to a news release.
“Dr. Johnson is a change master and problem-solver who is unafraid to take on challenges and looks for opportunities to build consensus,” Bever said.
“I have never met a more student-focused president in my experience,” said Steve Jordan, former president of Eastern Washington University and president of the Metropolitan State College of Denver. “I have admired the extent to which Christine aligns programs to meet students’ needs. That ability will serve Spokane well. She is recognized and respected nationally and has a great pool of colleagues to call upon to gather beneficial advice.”
Johnson said she is excited to be coming to Spokane after her career in Colorado.
“It’s a very fine district with a great reputation. I spent the last decade in the community college environment. I have heard many good things about community colleges in Washington and Spokane,” Johnson said. “I bring a depth of experience, a passion for the role and mission of community colleges, a broad perspective and excellent management skills.”
Johnson started her career as a high school English and Spanish teacher. She rose through the education ranks to high school principal and district administrator. She began working in community colleges in 1998.
“She was very innovative, creative,” said Mendelsberg, executive director of a federally funded scholarship program for low-income college students. “She truly has the heart of kids.”
Johnson and Mendelsberg partnered to create a program that lets low-income students gain college credit while still in high school and an associate’s degree within one year of graduation.
“She’s been such a powerful force in education in Denver for so long,” Mendelsberg said. “You guys are getting a high-quality person and a fantastic chancellor. You are getting a hell of a gift.”