By Jeremy Hopkins
Cuyahoga Community College seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Not only do we need to find a successor for the Western Campus, we also are looking for a successor to Dr. Thornton. In the search for a school president, the selection committee has come up with two names. While we know the names, and there is a quick little biography on the two individuals at the website for “The Search,” as it has been dubbed (http://tri-c-search.com/the-search#Updates), this only begins to scratch the surface.
The good news is that Dr. Lars Hafner, one of the finalists, has a lot of recent experience being between a rock and a hard place. In the updated information, it creates worry when the release states: “(w)e are fortunate that Hafner’s candidacy was facilitated by a change in the political environment in his home state(.)” Just doing a quick check of Dr. Hafner’s name in search engines like Google only seems to reinforce that, with a long list of headlines and allegations.
But if you only read the top search results, you don’t get the full story.
Hafner was brought to State College of Florida — Manatee-Sarasota, a school that expanded beyond its community college roots and also celebrated 50 years of existence six years ago. While he was there, he created a new and unique middle to high school housed on the college campus, and established the college’s first baccalaureate program for four year degrees.
Yes, there were some missteps along the way. Notable in the headlines is the request for a Cadillac for his use paid for by the school. As Tom Lyons of the Herald-Tribune in Florida stated in an October 24, 2012, article, “[…] the fancy car idea is an obvious extravagance. But I don’t know what college presidents ought to drive, or typically do drive. What I do know is that this is something a governor only makes a big deal of if he already wants someone to get the boot.”
There also are headlines about forgery and fraud. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement had opened an investigation into Hafner to determine whether or not he had forged a board member’s signature on a grant charter in 2010. This not only could cause Hafner to lose his pay, it is obviously an illegal act. So there was a full investigation requested, and eventually opened, into these allegations.
According to an article by Craig Pittman of the Tampa Bay Times, the FDLE closed the investigation because there was nothing to prosecute: “(t)he man whose signature Hafner was accused of forging said he had given […] permission to do it.”
Both of these instances were fuel for Hafner’s primary opposition in the trustees. Hafner had run afoul of Carlos Beruff. I confirmed with Toni Whitt, the business and education editor of the Bradenton Herald, that Mr. Beruff is a major real estate developer that was appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. And when Hafner resigned, some supporters of his in the trustees also resigned, one of them before the end of the meeting, leaving only the members that supported the governor behind.
It’s a difficult situation to be in when someone wants you out of a position. Never mind the questions of cost overruns, which happened in the midst of a change of legislation; nor the costs of budget overrun on construction projects, which past and present trustees of SCF published in the Bradenton Herald on October 20, 2012 to clear up and explain. Nor can we say it is merely a matter of politics, even though Hafner did serve twelve years in the Florida legislature: Pittman of the Times reported that Beruff stated Scott had no idea this was going on.
The end result is that Hafner has been placed into a tough position, and while several reasons were brought forth to request the end of his employment, none of them were backed by more than what is essentially a head-butting match. Perhaps Pittman put it best when he stated, “Hafner the Ph.D. repeatedly ran afoul of Beruff the hard-headed businessman(.)”
There are indications that Hafner’s termination was because of several factors. These range from budget problems, to not purchasing land for school expansion from properties Beruff had available, to politics. But they are all indications and nothing more than “he said, she said,” statements. While some of the statements undoubtedly have truths in them, I was not privy to the facts of the moments and cannot provide emphatic proof or dispute of the comments. I can only offer supposition. But while we are supposing, we also need to add in other intangibles.
Hafner served in the Florida state legislature for 12 years. He also has a Ph.D. in education and leadership. He served as the provost, or campus president, at the St. Petersburg/Gibbs campus of St. Petersburg College. And he earned an Associate of Arts degree from a college other than a four-year school, like many of us. It has been said that he is amenable to student athletics by several people I’ve conversed with, and though none of them are students at SCF, they have mentioned that he is a likeable guy.
The funny thing about being between a rock and a hard place is that being there usually reveals character, perhaps a quality Tri-C is looking for.