Professor Cyndi Greening spent most of Aug. 8 writing frantic notes to her lawyer during a lengthy administrative hearing. Across the room, her bosses testified about why they want her fired.
On that date a year earlier, Greening boarded a flight to Zambia with 14 of her Mesa Community College students. They traveled to Africa to make movies: a full-length feature called “Bad T!ming” and a documentary about a shooting just south of the Congo.
Greening, the college’s media arts director, believed the project would boost her fledgling film program. “I thought this would help get the word out that this is what we do at Mesa. Not only do we do film — we’re big thinkers,” she said.
Instead, it’s now another allegation against her.
The Maricopa County Community College District is trying to fire Greening over accusations of enrollment fraud, copyright infringement and mismanagement. District officials won’t talk about Greening’s case, but documents and testimony at a hearing last week indicate the enrollment fraud is related to her arts classes. The copyright infringement and mismanagement stem from the movie project.
She argues the allegations are false or misstate what happened to purposely make her actions appear nefarious.
Her termination hearing is expected to finish this week. A faculty committee will recommend to MCCCD Chancellor Rufus Glasper whether to fire Greening.
MCC’s art department began investigating Greening early this year after news reports detailed wrongdoing throughout the junior college system.
Glasper ordered every college to root out troublesome employees. Many rules had been pliable at the district’s 10 colleges. Misconduct and even criminal activity had festered for years.
No more, Glasper said, and he pushed zero-tolerance policies on fraud.
Enrollment and international travel came under the most scrutiny.
“They want to send a message to the community that they’re getting rid of the crap, that they’re getting rid of the faculty that are doing something wrong. And so I think they were looking for someone,” Greening said.
She had just traveled halfway around the world using district funds. Every semester she linked and shifted art classes as if they were Legos.
“I seem like a likely candidate,” she said.
Greening was also on sabbatical, away from campus and unaware of the anxiety there.
TWO FOR ONE
A courier delivered the termination letter to Greening’s north Phoenix house on May 11, the end of the school year. She was supposed to end her yearlong sabbatical and return to the classroom this fall.
The first two allegations said Greening “manipulated the MCC scheduling system.”
As media arts director, Greening taught two different high-level classes at the same time in the same room. Some students were enrolled in both, but one was not a prerequisite for the other.
The district contends she was enrolling students in both to make it look as if there were more students enrolled to keep the classes from being canceled.
Greening says she was trying to protect the classes from being canceled, and that she had her department chairwoman’s permission to do it that way.
The practice didn’t make Greening any additional money. When teachers combine classes, the college pays the teacher for one class, because they do not increase their time in a classroom.
And Greening didn’t need the extra classes to meet her teaching quota. She often taught more than 20 credit hours worth of classes a semester, records show. Professors at Maricopa colleges are only required to teach 15 credit hours.
Combined classes are common in MCC’s art department. Linda Speranza, a Mesa art professor, teaches three different levels of ceramics in one class.
Late last year, Rodney Holmes, MCC dean of instruction, told the college’s departments to look for enrollment irregularities. A Tribune series in October detailed how a Scotts-dale Community College performing arts program falsified enrollment to keep itself afloat.
Sarah Capawana, the art department chairwoman, then began asking questions about Greening’s classes, Jeanette Roe, a media arts professor, said during her testimony Thursday.
“It seemed odd to me that a program that was so successful, that it wouldn’t be known that was the way it was being done,” Roe said.
Jabbes Mvula worked as a building security guard in 2005 and wore his uniform to Greening’s class on digital storytelling.
The Zambian didn’t look like a filmmaker to the professor. But Mvula proved to be a dedicated student and in early 2006, he asked Greening if he could borrow video cameras to make his country’s first feature film.
“Who will work the cameras?” Greening said she asked.
That began a conversation that became a movie project.
Greening secured a grant from MCCCD, which then encouraged professors to add international perspectives to their curriculum. In all, the district provided $20,000 for the Zambia trip.
Mvula turned “Bad T!ming,” a popular play in his home country, into a screenplay. He recruited Zambian actors for every role.
Art students volunteered to go — more than the district funds could cover. Greening agreed to pay for nine students’ travel, at $3,000 apiece.
Then she hired a sound technician, so audiences could hear the movie dialogue, which cost her $7,000; she spent thousands more on the film.
In all, Greening said she invested $80,000 of her own money in the projects. That included renting a helicopter to get a shot of Victoria Falls, considered a natural wonder of the world.
MCC loaned the project two video cameras and two sets of lights.
The students ran the production and did nearly all the filming, said Michael Montessa, a former MCC student who went on the trip. Greening was executive producer, making sure cars had gas and the crew had food.
Back home, college officials worried over foreign travel.
In October, The Arizona Republic reported that the district spent $300,000 in college funds on trips abroad during the previous five years, mainly for top officials to establish business partnerships. Mesa employees accounted for much of that total as former MCC President Larry Christiansen and other officials took several trips to China and the Netherlands.
Few of the trips appeared to benefit students.
But Greening’s Zambia trip was paid for with a grant and was a student project, not a business trip.
Greening said she asked Holmes, Mesa’s dean of instruction, to join them in Zambia to handle diplomacy. Holmes told her it wasn’t the right time for a college official to take an international trip.
“Was it a bad time for the film crew to go to Africa?” Greening said she asked. “He said, 'What you’re doing is with students. There shouldn’t be any problems at all.’”
To protect the college’s lights from baggage handlers, Greening carried them on the flight to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.
Hours after they took off from London’s Heathrow Airport, Scotland Yard announced it had foiled a massive terrorist plot to down transatlantic flights. Airports all but banned carry-on luggage.
Rather than take chances with the lights, Greening spent another $2,000 to ship and insure them. The shipping company delivered one set of lights to the college, but the other set never arrived.
The district termination letter alleged Greening hadn’t told MCC about the missing lights. But a month later, the Mesa college received reimbursement from the company. During last week’s hearing, MCC’s property managers testified Greening had explained the situation months earlier.
District lawyers asked to drop that allegation.
Michael Pruitt, Greening’s attorney, tried to raise questions about how careful the district was in preparing the other charges.
Margaret McConnell, a district lawyer, testified that on May 10 she received a call from a human resources official asking about copyright law. Greening had promoted the Zambia movie on her personal Web site and the official wanted to know if that violated MCCCD’s rights.
MCC was preparing to fire Greening the next day. McConnell testified that she didn’t know her research would be used in a termination letter.
McConnell argued the district owns the film. However, she said a number of people, including the students, have rights to the Zambia project.
“It was clearly a work of love,” she said, “and a wonderful project for the students.”