January 21, 2007
Rufus Glasper has spent much of his 30-year education career fixing what others broke. But the Maricopa County Community College District chancellor is now scrambling to repair his own mistakes and salvage his job atop the nation’s largest junior college system.
Three of the district’s colleges are under investigation by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office over a laundry list of alleged frauds perpetrated during Glasper’s watch. Two of his college presidents are investigative targets, search warrants say.
In a raid this week, sheriff’s deputies seized a bevy of records as possible evidence, including files from Glasper’s own computer.
Local media reports in recent months have exposed misconduct throughout the district. State lawmakers are pushing to create a new state agency to provide oversight of MCCCD and Arizona’s nine other community college districts.
Glasper reports only to MCCCD’s governing board, composed of five elected officials. Two of the board’s newest members say they want to fire the chancellor, just one member short of the majority needed to do it.
For all the problems facing Glasper and the colleges, his friends and colleagues say he has proven adept at navigating turbulence.
With a quiet presence and a mind for numbers, Glasper has often been the man his bosses turned to when trouble surfaced.
“If I were in some rocky years, I’d want Rufus around,” says Nancy Roach, a longtime friend.
Glasper, 55, was born and reared in Chicago during the 1960s and ’70s.
After high school, he went to Luther College, a tiny liberal arts school in Decorah, Iowa, and planned to become a teacher.
But when a professor cuttingly remarked that teaching was a good fit for Glasper — because business would be too competitive — Glasper says he reversed course.
Glasper doesn’t exude confidence.
Even at more than 6 feet tall, with a silver beard that contrasts sharply against his dark skin, he disappears in a crowded room. Glasper speaks sparingly during public meetings, deferring the floor to others.
Regardless, he is not passive.
After finishing a master’s degree in school business administration at Northern Illinois University in 1976, he took jobs in small school district finance offices.
Within five years, Glasper became head of financial planning at Chicago Public Schools, a system with more than 400,000 students that spent $2 billion a year.
He was 28.
“My first job was to balance a budget that had a $150 million deficit,” Glasper says.
Chicago’s schools are operated by the mayor’s office, but must contend with 13 powerful unions. The system had been mismanaged into financial ruin, blocked from even borrowing money to build schools.
Making matters worse, the superintendent, who was responsible for students’ education, feuded with the chief financial officer.
“They were literally freezing each other out of things and there I was in the middle, trying to build a budget with two people who don’t talk to one another,” Glasper says.
For all its difficulties, Glasper says he enjoyed the interplay between people.
Negotiations were often contentious and sometimes futile — there were four strikes during Glasper’s five-year tenure, one of which forced the schools to close for days.
And the work was sometimes strange — he arranged for the schools to sell Midway Airport, which the system had acquired, along with most of downtown Chicago.
But Glasper says he found consensus-building worked for him. If people have a say, they are less likely to stand in the way.
“It gave me my first understanding of politics,” he says, “my first understanding of a large, complex system.”
When he took the budget director’s job with the Maricopa community colleges in 1986, watchdogs at the Chicago schools were quoted in the local press lamenting his departure.
Glasper assumed the chancellor’s post in 2003 to return stability to a troubled college district.
The board fired his predecessor, Fred Gaskin, amid allegations of sexual harassment and employee unrest. Glasper was an MCCCD vice chancellor and its second highest-ranking official, positioned over every district department except instruction.
When Glasper stepped forward to replace Gaskin, no one else bothered to turn in an application.
“The system was in disarray,” says Paul Elsner, a former district chancellor. “Why wouldn’t the board reach for someone they know and trust?”
The board had hired Gaskin in 2000 to replace Elsner, a district icon who ran the colleges for 22 years. Glasper also applied, but wasn’t even a finalist, with the elected officials aiming for someone from outside MCCCD.
He says he considered moving to a different college district, but opted to remain where his family had settled. In the meantime, he extended his reach within the colleges.
At Gaskin’s request, Glasper took authority over human resources and district planning on top of financial services, giving him control of a wide swath of bureaucratic territory.
The way he did business — involving the district’s 11,000 employees — won him fans among the faculty.
With Gaskin ousted, employees’ organizations were the first to endorse Glasper’s promotion. The support was significant, because Glasper came through the district’s business side.
But not everyone was pleased.
Two Hispanic community groups denounced the hiring process, arguing it was wrong for a network of 10 colleges with 200,000 students to pick a leader without a nationwide search.
The criticisms were against the process, not Glasper’s credentials, says Ed Contreras, then a member of the district board. But the debate took on racial undertones.
Why was Glasper, a black man, not qualified for the position? His supporters asked.
“It was Hispanics who were bringing forth the issue and so, the African-American group thought it was a slap to them. There was a sense to them that it was a racial issue,” Contreras says.
Glasper promised the community groups would be involved in deciding the district’s future, quelling their anger.
At MCCCD colleges, professors pick their bosses.
Department chairmen are faculty members elected by their colleagues to hire, schedule classes and approve projects and extra pay.
Above them, college presidents operate with almost complete autonomy, reporting only to the chancellor. The district’s elected officials only hire and fire the chancellor and make policy decisions.
Under Glasper, the college system is governed in part by a number of different committees, seeking consensus on major decisions. He often leans toward allowing top officials at the colleges to handle problems on their campuses.
The trust has not always been well placed.
In October, the Tribune published a series detailing the internal audits of theft, enrollment fraud, misspent scholarship money, gross mismanagement and nepotism throughout the system.
The Tribune found that employee misconduct went largely unpunished and when criminal activity surfaced, college officials did not notify law enforcement.
In articles late last year, The Arizona Republic documented that district employees — particularly at Mesa Community College — and elected officials spent more than $300,000 on international travel during the past five years. College officials defend the trips as critical to faculty development and business arrangements that create cash flow for the district.
In one case at MCC in 2003, district auditor Jody LaBenz wrote Glasper an e-mail recommending law enforcement be notified that thousands of dollars in travel cash went missing from the athletic department, records show.
Glasper says he allowed MCC President Larry Christiansen to handle the matter. Christiansen went against the advice of the auditor and his own campus safety employees and did not contact police about the theft.
Glasper has now promised reform.
As he always has, the chancellor is seeking the collective wisdom of the community and employees to devise policy changes.
Jerry Walker, a board member and Glasper critic, says the district is run from the bottom, up. He is looking to flip it, arguing the colleges’ autonomy has allowed fraud to fester for years.
Glasper says more oversight is needed, but disagrees with stripping employees’ clout.
Glasper says he is “trying to get all employees to understand that ethical behavior is not just the chancellor’s responsibility, the chief financial officer’s or the vice chancellors’ (responsibility). It’s everybody’s.”
Glasper wrote that concept into MCCCD policy years ago.
But it does not appear to have influenced college employees who are suspected by district auditors to have committed fraud, or the bosses of those employees, who routinely opted not to take action.
“What we are finding,” Glasper says, “is we need to work on expanding that message.”
The career of Rufus Glasper:
At 28, Glasper becomes finance director for Chicago Public Schools.
Joins the Maricopa County Community College District as vice chancellor for financial operations.
Earns his doctorate in higher education finance from the University of Arizona; is promoted to oversee all the district’s business operations.
Applies to become MCCCD chancellor, but is not a finalist.
Named acting chancellor when district board fired Fred Gaskin. Given the position permanently when no one else within the district applies against him.
Leads district’s effort to pass $951 million bond package.
Local media outlets report misconduct within the colleges. Glasper launches efforts intended to reform district.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office launches investigation of fraud at MCCCD — raiding three colleges and district headquarters — that targets two college presidents.