Cunje's termination spurs conflict between faculty, administration

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Several faculty called for a new round of no confidence votes amid revelations that the administration ended 30-year Campus Safety veteran Lt. Joseph Cunje’s employment on Feb. 10.

“I came to work today, and all I felt was incredible sadness,” Faculty President and mathematics professor Nalsey Tinberg said. “[Cunje] is one of the most beloved, dedicated, passionate, competent, student-centered people that has graced this campus.”

On Jan. 20, 2013, Cunje suffered a stroke that left him with impaired vision in his right eye. He has not been able to work since. Cunje attributes his stroke to the stress from the treatment and workplace tension he felt after Campus Safety was put under the Dean of Students’ jurisdiction. After his stroke, Cunje was put on medical leave. His son, Ed Cunje, had already gone on medical leave after having back surgery, and was let go in the summer of 2013 when his doctor did not clear him to return to work. On Feb. 10, 2014, Joseph Cunje met the same fate.

“We are left with no alternative than to regretfully inform you that the college can no longer extend your leave and has ended your employment,” a letter sent to Cunje by Director of Human Resources Richard Ledwin said.

The letter also states that Cunje’s insurance benefits will end on Feb. 28. Associate Director of Human Resources Jacalyn Feigelman said that Cunje is receiving long-term disability, and Vice President of Academic Affairs Jorge Gonzalez has asserted the same.

“I can assure you that the college recognizes and values his long service, and that we all care deeply about Joe,” a Feb. 14 letter sent to staff and faculty from Gonzalez states. “Statements that have been made suggesting denial of access to disability insurance benefits (which the college does not control and is typically a matter between the insurance carrier and the employee), along with some other statements about confidential personnel matters, are not accurate.”

It is apparent that there is considerable confusion around the terms of his dismissal, which Cunje attributes to being let go without warning or a face-to-face conversation. It is also clear that the college did not offer Cunje the option of early retirement.

“After all the years, the memories, the trials and tribulations, the joy and the sorrow, I am asking you to treat me with a little more dignity and not treat me like a pile of garbage,” Cunje wrote to Ledwin. “Occidental means the world to me. It has given me and my family numerous opportunities and it would be a shame to leave such a bitter taste in my mouth.”

Over two days, Ledwin was unavailable for comment.

Cunje came to the college after immigrating from Guyana to Washington D.C. He worked four jobs to keep his family afloat, including as a janitor at Occidental. When the job in Campus Safety (then called Campus Security) opened, Cunje applied and was hired. Six months later, he was promoted to sergeant. He took classes at Pasadena Community College in law enforcement and eventually, after graduating from the Police Academy, was promoted to lieutenant. For 21 years, Campus Safety Director Holly Nieto and Cunje ran Campus Safety under the vice president of administration.

But according to Cunje, things started to change when the Dean of Students Office began requesting Monday morning meetings with Nieto to review incidents from the prior week. Cunje said Nieto would come back every week from the meetings with a massive list of criticisms from Associate Dean of Students Tim Chang, Vice President of Student Affairs Barbara Avery and others second-guessing officers’ judgment.

“They always criticized us, never gave us accolades, we never did anything right in their eyes,” Ed Cunje said.

According to Cunje, Student Affairs continued to slowly diminish the independence of Campus Safety, making numerous mandates to trained officers for how to deal with students. Cunje and the other officers were told they were no longer allowed to write citations for noise violations or parties. Cunje was also restricted from bringing students into his office to discuss problems, as was his preferred form conflict reconciliation.

The transition culminated in November 2012 when, amid restructuring by President Jonathan Veitch, Vice President Mike Groener left the college and Chang was officially put in charge of Campus Safety. Chang immediately proposed major schedule changes, stunning Cunje. He had no idea why an assistant dean, with no law enforcement experience, was treading so deeply into Campus Safety operations.

For Chang, the move was a way to put Campus Safety and the Office of Residential Education and Housing Services (REHS) under unified management since the two offices already work closely together.

“In my four to four-and-a-half years, no one worked more closely with Campus Safety than REHS,” Chang said.

But Tinberg, like Cunje, questions the judgment of placing a troubled student affairs division and an associate dean with no law enforcement experience in a position to fundamentally change Campus Safety’s operating culture. She asserted that the actions of the current administration have repeatedly contradicted the college’s core values.

“When you have as your values excellence, equality, community and service either those are intrinsic to who you are and you make decisions based on them or you don’t,” Tinberg said, noting that faculty will try to remedy the contradiction. “We feel that when injustice occurs, we have to speak up.”

Tinberg said she would bring up no confidence votes if that is what the faculty want.

“If there’s support for that, I’ll bring it to the faculty,” Tinberg said.

Professor of politics Roger Boesche has been Cunje’s most vocal backer, penning a letter to faculty expressing his outrage over the situation that spread quickly through the online community.

“When I came here, this was the nicest, most compassionate place I had ever seen. And we had faults, we certainly weren’t perfect; I don’t want to romanticize the past,” Boesche said in an interview with The Occidental Weekly. “Even now, students, staff, you know I am riding my wheelchair, or in the occasional case I’m walking, people rush to open the door, it’s just amazing. They’re just so wonderful. But it’s a poisonous administration right now. Somehow the environment has come to this point where you’ve got a poisonous, bitter, angry administration and it’s real sad.”

But Avery has a different take, blaming the faculty’s vote of no confidence in her leadership on the campus environment.

“That nastiness didn’t come from us; [the no confidence vote] is where it started,” she said, noting that the faculty’s decision to vote no confidence in a dean of students made history and that the faculty does not understand what her division does. “Our goal is to make sure that we do what we need to do for the betterment of students.”

Cunje recalled several incidents which solidified his displeasure with the administration’s alleged intrusions. On a rainy night several years ago, a student got into an accident when making a right turn near the soccer fields. Debris had fallen from the hillside, making it very slippery, and the student spun into some pipes. Cunje, who was off-duty, came to help.

After clearing the accident and taking the student to his room, Cunje went home, only to be greeted by criticism the next morning from Chang, who Cunje says assumed the student must have been drunk.

“Tim Chang and his group got a hold of the report and the first thing I was greeted with was, ‘Why didn’t you call the police? Why didn’t you turn the student over to the police? He was drunk.’ In my mind, I’m going you’re an administrator and this is the way you think, the first thing you think of is calling LAPD. It was a rainy night, how did you know the student was drunk?” Cunje said.

Chang stood by his decision-making.

“We should call LAPD because we are not able to give field sobriety tests,” Chang said. “If a student is intoxicated and gets into a traffic accident on campus, then we take him home and put him in his room, but he leaves again and gets into a car and hurts himself or others, then we are liable for what the student then does. Better be safe than sorry to call LAPD to help us.”

About a month after Chang officially took control of Campus Safety, the Department held its annual holiday party. According to Cunje, upon arriving, Avery and Chang turned away from him as he entered. Then the two deans sat at the main table and never got up, even when Nieto asked them if they would like to say a few words.

“They never moved from that side of the table,” he said. “A couple days later on Dec. 17, I got a written reprimand,” Cunje said. “In 30 years at Occidental, I have never received a letter much less a written reprimand.”

The Letter of Admonishment, provided to The Occidental Weekly by Cunje, cites three reasons for the reprimand. First, that “you did not acknowledge nor did you even speak to either Chang or Avery. Your apparent disdain for their attendance was obvious and made for an awkward situation that was embarrassing and bordered on disrespectful.” Second, that “you have generally shown an overall lack of acceptance for and exhibited only minimal cooperation with recent changes. You were unwilling to seriously consider and, more importantly, discuss the pros and cons of scheduling and staffing suggestions.” Lastly, that “you allowed personal feelings as to what you consider ‘right’ to overshadow your professionalism.”

The letter did not cite any violations of specific college policies. In response to the charge that he was unwilling to discuss the pros and cons of scheduling suggestions, Cunje provided a document outlining numerous problems with the proposed schedule, which he had written and presented to Chang and Nieto before the holiday party.

Chang said that because this is a personnel matter, he was not able to comment on the letter or the holiday party.

“It is interesting that he is giving this to you when he knows full well I can’t respond to it,” Chang said.

“I internalized a lot of this, this bickering and this fighting,” Cunje said. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t deal with all of this, having to deal with Tim. It bothered me a lot. It caused me a lot of anxiety and stress. And I went to bed and woke up and that was it. I got very sick. And that was the end of me.”

Many others were disappointed in the treatment of Cunje by the college. Cunje’s daughter-in-law, Micaela Cunje, expressed the effect of his termination on her family and on Cunje.

“This is a man who really didn’t want to bring anything up,” Micaela Cunje said. “It is difficult to see his heart broken … It is really sad that somebody loves a place and students so much and his heart is so broken because since he has been out of work, all he wants is to get better so he can go back and then this happens. I mean 30 years and it isn’t 8-to-5 thirty years; it is 24/7 thirty years…it is terrible how they can just break someone’s spirit.”