Last Chance for Cowboys (and I don’t mean Dallas)

It’s not usually my desire to support any particular political candidates in any race, be it local, state or national — unless they are unaffiliated with the one-party corporate plutocracy known as Democrats and Republicans. Or in this particular case, they happen to be related to me. That is why The Pigeon Post is giving its official endorsement for Bruce Curl, candidate for the Laramie County Community College Board of Trustees come November 2nd. I can’t recall anyone in the Curl family ever running for any sort of elected office as I think most of us have enough common sense and shame to stay away from such a corrupt and tainted system, but in this case, my father Bruce, a 20+ year administrator at LCCC, was persuaded to run in order to clean up a corrupt and tainted system.

I was about seven or eight years old when my father began working at LCCC as the Personnel Director (later changed to Director of Human Resources) after being in the employ of the University of Wyoming — the only four year institution of higher education in the state. Now keep in mind, Wyoming has a population of about 400,000 — I’ve lived in cities more populous than that and they weren’t even considered “cities” for all intents and purposes. Other than UW, there are about seven community colleges spread throughout the vast and empty terrain of Wyoming. Given the large number of ranches in the state, the “cowboy” was the inevitable mascot for all things Wyoming, giving LCCC the ubiquitous nickname: Last Chance Cowboy College.

Being the last refuge for Cowboys isn’t necessarily a term of endearment as LCCC had a reputation of being a less than stellar institution of quality academics — but that is not unique in any way as Ivy League East Coast elitists such as myself have always looked down upon junior and community colleges. I have to admit that I do have a few credits from LCCC myself as I took an art class there when I was 15 and got a B — it would have been an A had the instructor informed me of a journal requirement not listed in the syllabus. Nonetheless, LCCC would slowly begin to rid itself of the “last chance cowboy” moniker and become a legitimate academic institution. I’m sure there are many who give my father partial credit for that, though I’m sure others believe any improvements were in spite of him. That’s not the real issue though as his path toward the Board of Trustees is more or less a house cleaning mission to save LCCC from again being known as the Last Chance Cowboy College.

The mess — a mess that has garnered some national media attention — is due to the misdeeds of the current President and his lap-puppies on the Board of Trustees who have attempted, and succeeded in a few instances, to shield the public from anything detrimental to their boss. The President, Darrel Hammon, (no, unfortunately not SNL veteran and master impersonator Darrell Hammond) has, in three years time, created an environment of fear and corruption ripe with cover-ups and suicide attempts and a stream of lawsuits resulting from improper terminations and attempts to block the press from any material detrimental to the Hammon regime.

This type of stuff is fairly commonplace in the average big city political machines, but the fact that it is happening at a community college in Cheyenne, Wyoming makes it a bit more interesting to those outside the Wyoming political loop. Before this, Wyoming’s claim to political fame was merely being the first state to allow women to vote and the home of good old Dick “go f*%k yourself” Cheney. Considering my connections to this sordid affair as well as my credentials as a well-respected journalist, (try not to laugh too hard) I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to add some more attention to my former state of residence as well as give my dad some free publicity — or at least make myself feel a little better about begging him for money to keep me in lap of luxury.

My dad retired from the college about three years ago, right after Hammon came to power. Typically the Board is ultimately responsible in deciding such hires, usually weighing the input from the administrators quite heavily in their final decision. In this instance, they actually paid an outside consulting firm to conduct the search for a new president. That’s not particularly unusual, though considering the size of the college, it seems a little out of the ordinary to waste valuable college resources on such a search. What the board got was Hammon, then president of Miles Community College in Miles City, Montana. Nothing out of the ordinary per se — perhaps a bit of a lateral move, though nothing to raise the ire of anyone. That is until my father and others began receiving information from faculty at Miles Community College painting a picture of a man deluded with power and willing to do anything necessary to maintain that power and get rid of anyone who questioned his authority.

Rather than taking these concerns into consideration, the consulting firm and the Board stuck behind their choice and Hammon became President — much to the joy of the faculty and staff at Miles Community College. Shortly thereafter, my father retired and went on about his life without being in the middle of what would turn into a local, eventually national, sordid mess of epic proportions — epic by Wyoming standards at least. As the lapdogs on the Board of Trustees, namely Tom Bauman and George McIlvaine, blindly supported Hammon in his reign of incompetency while hundreds of thousands of dollars of college money was spent in legal fees due to said reign of incompetency, many former colleagues of my father convinced him to throw his hat in the ring in an attempt to get enough members of the Board to rid the college of Hammon and the humiliation he has brought.

You might be asking yourselves: “Who is this Darrel Hammon and why should I care unless he’s doing a Donald Trump impersonation?” Well, for starters, Hammon gained his national notoriety for a college-sponsored trip to Costa Rica in 2008 where he was a course editor and instructor — and his two daughters, or chaperons, were along for the trip as well (on the College’s dime of course). During the trip to Costa Rica, one of the students began displaying suicidal behavior.

LCCC President Darrel Hammon, wrongly tasked other students on the trip with caring for the troubled student…

The CARE Team — made up of employees at the college — found that the troubled student should have been placed under the supervision of “a trained professional that understands mental health disorders to manage the situation,” according to the report.

“Unfortunately, such an individual was not available on the trip,” the team wrote.

“As a result, other students were assigned roles in which they were not qualified; therefore, hampering their educational endeavors and endangering the health of the (student),” the report stated.

A trained emergency medical technician who went on the trip as a student was designated by Hammon to provide the troubled student with her prescription medications. But the EMT “did not possess credentials to serve in that capacity,” the team’s report said. If the student had been wrongly medicated, the college could have faced significant liability, the report added.

“Finally, the gentleman in question (the EMT) participated in the trip as a student, which again raises the issue of the matter’s impact on his educational experience,” the report said.

A CARE Team Referral Form from Hammon states he designated the emergency medical technician as the troubled student’s “pharmacist.”

According to other student referral forms to the CARE Team, the troubled student attempted an overdose in order to harm herself.

Students wrote to the CARE Team that they knew the student was a “cutter,” and said they were constantly taking knives and glasses away from her during meals and in hotel rooms during the trip.

The letters also say Hammon allowed the troubled student to buy a knife from a souvenir shop. (Wyoming Tribune Eagle, May 2010)

This isn’t exactly the most damning report given the circumstances of the trip, though it does call into question Hammon’s competency considering he put other students in charge of the suicidal student’s well-being rather than getting her back to the states and into a hospital — or not allowing the student to go in the first place if this behavior was exhibited and known before the group departed, which no one really knows for sure up to this point. The most troubling aspect is what happened when the Wyoming Tribune Eagle was given a copy of this “CARE” report and attempted to publish it — omitting the names of any students involved. That’s when Hammon and the college tried to block the report — and initially were successful — through costly court and attorney fees; and for what exactly? Trying to avoid looking a bit incompetent in the midst of a difficult predicament?

The decision by Laramie County Community College to hold back a report that allegedly criticizes its president’s performance on an overseas trip only makes things worse for the school.

LCCC already is immersed in controversy over President Darrel Hammon’s performance, including a survey of faculty and staff that shows low morale and lack of trust of leadership. And a lengthy public hearing over the firing of vice president James Cook revealed a number of problems with the president’s approach to leadership.

Now comes the refusal to release to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle a CARE team report on Mr. Hammon’s actions as chaperone during a school trip to Costa Rica. Rumors about what the report contains are swirling around the community; denying media access to the document only serves to increase the buzz.

Unfortunately, LCCC’s rationale for refusing the report is weak. Vice President Carol Hoglund says the school fears that turning over the report will violate federal law — the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act — because it would cause an individual student to be named. (Wyoming Tribune Eagle, May 2010)

Of course the Tribune Eagle won out, while the taxpayers of Laramie County lost yet again in a mounting pile of legal fees amassed by Hammon and approved by the Board. This Costa Rica incident was just one of many controversies surrounding the bizarre and fear-inducing leadership style of Hammon. As briefly mentioned above by the Tribune, the school was already going through a wrongful termination hearing due to Hammon’s unilateral decision to fire VP James Cook — the same man he hired in the first place. It seems Cook had a myriad of mental and physical issues, and due to poor performance was likely not fit to perform his job duties. Rather than following college guidelines for terminating an employee, Hammond used his (imagined) power to fire Cook without bothering to follow procedure, resulting ultimately in a costly hearing. Of course Cook was ultimately re-hired as VP due to Hammon’s incompetence, but of course Hammon and the Board already replaced Cook with another friend of Hammon before a decision had been reached (Cheyenne Herald, July 2010), costing hundreds of thousands of dollars more now that there are two VPs (d’oh!).

This is par for the course for Hammon as LCCC has wasted thousands, even millions of dollars on other wrongful termination suits while the morale among all employees has been documented to be incredibly low as most are afraid to voice their concerns publicly without fear of retribution by Hammon and his supporters who were either hand-picked by Hammond himself or are trying to gain favor to further their career — or just too scared of losing their jobs.

This of course brings us to the upcoming LCCC Board of Trustees election, and there is a definite crack beginning to develop in brief reign of President Hammond as the local press, college staff and Cheyenne Community are getting louder in their call for the removal of Hammon from the college. Whether or not this story and the actions of Hammon are worthy of the massive local press and the sporadic national press it has received is debatable. But for me, my family and many residents of Wyoming — where I spent my formative years — this is a juicy little tale of what can go wrong when accountability and common sense are lacking by those in a position to make decisions that impact thousands in a little cowboy community that is still a part of my life in many ways.

Here’s a little tidbit about the election from a recent Wyoming Tribune article:

Curl said Hammon needs to make drastic changes in his leadership or exit the college.

Hammon still has three years remaining on a five-year contract, and Curl said the board could possibly work out a severance package that would allow the president to leave early.

Curl, who was the human resources director at the college for 23 years, said it appears that the college employees do not trust Hammon.

According to Curl, Hammon referred to employees who questioned his leadership as “refuse” that needed to be discarded.

“He’s made comments at college gatherings where he’s made disparaging remarks about employees who may question his leadership,” Curl said.

Hammon retorted that Curl has not been on campus lately to speak directly with individual employees. (Wyoming Tribune Eagle, September 2010)

It looks like it could be interesting the next month as Hammon is apparently under the impression that my father has been in a cave since his retirement. Considering my dad speaks with and deals with individual employees on a daily basis — they’re the ones who persuaded him to run — he seems to have a better idea of what type of leadership is needed for Laramie County Community College to prosper, rather than become Last Chance Cowboy College once again.

In Addendum:

After I published this article, another report of Hammon’s alleged misdeeds and suppression of free speech appeared in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle — apparently Hammond and LCCC just can’t stay out of the news lately. In this instance, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) “is looking into allegations that Hammon and other administrators have restricted the free expression of faculty, staff and students… ‘They have a fairly consistent set of stories where they think the president and other senior administrators have abused their authority to restrict expression of people on campus,’ said Kissel. ‘The allegations mostly involve the college president.’ LCCC Trustee Tom Bauman said he has never heard of FIRE and is not sure if the organization is credible.” (Josh Mitchell, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, September 2010)

Sorry Mr. Bauman, but FIRE is indeed credible and have brought successful lawsuits against much more powerful Presidents and Universities than Hammon and LCCC. More or less, they are sort of an ACLU-type legal organization that deals in instances of academic suppression of free speech and/or expression. Much like the ACLU, they have successfully defended those on the far left and far right of the political spectrum — and everything in between — who have been wrongfully persecuted, terminated or silenced by individuals like President Hammon.

In addition to an ever-growing laundry list of misdeeds, Hammon is now accused of “intercept(ing) a letter that the student government president sent to the LCCC Board of Trustees. Hammon allegedly told the trustees to ignore the letter.” There are six different complaints that FIRE has received thus far, the most humorous and downright bizarre being “an administrator allegedly removing a poster depicting John Belushi from the movie ‘Animal House’ because the image did not reflect the college’s values.” (Mitchell)

This keeps getting better and better — or scarier and more bizarre if one is affiliated with LCCC — by the day. If for some reason Bauman, at the very least, isn’t booted off the Board and Hammon somehow remains untouched, FIRE will most undoubtedly make Hammon — and LCCC by proxy — truly a national laughing stock, with the Costa Rica trip the most minor incident in a long list of disgraceful actions. Hopefully the Laramie County voters will prevent this on November 2nd by getting Bauman off the Board and allowing a majority to FINALLY do what should have been done long ago: send Hammon packing. But if not, it’s good fodder for smart-asses like me, plus, my father’s pension is safe — but I think the residents of Cheyenne and Laramie County deserve better than the lampooning that is undoubtedly forthcoming in the national press if Hammon does any more damage.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bruce Curl or those of Curl for LCCC Campaign.

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