UW-Eau Claire administrator said to leave turmoil in his wake

Albert Colom’s past colleagues draw parallels, further outline pattern of abuse

Madeline Fuerstenberg

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November 2, 2020
Clara Neupert

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Bridget Kelley

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Photo by Alee Erickson

Rodd Freitag, interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, said Chancellor James C. Schmidt will be meeting with UW System administration before he addresses the campus community about future plans for instruction after the holiday break.

This is an ongoing story. Read previous coverage here, here and here.

Courage and power. Ultimately, that’s what Heather Pearson said she gained from a phone conversation in mid-December 2018. 

The call was with John Yancey. He’d been the assistant vice president for enrollment services at the University of North Florida, where Albert Colom worked before becoming vice chancellor of enrollment services at UW-Eau Claire. A colleague who had a friend at UNF gave Pearson his phone number. 

“Consistently, (Colom) created what can only be called a hostile work environment and good people made difficult choices in order to survive,” Yancey wrote to Pearson later in an email.    

Pearson already knew his story, she said, because what happened at UNF was happening at UW-Eau Claire. 

An ongoing Spectator investigation highlights a pattern in Colom’s behavior. Current and former UNF and Oklahoma State University employees say Colom fires or forces people out in order to rebuild his department with staff loyal to him. And he is successful at gaining support from those who hire him.

After she got the first email from Yancey, Pearson gathered the other women from the admissions office who’d witnessed Colom’s behavior and shared what she’d learned. 

“I think there was power in that understanding,” Pearson said of the stories that validated her experience. 

Over the next few weeks, they received three more anonymous statements that Yancey forwarded from former and current UNF employees. The women gained more courage with each story they read. 

“There’s that moment when you realize that what you’ve been witnessing at your own university isn’t something that you’re overreacting to; it isn’t something that you’re reading in to — it’s a very real experience,” Pearson said. 

Although the Spectator has copies of the three anonymous statements, they are not being published because reporters cannot verify the authors. 

University of North Florida

John Yancey met Colom in 1998. At first, the two got along. 

“I met Albert when he was the director of admissions of (Florida Atlantic University),” Yancey said in an interview last week, “and I have to tell you that initially I liked Albert a lot. I thought he was funny. I thought he was kind of charismatic and flippant in a way, at that point and time, I thought a harmless way. And he was just someone who was fun to be around and hang with.” 

Yancey said he was part of the hiring process when Colom applied to be the associate vice president for enrollment services at UNF in 2013. Midway through the process, many administrators, including John Delaney, the president of the university, received an anonymous email. Yancey said it warned them about Colom, calling him a “horrible man” and to “watch out.” Delaney chose to ignore the email because it was anonymous, Yancey said. Colom started his job at UNF in the summer of 2014. 

Yancey’s phone buzzed in his pocket. It was Sept. 12, 2014, and he was on stage presenting on behalf of UNF at an event. He ignored the call, finished his presentation and answered audienced questions. Then Yancey stepped outside of the building to check his phone.

He had a missed call from Colom. Yancey dialed his cell. 

“Hey, what’s going on?” Yancey asked Colom. 

Colom wanted to fire the university registrar, the director of enrollment services technology and the assistant director of enrollment services, marketing and publications. Yancey asked why. They were “all against him,” Colom responded.

They met later that day to discuss Colom’s plan. The meeting took several hours. Yancey said he was just trying to understand Colom’s reasoning. Colom was frustrated because higher ups told him he couldn’t fire the registrar or the director of enrollment services technology. But, he could fire the assistant director of enrollment services, marketing and publications.

The assistant director was a young, single mother, Yancey said. She wasn’t the best hire, he admitted, but she was new and coachable. Colom didn’t care. 

“I’m not investing anything in her,” Yancey recalled Colom saying. “She’s gone tomorrow.”

Listen to Yancey describe what happened next.

“He said, um, he said John, how many people have you fired? I said Albert, I’ve been in this business here at UNF for 16 years now, and I’ve probably fired 10 to 11 people. I said that every time I fired a person, I lost sleep the night before because I knew that, even though firing them was the right decision from a business standpoint, there was a human cost to that decision. And these people had mortgages and families and bills and car payments and food to put on the table and the action I was going to take that next day was going to negatively impact that. And from a human standpoint, I lost sleep every time.

And and I’ll never forget it: He looked at me — and I hope you’ll please excuse my language — he looked at me and said: ‘John that’s why you’re a p – – – – and you’ll never be anything in this business.’”

The next day, Yancey said, Colom fired the assistant and told her she had to clear out her desk and leave campus immediately. Colom told the HR rep to help her pick up her things and walk her to her car.

A cake waited at her desk, Yancey said. It was her birthday. 

This is not how UNF employees are usually fired, Yancey said. Only in extreme circumstances are people escorted from campus immediately, and this was not a situation that warranted that approach, he added.

“He was sending a message to everybody else,” Yancey said. “Get her a box, clean her desk, walk her out in front of everybody in her office — everybody knows — down the stairs and to her car. This was not, again, as much as what he did, you know as much as it was ‘Let me make a show. Let me show you I’m the big dog in the yard. And if you don’t, you know, fall in line: this is you next.’”

At this point, Yancey said, he was beginning to get fed up, but he stayed as long as he could in his position. He was constantly arguing with Colom, who wanted him fired. 

Yancey went to UNF President Delaney with staff testimonies and laid out the situation. Delaney said he was giving Colom some room to shape the department. Yancey told Delaney he wanted to tender his resignation, but Delaney resisted. Yancey took a different position within the university. 

Word of Colom’s behavior followed Yancey to his new role. He heard about Colom’s “vindictive bullying” from coworkers. The stories started to take an emotional toll on Yancey, who felt he’d deserted his colleagues. 

Years later, Yancey now says he was naive for trusting the hiring process that brought Colom to UNF. After he spoke to Pearson on the phone in January 2019, he typed up what he knew about Colom. 

“I am writing this to you because I fear the same thing will happen or (likely) is already happening at UWEC,” Yancey said in his email. “If he is already targeting you, he views you as a threat.” 

Bowling Green State University

Colom worked at Bowling Green State University from January 2009 to June 2014. 

The Spectator called current and former members of the enrollment management staff and admissions staff at BGSU several times. At the time of publication, no one from BGSU had agreed to speak on the record.

A Spectator reporter reached Janice Varney-McKnight, senior administrative assistant for enrollment management, who declined to comment and hung up when the reporter asked why.

Varney-McKnight was Colom’s administrative assistant when he was at BGSU. She has been in her position at BGSU since 1996. 

Oklahoma State University

When Colom accepted the position of vice president for enrollment management at Oklahoma State University in January of 2006, it wasn’t long before he started making changes.

“One of the first things he did was to tell the director of admissions he needed to find a new job,” Joan Payne, then an associate registrar at Oklahoma State, wrote in a statement she gave to the Spectator on March 13, 2019. “Paul Carney was the director of admission at the time. He was told to leave within the first month of Colom arriving at OSU.” 

Payne originally contacted the Spectator in March 2019 shortly after five members of the UW-Eau Claire Admissions staff quit in tandem and allegations against Colom were first beginning to surface. Reporters contacted Payne again in mid-February 2020 for updates. 

Payne worked in the registrar’s office at Oklahoma State for over 24 years before resigning in June of 2006 because of Colom’s toxic treatment. She said she always thought she would retire from that position.

As Colom’s department emptied, he acted to rebuild with lieutenants from his previous institution, Florida Atlantic University, Payne said. One, Donna Mitchell, joined him in admissions shortly after his arrival. A second co-worker, Karen Lucas, has worked at the same university as Colom on three occasions.

Lucas was immediately named the director of Oklahoma State admissions following Carney’s departure. 

Another Oklahoma State employee of 30 years, Payne recounted, was removed from her administrative position and assigned to work at a counter as “basically a clerk.” Colom told her it would be her new job to be the “pretty lady at the counter” and smile, Payne wrote. 

“The stress of this took a toll on her,” Payne said. “She was on sick leave for a year and then came back and retired. She could not work under those conditions.”

Payne said Colom made quick work of restructuring the registrars and admissions offices. She said he had a “total disregard” for university and state regent policies.

Linda Owens, then the associate director of admissions at Oklahoma State, said Colom often questioned the rules and policies set by Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. 

“After continually trying to explain processes in Admissions, which were based on Regents policy,” Owens wrote in a written statement provided to the Spectator, “he basically asked me why we ran so scared of the Regents and that we were going to have to learn to ‘bend the rules.’ He told me that we answered to him, not to the Regents.” 

Within Colom’s first few weeks at Oklahoma State, Payne said he gathered all the registrar employees and told them they were not doing their jobs correctly. He said everyone’s job would be changing, then charged Payne with reorganizing and assigning employees to new positions.

After three months of working under Colom, Payne knew she could not work with him and implement the changes he wanted to make in the registrar’s office. She said he was a bully who created a hostile workplace.

“It began to take a toll on me — healthy, mentally, emotionally,” Payne wrote in her statement. “I could not treat my staff in the manner he wanted.”

Payne left her job in the registrar’s office and took an academic advising position with the College of Arts and Sciences. Leaving her position cost her half of her salary.

Since her departure, Payne said the registrar’s office has still not recovered from Colom’s presence. 

“The people he put in place — registrar, associate registrar and admissions leadership — are not empathetic or concerned about policy and procedure,” Payne wrote. “They are definitely not student oriented. Staff in both offices are not treated as valuable members of the office and feel demeaned.”

Owens, similarly, was “tasked with eliminating experienced, qualified staff” to make Colom’s new organizational plans work. Owens said the pressure to do so drove her to seek medical help as she struggled with sleeping and eating. She likened her emotions at the time to “an elephant sitting on her chest.”

In her statement, Owens said the doctor prescribed her with medication “just to function.” Owens ultimately stepped down from her position in admissions and took a job as an academic counselor. She took a $15,000 decrease in salary. Owens stayed in that position for nine years before retiring in 2015.

According to Owens, Colom was “removed from his job” by the university president, V. Burns Hargis, in 2009. The Spectator called and emailed Hargis to request an interview. He declined to comment.

UW-Eau Claire

UW-Shared Services’ investigation into allegations against Colom began this week. 

In a statement released Wednesday, Chancellor James Schmidt said he can’t comment on personnel matters. He sent the email to staff, faculty and news media after more than a week of refusing to speak publicly about the matter. Schmidt encouraged the campus community to be patient with the investigation. He urged staff to cooperate fully with the investigation without fear of retribution.

In his two media statements since allegations about Colom became public on Feb. 13, Schmidt has referred to Angela Swenson-Holzinger’s complaint as the “first official complaint.” 

This contrasts with Heather Kretz’s two reported meetings, once in 2018 and again on Jan. 4, 2019, when she placed a folder on Chancellor James Schmidt’s desk. Inside were the four stories from UNF. Kretz said Schmidt told her he wouldn’t read them. Much like UNF president Delany told Yancey he wanted to give Colom “room to shape the department,” UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Schmidt said he “needed to stand by his person.” Kretz resigned from her position as director of admissions the next week. 

Just over a year since leaving UW-Eau Claire, Pearson said she hopes her voice will prevent Colom from bullying employees in the future. 

“To be honest, it gave us a lot of courage, just reading those statements,” Pearson said, “to know that we had to go forward and try to prevent this from happening at UW-Eau Claire, but even more so, to try to prevent this from happening to other people in the future.” 

This is an ongoing story.