By Vivian Luu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Snug budgets and picky politics weren’t the only factors that ousted Renton Technical College (RTC) President Donald Bressler. Claims state that matters such as race and diversity played a central role in sending him out the door. The college’s Board of Trustees voted 3 to 1 in dismissing Bressler on Aug. 11.
Trustee Francisco Irigon issued the motion, claiming the president was not promoting diversity in his leadership team. Trustees Ronnie Behnke and Ira Sengupta agreed with him. Trustee Rich Zwicker did not. Carol Werner, the college’s vice president, is temporarily filling Bressler’s position.
This situation began when Werner announced she would be retiring from her position as vice president of the college in October. Bressler then appointed Melinda Merrell, the college’s director of financial services, as Werner’s replacement.
However, the position was not opened up for hiring. Irigon said Bressler’s promotion of Merrell was another addition to the president’s all-white executive cabinet.
“In his cabinet, there is no diversity, and it was going to be perpetuated if he wasn’t going to open up these positions,” Irigon, a Filipino American, said. “We have an all-white administration, though much of the student population is made up of minorities.”
Alan Sugiyama is the founder and director of the Center for Career Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that boosts career training development.
Sugiyama said Bressler’s decision was a from of institutionalized racism.
“It shows [that] racism, here, is alive and well,” Sugiyama said. “It is ingrained … [the RTC administration] perpetuates the hiring of people who look like them, act like them. If you’re not going to open up positions, how do minorities apply? There’s no diversity at all.”
Bressler could not be reached for comment by publication time.
Admittedly, Merrell was a suitable candidate for the vice president position at RTC. She was the top financial officer at the college. At a Board of Trustees meeting, Bressler said Merrell has been “groomed” to fill the vice president position in October, when Werner said she would retire.
“However, the absence of minorities in the RTC administration shows that current leaders at the college haven’t changed with the times,” Irigon said.
“The message it sends is, ‘Yeah, students of color can come to our school, but we’re not going to hire anyone at the administrative level because this is our college’.”
Local blogs and newspapers have been peppered with backlash aimed at the three trustees who voted to dismiss Bressler.
“Ignoring all the passionate and legitimate comments provided by members of the community and elected officials, these three board members, appearing to act on ego and personal agendas, fired Dr. Bressler even though they fully understood that their decision would hurt the college, the foundation, and ultimately the students it serves,” wrote Randy Corman, a Renton city council member. “It’s a travesty when three detached individuals can cause this much harm to such a successful institution like RTC, which has a proven track record of improving the lives of so many people.”
Criticism was mostly aimed at Irigon, who spearheaded Bressler’s dismissal.
The trustee buzz led a Renton local known as “Renton Ben” to investigate Irigon’s home address in Newcastle. It was later determined that Irigon did not live in the College District 27 Boundary that includes RTC, making him ineligible to be a trustee for the college.
Irigon’s residence was not verified by the Attorney General of Washington office when then-Governor Gary Locke appointed Irigon to his trustee position in 2002.
Community members have demanded that Irigon repay his trustee stipend of six years, and that his votes be rejected — including the one he made to fire Bressler.
Irigon said the demands were unreasonable.
“The message they were sending to me was, ‘You don’t get rid of a white man. Who do you think you are?’ ” he said.
“That close-minded mentality is frightening,” Sugiyama said. “I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t racist, but it’s clear they’re insensitive.”
Irigon’s votes will remain valid because he served as a trustee “in good faith,” according to a memo from the Attorney General of Washington’s office, sent Wednesday, Aug. 19.
The lone trustee who opposed firing Bressler was Rich Zwicker. He resigned from his position after casting his lone vote at the special Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday. As he left the meeting, the two-time RTC graduate received an ovation from attendees.
However, Zwicker rescinded his resignation on Tuesday, Aug. 18. In a letter to RTC Board of Trustees Chairperson Ronnie Behnke, Zwicker said his action was in “protest” to the trustee’s decision to dismiss Bressler for “convenience.”
“At the time … I was upset and surprised,” Zwicker told the Renton Reporter. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Tyler Page is also a RTC Board of Trustees member.
He was not part of the decision to dismiss Bressler. He did not attend the Board of Trustees meeting because he was recovering from injuries sustained in an accident. ♦
Vivian Luu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.