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Public Safety chief's resignation: ETSU cites 'toxic work environment' in records

Brandon Paykamian • Sep 18, 2019 at 6:30 PM

Following questions about East Tennessee State University Public Safety Chief Nicole Collins’ recent resignation, campus officials pointed to complaints about a “toxic work environment” under Collins’ leadership. 

On Tuesday, members of ETSU’s Student Government Association wanted more answers from President Brian Noland about Collins’ resignation. They wanted to know what Collins’ meant when she cited a “cultural imbalance in the department” in a short resignation letter released to the public on Aug. 22.

Collins was hired to replace former Department of Public Safety Chief Jack Cotrel after his retirement July 1, 2018. She was the first black female chief among Northeast Tennessee law enforcement agencies.

Noland said the department went from being operated in a “laissez-faire” manner under Cotrel to a stricter order under Collins, who had a military background before working at ETSU. 

"That culture shift was difficult. That culture shift really was a matter of, I think, some tension within the department over the course of the year, and as we went through some things in the year, there were a fair number of reports coming out of the department of a pretty militant and difficult leadership style,” Noland said to the SGA Tuesday, adding that about “half of the force was threatening to resign” after the first few months under Collins’ leadership.

“There were questions around mismanagement of funds, questions around bullying, questions around intimidation, questions around a leadership style within the department,” Noland added.

According to university records obtained by the Press on Wednesday, five members of the department reached out to Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Ross and ETSU Human Resources to “express concerns relative to bullying and abuse of power” by Collins.

Concerns included behavior “perceived as bullying” and a “my way or the highway” mentality that left others feeling as if they couldn’t disagree with Collins without reprisals or retaliation. Procedural concerns included a tendency to “arrest then investigate,” according to the records.

In regard to mismanagement of funds mentioned by Noland, a March 22 memo from Assistant Director of Student Affairs Advancement Ben Daugherty to Ross cited “a concern with respect to the financial position in which Public Safety finds itself.”

“With both salary and operational deficits to make up, as well as intra-university revenues yet to be invoiced, public safety approaches the year-end in an undesirable position,” the memo read. “During our discussion, leadership was unable to answer basic budgetary questions and subsequently acknowledged that nobody internal to the department was regularly managing their budgetary situation.” 

In a lengthy August email to Noland, Ross and ETSU Human Relations, Collins said she had “sincere gratitude to” campus leadership, but felt criticisms against her were inaccurate and accusations of bullying had “no valid basis.” 

“Although I am deeply saddened by the defamation of my character, I am crushed to think of the disappointment you have in your choice of selecting me for the position of Chief of Police for ETSU DPS,” her email read. 

By “about three weeks prior to the start of the (fall) semester,” Noland said, two-thirds of the police force was “going to quit and walk out.” Many even expressed a desire to take demotions and pay cuts to leave the department, according to university records and Noland. 

“If two-thirds of the police force walks out and goes to the county, it’s going to be difficult if not impossible for us to replace that ...” he said. 

In the weeks since Collins’ resignation was announced, Noland said the university had received multiple Freedom of Information Act requests from the Press for “for every document that we have pertaining to Chief Collins,” but was reluctant to release the details surrounding Collins’ resignation.

“For as long as we possibly can, we’ve attempted to withhold — that’s not the right way of phrasing it — but I’ve not been in a hurry to provide that information to the Press, and I’m going to explain why,” he told the SGA Tuesday, emphasizing that the “cultural imbalance is not a racial imbalance.”

The Johnson City Press filed an open records request for documents and emails related to Collins’ communication with supervisors on Aug. 22 and narrowed the request on Aug. 26 to include documents regarding job performance, financial issues, staffing, personnel actions and administrative concerns.

Tennessee law requires a records custodian or the custodian’s designee to promptly make requested records available for inspection. If the records can not be made promptly available within seven business days, the custodian must do one or more of the following: provide access to the record; deny in writing access to the record with a legal basis for denial; or indicate in writing additional time necessary to produce the record.

ETSU’s University Relations office had indicated in a Sept. 4 email that additional time would be required to comply with the Press’ records request.

“As the open records custodian for ETSU, I can confirm that Dr. Noland responded in a timely fashion with this specific records request. He contacted me to verify the scope of the request, and he followed up again to ensure that I had received the documents,” ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said. 

Noland said Tuesday that he hopes the details of Collins’ resignation doesn’t hurt her future employment prospects. 

“If all this gets out in press, chief’s never going to get another job because in writing — in catalog — we have bullying, intimidation; we have mismanagement of $40,000 worth of university funds; we have back bills from Johnson City police that didn’t get paid. But I don’t want that to come out. That was the cultural imbalance,” Noland said. 

“Now did she push hard because she was the first African-American female? Yes. Were there things that we could’ve done to ensure that she was successful? Answer’s probably yes,” he continued. “We wanted her to be successful. It just didn’t work.”

Since Collins tendered her resignation effective Nov. 30, ETSU Capt. Mark Tipton has assumed oversight of day-to-day operations. Noland said the university plans to keep Tipton in this role for now, but officials are considering searching for a new chief.

“We will most likely launch a search, but I can’t tell you when because I want to wait for the dust to settle a little bit before we go back out and travel down the road we traveled down a year and a half ago,” Noland said.

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