A Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) employee sent out a mass email to the University Senate and the State University Organization of Administrative Faculty (SUOAF) on Wednesday detailing alleged abuse by University President Dr. Zulma Toro.
Lisa Marie Bigelow, who has been employed by the university for over 35 years and is currently serving as the Director of Institutional Advancement, claims that she was the main target of two separate “tirades” by President Toro during committee meetings in the Spring of 2019. Additionally, Bigelow outlined her attempts to resolve the matter through proper university channels, but nothing was done.
According to a whistle-blower complaint submitted to the Auditor of Public Accounts by Bigelow in September 2019, during a meeting between the President’s Executive Committee (ExComm) and the Integrated Planning Council (IPC) in late March of 2019 to discuss the University Planning and Budget Committee’s (UPBC) budget recommendations for the 2020 fiscal year President Toro began berating Bigelow, who was serving as the representative for the SUOAF on the UPBC.
CII’s previous attempts to obtain the report by the APA were unsuccessful as whistleblower complaints are exempt from Freedom of Information Act disclosure under the Connecticut General Statues. The Board of Regents also denied having the report. The University also did not provide the report.
In an email to the Senate Steering Committee following the meeting, Mark Jackson, a professor of Biology at CCSU who was serving as the Faculty Senate representative in the IPC, described President Toro’s outburst as a “10-15 minute tirade.”
“She was literally screaming about how the UPBC final report was insulting to her and the ExConn,” Jackson wrote. “She went on and on about perceived insults in many different sections. There were accusations of racism and sexism beyond the motivations for the report.”
Despite President Toro’s behavior, Jackson noted that Bigelow and her fellow representative of the UPBC, Joseph Farhat, “did an excellent job explaining why each section said what it said” and “mentioned that the intent of the report was to give advice, and some of that advice was negative.”
According to both Bigelow and Jackson’s account of the events, after President Toro’s tirade, the meeting continued as scheduled until its conclusion three hours later, although in a somber tone and atmosphere. Following the meeting, Farhat, Jackson and Bigelow remained in the room after everyone else had left to discuss and process what had just occurred.
“Jackson reached out and gestured to examine my left hand,” Bigelow wrote in her whistleblower complaint. “I asked him what he was doing and he responded ‘I am checking to see if your knuckles are bleeding after the beating you just took.’ This demonstrated how clear it was to people in the room that I was the target of the tirade.”
Bigelow reported leaving campus that day “completely traumatized” by President Toro’s behavior. However, five days later, Bigelow would be in President Toro’s crosshairs once again. During a regularly scheduled IPC meeting on April 3rd, 2019, President Toro went off on a longer, more intense tirade than the last. Jackson estimated in his email to the Senate Steering Committee that President Toro’s “tirade” lasted about 15 to 20 minutes and her accusations against the UPBC escalated.
“This time there were accusations that the UPBC committee had conducted itself in an unethical and self-serving manner, and as a consequence, she could not trust any of the advice given by the UPBC,” Jackson wrote. “She said several times that she could not let this go because multiple people, not from the UPBC, had been coming to her office with derogatory information about the conduct of the UPBC. But she will not name who those people are, or how they would know what the motivation behind the UPBC report was.”
While Jackson, Farhat and Bigelow tried to defend their point of view and argue in favor of the UPBC, the meeting shifted into a more authoritarian tone. According to Jackson, subsequent votes were taken as a unanimous yes without allowing Farhat, Bigelow and himself the opportunity to respond or giving them the chance to abstain.
Again, even more so than the last tirade, Bigelow was the main target of President Toro’s ire. While President Toro did not call her out by name, she did reference the positions Bigelow held at the time, according to the whistleblower complaint.
After the April 3rd meeting, Bigelow, feeling “frightened, humiliated and belittled,” submitted her resignation as the chair and a member of the UPBC.
“I had to protect myself from further bullying and abusive behavior by taking an action (resignation from the UPBC) that would ensure my emotional well-being and prevent a third (or subsequent) episode of her yelling and screaming at me in front of an audience at future IPC or Strategic Planning Steering Committee (SPSC) meetings, the two other shared governance bodies on which I sit as a derivative of my UPBC membership,” Bigelow wrote in her complaint.
Following the second alleged outburst, Jackson met with President Toro privately in an attempt to ascertain the source of her hostility towards the UPBC, however, it was to no avail.
“I will [not] discuss [the] details of the conversation because it was done in confidence,” Jackson wrote in the email to the Senate Steering Committee. “But I will say that [no] resolution was obvious, nor did I come away with any greater understanding of the source of the problem.”
Further email correspondence between President Toro and Jackson showed no signs of a resolution between the two parties.
“[Jackson and the UPBC] can continue the tradition of our institution which has been for faculty and administration not to have a productive and collegial working relationship,” President Toro said in an email to Jackson. “I will continue to work with those who respect me and share my goals for the university.”
For her part, Bigelow attempted to resolve the issue by reporting President Toro’s behavior to the State Auditor of Public Accounts (APA) through her whistleblower complaint, according to her mass email. However, while Bigelow was told that the APA investigation did yield findings against President Toro and that they were sent to the System Office and the Board of Regents, the report was “swept under the carpet, deemed ‘too minor’ to be of their concern,” according to Bigelow’s email.
Bigelow, “traumatized” by President Toro’s alleged behavior, took a three-month leave of absence under Connecticut’s Familiy and Medical Leave Act shortly after the events at the two meetings to seek treatment and recover from the abuse, according to her email.
However, upon return from her leave of absence, Bigelow says she was met with more bullying and intimidation. According to her email, Bigelow says she was invited to meet with the University’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Anna Suski-Lenczewski. At that meeting, Bigelow was allegedly told that the University had made a “business decision” to relieve her of all of her professional responsibilities.
“It was nearly one full year before I was asked to do any University work again,” Bigelow said in her email. “During that period, I came to campus every day to sit idle, counting the ceiling tiles in my office, feeling guilty I was cashing a paycheck. To use current terminology, I was ‘quietly fired.’ The goal was clearly to push me to resign or retire, but I persevered. And the experience made me stronger.”
Additionally, according to Bigelow, she was told to immediately vacate her office in Davidson Hall and that her new office was across campus at East Hall, but her assigned parking spot was to remain in the Davidson lot.
As Bigelow points out in her whistleblower complaint, Toro’s alleged behavior at the meetings seems to be in direct violation of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) System Code of Conduct for Regents and Employees. The alleged behavior would specifically violate the sections on “respect for persons”, “bullying and harassment”, “shared governance” and “ethical standards and integrity”, to name a few.
A spokesperson for the University, Janice Palmer, said in an email, ” the allegations of abuse or misconduct are untrue and have already been investigated.”