Kutztown University Manager Quits and Blows the Whistle on Long-Standing Mistreatment of Workers

"Their approach was belittle, demean, suppress, beat down"

BREAKING [3/31 @ 2:45 pm] : Just moments ago, KU Vice President of Administration and Finance sent an email to the Facilities Team, announcing that Jeff Grimm, Director of Facilities, is retiring. 

Kutztown University’s Campus Grounds Supervisor, Cory Lapp, abruptly resigned his position on March 6th because of his disgust with the hostile work environment in the Facilities department. In an exclusive interview with Raging Chicken Press, Lapp explained that he quit largely because of the managing style of Director of Facilities Business and Campus Services, Kimberly Rhode, and Assistant Director of Campus Services, Will Meeker. Lapp characterized their managerial practices as “unfair treatment of their workers through micro managing, manipulation, deceitfulness, bullying, berating, belittling.”

In a March 10th letter he sent to several members of the Kutztown University administration and a few of his former co-workers, Lapp stated, “I have never in my life…worked in such a hostile working environment and it truly disgusts me how I was treated as well as how some of my crew workers…were treated.”

As a measure of just how bad things were, consider that Lapp began his job as Campus Grounds Supervisor only this past November. Before moving his family to Kutztown, Lapp owned and operated a successful landscaping business in North Carolina. The move back to his native PA meant being closer to family. Taking the position as Campus Grounds Supervisor at KU, “gave me that opportunity, so I moved my wife (a KU alumni) and one-year-old daughter over 500 miles back to Pennsylvania with tremendous optimism.” According to Lapp, it only took one day for him to feel the “tremendous tension within the department.”

In his letter, Lapp points to a systemic pattern of harassment by the Director of Facilities Business and Campus Services, Kim Rhode, and Assistant Director of Campus Services, Will Meeker. Lapp says Rhode and Meeker had a “militant managing style.” For example, Lapp claims that Will Meeker had certain workers he did not like and he “encouraged me to…make their jobs as difficult as possible.” According to Lapp, Meeker even went as far as as saying that he wouldn’t care if Lapp made one worker in particular “cut grass with scissors all day.” Lapp pointed to a case this past winter when Rhode and Meeker made one worker snowblow for 14 hours straight. Lapp said he an other workers said, “c’mon that’s not fair. Let me jump in and take the role for a little bit.” They were not allowed to help out.

“When it was my turn to be in charge snow removal,”  Lapp told me, “there wasn’t anyone on snoblowers. Why? Because it’s ineffective when you have big machines. I put a guy on one of those machines, not a snowblower.” According to Lapp, the worker in question was forced to snowblow for 14 hours straight for one reason only: “Because they didn’t like him.” (Raging Chicken Press is in contact with that worker  who has since been fired and is now fighting his dismissal).

“Their approach was belittle, demean, suppress, beat down,” as Lapp put it. “That’s the way they did it. Micro manage. Trust no one. That’s the approach within Facilities management.”

I reached out to Kutztown University’s Director of University Relations, Matt Santos, concerning Cory Lapp’s resignation and the claims he and other workers are making about long-standing mistreatment. Santos responded in an email saying,

Members of the campus community should be assured that the university has processes in place to review any allegations, and that they are taken very seriously.  However, it is our policy not to comment on personnel-related matters in a public venue. For this reason, neither the University nor its managers will respond to the specific assertions contained in this article.

Long-Standing Pattern of Abuse

The pattern of mistreatment that Lapp is exposing has been on-going for quite some time. I have worked at Kutztown University since 2002 and am fairly well-known on campus for my union work and rabble-rousing. Over that time, especially the past 5-6 years, many campus workers have told me some pretty remarkable stories of harassment and abuse. However, many of those same workers were unwilling to go on the record with their concerns because they feared retaliation from management. However, Cory Lapp’s willingness to go public and put his disgust with management’s behavior in writing has led some to follow his lead and step forward.

One worker who agreed to an interview remained reluctant to have her name used in this story. She told us that she had been an active member of her union, AFSCME, and often became a sounding board for workers who were experiencing mistreatment first hand:

People stopped in my office all the time to tell me about the crap that was going on over there. It’s so depressing that it can continue and you wonder how no one on the third floor of Stratton {that is, the offices of top level university administrators} would do anything. How can they continue to let it go on? It’s no secret. It’s no secret across campus about what happens in that department.

According to this AFSCME worker, the hostile work environment in the Facilities department went to the very top of that department, the Assistant Vice President for Facilities, Jeff Grimm. “It starts with Grimm,”she told me. Grimm presented himself as a vulgar, intimidating person who seemed to pride himself on ruling the department as the king of his own little fiefdom.

I asked her for specific examples and she told me about one staff meeting that seemed to encapsulate Grimm’s reign.

We used to have staff meetings with everybody, the whole Facilities department, all of Project Services. There would be Jeff, just sitting at the table swearing about this, swearing about that. Someone finally said, ‘You know what, Terry {Terry Brown, Director of Facilities Project Services}, I don’t appreciate that. I don’t enjoy sitting here, listening to him…you know, F this and F that’.

As if to show everyone what he thought of people’s concerns about his foul mouth, Grimm began their next meeting by putting a big jar on the table in front of him and said,

“OK, so here’s the swear jar. I’m going to start off the meeting by putting my credit card in there, so let’s get started with the meeting.” So, how serious was that? Not serious at all.

But that was mild compared to other, more direct forms of intimidation. After being a part-time worker in Facilities for a time, my source said she decided to go talk with Jeff about making her position full-time, since there had been a steady increase in the amount of work in her department. What happened next is something out of a bad movie:

So, I went to his office. It was just he and I. He took off his shoes and put his feet up on his desk pointed right at me. He had two different color socks on.  He goes, “Oh, I guess I’ll have to go home now and beat my wife.” What was he trying to do? What would you say his approach to that was? It was to put me in my place. It’s just this kind of abuse that happens all the time. Things like that. For the person, individually, that’s demoralizing and that’s what they like. They’re cold.

I asked her if these instances were reported to the administration. She said that workers have consistently complained to their supervisors, to the Social Equity Office, and to Human Resources, but the lack of action on the part of the administration has left people feeling that nothing will be done. When workers and members of the union, AFSCME, complained about Grimm, they were often brushed off and told, “that’s just Grimmy,” she explained.

She told me of one of the more recent “atrocities” (her word) that took place among the third shift custodians.

I know some of the people on the third shift. They were just complaining and complaining. It was just horrible and it went on for a long time. It had to do with their supervisor. It was just terrible to hear about how he treated them {the custodians on third shift}. I think it reached a climax when he either fondled someone’s breast or he stroked her breast. This one custodian was so upset that she actually called public safety. This is all going on on third shift. Nobody around to watch and there is no supervision and there is no protection for them.

This was not an isolated incident, she told me.

The stories were coming out that this supervisor was not only acting inappropriately with women, but also with some of the guys who were there. One of the custodians, his exact words were, “I was ridden more than Seattle Slew.” He was down, working on the floor or something, and the supervisor came up and got on him. Sat on his back and I don’t know what was said specifically, but this was persisting, this was going on.

She said that she helped organize a meeting with the administration that included representative from her union’s district council in order to bring to light the on-going harassment. At the meeting, administrators told workers that there had been an investigation and they found no serious problems.

In the end, they {the workers} were told there was no merit to their accusations. The woman who was sitting at the table, who had the direct incident with the supervisor, burst into tears and she’s yelling “of course it happened! Do you think I’m making this up? This is ridiculous!” They were very upset.

After the meeting, “an investigation was conducted in a better manner,” probably because of pressure from their union representative she said. Eventually, there was some administrative action. The supervisor was demoted, but he was kept on third shift, but no longer a supervisor. “How does that person still have a job?,” she asked. She said that that particular supervisor “felt he didn’t have any enemies. He felt he could go right to the top and have people there to protect him. He felt in his heart that nobody could touch him, so that’s why he was allowed to do all this.” The supervisor’s friendship with some top-level administrators seemed to protect him, she suggested.

“It seems to me,” she said pointedly, “that they prefer the kind of supervisor that is going to be hated by people. And I think that Cory explained that very well in his letter.”

An Ideological Agenda? 

All the workers I spoke with – both on and off the record – felt that Kutztown’s Facilities management team brought their ideological agendas to the workplace. As Cory Lapp put it in our conversation,

The reality was this: Will Meeker and Kim Rhode and Brett Fulton whom I was replacing, brought their personal agendas to the workplace. They demanded that their conservative, Republican, right-wing, management style was the way. That was their approach and it didn’t work. It doesn’t work. Hence all the grievances…it didn’t work. That was the reality. They all had the same, common theology and they brought it to the workplace. Shame on you for doing that! Shame on you! If you believe all that, that’s fine. But don’t bring your personal values to the workplace and hate unions.

Lapp said that it was part of the campus lore that the Facilities department was deeply anti-union.

They fought the unions for years from what I’ve understood. I only know what I saw and the stories. I didn’t focus on the stories because I wasn’t part of the stories. But, if 100 people have the same story, you know something happened there.

One of the most common stories I was told was that Kim Rhode and Will Meeker were known for blaring Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck in their work trucks as they drove around campus.

Bob Fenstemacher, a recently retired member of the KU grounds crew, said much of the same.

You used to get in their vehicle during the winter – they’d pick you up during a snow storm – and they’d have Rush Limbaugh or that Glenn Beck guy on. I don’t care for either of them. They’d make no bones about letting you know that their politics are right-wing. There was one time they were saying something about ‘entitlement’ – about how all these workers think they are entitled to a job.

The problem Lapp faced was that he was not willing to tow the right-wing, anti-worker line that was standard in the Facilities department. Lapp explained why he refused to go along:

The problem these people {Kim Rhode and Will Meeker} didn’t understand was that if you treat people like idiots you’re going to get that in return. My experience was completely opposite because I treated workers normally they hit a home run for me. They went above and beyond because they wanted me to stay; so, they were the best they could be.

My approach was that I’m only as strong as the crew I manage. With your effort, you’re going to make me shine. If you half-ass it, you’re going to make me look weak. So I’ll help you, you help me. And they knocked it out of the park. I brought back humanity and humility to the workplace.

In his resignation letter, Lapp recalled a meeting with Rhode, Meeker, and the entire grounds crew at which even Meeker stated that “this is the best I have seen this crew work together in years.”

But evidence be damned. According to virtually every worker I’ve spoken to about Cory Lapp’s resignation, Lapp had a target on him even before his first day of work.

As Bob Fenstemacher explained, Lapp’s predecessor, Brett Fulton, was completely on board with Rhode and Meeker’s management style.

Brett was a puppet and Will and Brett were constantly together. Will gave Brett all kinds of training. When Cory started, they threw him to the wolves pretty much early on.

Fenstemacher said that Lapp’s hiring was a bit of a break from the past in that members of the grounds crew were allowed to participate in the hiring process for the first time. Fenstemacher said that he believed that the changes were part of suggestions that a “team building” consultant made. The consultant was hired by the university in an attempt to ease tensions in the Facilities department. Even in the hiring process, tension was evident.

They had a participative process. They allowed some of the people on our crew – anybody could have volunteered – to help select the next Grounds Supervisor. So, they were able to sit in and interview and ask questions of three candidates. Then they sat together and told their thoughts and they came up with Cory. Kim made it clear that she didn’t like Cory, but all the rank-and-file were high on Cory because they saw him as a team player. They liked his attitude and personality and didn’t like the other two candidates as much. They ranked Cory higher and I think Will {Meeker} even had Cory ranked higher. Well, they selected Cory. Kim said something like, “I can’t take that guy, he’s way too bubbly for me.” And, sure enough, shortly after he was hired, Will went on vacation. When he came back, he distanced himself from Cory. He was more or less thrown to the wolves. He didn’t get anywhere near the training that Brett Fulton got.

Lapp said he felt the tension right from the get go as Rhode laid into him on a couple of occasions.

I really didn’t know who I was talking to at that point. I mean, I was just very honest and forward with what I said. I didn’t know that she didn’t really care for that approach. I didn’t know what I was talking to. I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I was just being me.

On the Decision to Come Forward and Break the Silence

Lapp said he was incredibly excited about his new job at Kutztown and had been planning on writing the next chapter of his life not far from where he grew up.

I was pumped. I worked hard for 20 years to put myself in this great position. You know, I’m from the area, I was coming back to be close to family and friends. It was really wonderful.

I went to Brandywine Heights. I grew up near Bear Creek. I spent from 13 to age 20 right there. This is home for me. I went to KU in 96 and 97. I’m part Golden Bear.  I’ll be honest, it’s a part of who I am. I played rugby for the university under Doc Jones. He’s my brother’s father-in-law, so Doc and I, we’re close.

But of course, his story took a very abrupt and unexpected plot twist. “When I learned the true colors of the administration, I knew my days were numbered,” he told me. “But, being who I am I still brought by A game to work everyday. Yeah, it was a bum deal what I got.”

So, after such disappointment, why did he decide to come forward? With some sadness in his voice, he said:

I’m really just another statistic. I really am. It’s been going on for so long, unfortunately. And it pisses me off saying that because I don’t feel like I’m just another statistic. But, unfortunately, I kind of am. That’s why I feel passionate about at least saying my peace.

 

But true to the optimism and passion he exhibited during our entire conversation, Lapp refused to simply walk away, forgetting about his crew.

Maybe this is my role, to say what I have to say in the way that I said it. If that’s my role, then that was my role and I accept that. If it can change the culture to make it right, that means more to me than the difficult 16 weeks at that place.

And that may just be his role. The silence seems to be breaking across campus as more workers have contacted me wanting to tell their stories – more stories that I can include in this one article. In the coming days, Raging Chicken Press will bring more of their stories to light in the hope of putting an end in to a culture of intimidation and abuse.

There is one hopeful, if ironic note. Tomorrow, Kutzown University’s Human Resources deparment is holding two 90 minutes seminar entitled, “Creating a Positive Work Environment.” The sessions will be held in the H.R. Training Room in the Kemp Building on campus. The first session will run from 10:30 – 12:00; the second, from 1:00 – 2:30pm. According an email sent to faculty and staff, the seminars will focus on:

  • Building Trust
  • Positive Communication
  • Setting Expectations and Needs
  • Creative Ideas for Recognition and Rewards
  • Building Team Work
  • Finding Meaning in Your Work
  • Accepting Responsibility
  • Humor in the Workplace

Perhaps the last bullet point is the reason that these seminars are being held on April Fool’s Day. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Either way, it sounds to me that more and more workers are coming forward with the conviction that “we won’t be fooled again.”

We will continue to follow this story.

 

 

 

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