Take the story about how the college in 2003 launched a three-year master's program called "Activism and Social Change." By 2007, the newly trained protesters were ready to help topple the university administration.
"We were the ones who rose up," said Tori Jacobs, a candidate for the activism degree, days after university president Martin Hamilton resigned last month amid a records-keeping scandal. "Our whole class erupted. And we started to organize."
There's also the story about how techniques perfected by modern Nigerian Internet scammers were allegedly employed in the humblest form of fraud: cheating on grades.
"The allegation that I was giving him a degree in exchange for [the bogus promise of] a million bucks that is just degrading to my soul," Hamilton was quoted as saying late last month, after quitting amid accusations he altered a student scam artist's transcript.
And there's the one about the poetry professor at the left-wing college who, inspired by the godfather of modern U.S. conservatism, led a movement for creating more rules.
"Barry Goldwater said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance," said Adam Cornford, a professor in New College's poetics program who also serves as representative of the good-governance Faculty Council, which he helped organize. "Honest communication and shared governance within an organization is also eternal vigilance."
These stories emanate from a crisis at New College, where the Western Association of Colleges and Schools (WASC) has threatened to yank accreditation unless the school makes dramatic changes. Hamilton had helped lead the school along with professors Mildred Henry and Peter Gabel since 1978. WASC detailed allegations that Hamilton had changed the scamming student's grades allegations that he and those close to him deny. Faculty and students demanded that Hamilton leave, and he resigned Aug. 2.
As bizarre as these stories may seem, New College is suffering from a type of disease that's utterly commonplace in the world of complex organizations. It's called Founders' Syndrome, in which charismatic leaders think they can run complex community service organizations by force of personality, rather than via plans, processes, and rules.
"Founders' Syndrome tends to settle out to a core carcass of people who are loyal. They may not even be competent," says management consultant Carter McNamara, author of Founders' Syndrome: How Corporations Suffer and Can Recover. "The organization, with all of its people, tends to count on the charisma and the persuasion of the founder to accomplish growth. Instead, it needs to come from a solid foundation of plans and policies."
Though McNamara was not familiar with the New College case, he's aptly described the current crisis at New College, and a situation familiar elsewhere in this town.
San Francisco, a gathering place for nonprofit organizations and little-pond Napoleons, should keep an eye on New College's Founders' Syndrome case study. We should root for interim president Luis Molina as he seeks to put in place procedures, programs, and institutions that allow the college to function without depending entirely on its leaders.
Then let's shift our gaze to the rest of this city's menagerie of charismatic-leader-run labor unions, charities, churches, and other organizations.
I'm thinking of Larry Mazzola and his family-run plumbers union, Randy Shaw and his self-identified Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and the many other local organizations that falsely conflate organizational strength with control by a forceful leader.
Founders' Syndrome is best understood as a misnomer; it doesn't necessarily refer to the founder of an organization, but rather to an individual or group of individuals who cling too long to organizational control. It could be someone who's helped bring an organization through tough times, or who's simply been in charge forever. The trio running New College for the past 30 years meets all these criteria.
In 1978, New College faced an even worse crisis than in 2007. New College president Les Carr invited near financial collapse after newspapers reported his offer to sell honorary New College Ph.D. degrees for $25,000 each. Carr was pushed out and Hamilton, Gabel, and Henry took over administration of the school as a "collaborative leadership" team.
The passing of the baton was fortunate, to say the least. Carr went on to found a Marin County college whose misleading promises to students led to it being shut down at the request of the state attorney general. Next, Carr founded an Internet-based school accredited in the Republic of Malawi, which was described in the journal International Higher Education as an international "diploma mill."
New College, meanwhile, grew from the handful of students who had initially met in 1972 in the Sausalito living room of accused pederast John Leary to a 1,000-student college in the Mission District that offers bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees. It's now considered a refuge for students with a progressive bent, producing socially conscious activists, lawyers, and other professionals.
"I think we were trying to run it more like a community, in a way, than like a straight-line organization," says Henry, who over the years served as school president and academic vice president, among other posts. "We were very interested in knowing people as people, rather than this impersonal way that sometimes happens in organizations, I guess."
In a typical case of Founders' Syndrome, the needs of an organization change once rough times are over. Success creates a need for ways to share responsibility and authority. But an old guard might feel nobody else is qualified to carry out the organization's mission. The "founder" makes the important decisions. Boards of directors don't plan or guide, but rather approve ideas coming from the core leader or leaders.
In the case of New College, Henry, Hamilton, and Gabel served as a core leadership group, trading the presidency among themselves whenever crisis hit, taking on fundraising duties themselves, and running the school with a proprietary sensibility. Gabel, who served as president for 20 years, and now leads the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics at New College, helped the school with loans and loan guarantees. Gabel's family foundation, meanwhile, allowed the school to use a building in Santa Rosa as an extension campus.
Gabel did not respond to a phone message requesting an interview. Hamilton did not respond to an interview request made to the school's community relations director.
Hamilton took over as president in 2002, a year WASC scrutinized the school and determined that New College did not have stable revenues or financial controls.
In the intervening years, it seemed the school, with an annual $16 million budget, had become too complex for the freewheeling, leader-centric style of the administration established during the 1970s.
WASC earlier this summer placed New College on probation, a step that precedes yanking accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, put strict new controls on public aid destined for New College. According to a WASC investigation report, New College faculty and staff blamed Hamilton for alleged conflicts of interest, lax record keeping, and questionable financial practices. Among Hamilton's misdeeds: He allegedly befriended a self-described international student named Kaushal Niroula who promised a $1 million donation to the college in exchange for inappropriate access to academic programs.
Niroula's relationship with the president allegedly came to resemble a Nigerian-style Internet scam. Hamilton may have violated university policies regarding enrollment and appropriate accounting for class credit in exchange for promises of a large gift from Niroula, according to faculty, students, and the WASC report.
Former president and current New College humanities professor Mildred Henry said Hamilton did not alter the transcripts. Rather, she said, a registrar changed the student's credits and grades after Niroula submitted a note with Hamilton's forged signature.
According to a preliminary draft of a letter prepared by New College in response to the WASC report, the school administration said there was nothing improper about Hamilton's relationship with Niroula, and that allegations of impropriety were the result of a campaign by disgruntled faculty to unfairly undermine the college.
Despite his apparent missteps, I have the sense from interviews with teachers and staff, and with Hamilton himself, that the former president did what he thought was best for the school.
"He's an amazing human being. I have learned more from Martin Hamilton than many other people in my life," said Hamilton's longtime assistant Margaret Conway.
Indeed, longtime leaders of charitable organizations who are reluctant to let go of authority are rarely motivated by avarice or ill will. Rather, they've conflated their own personality and the organization's idealistic goals.
"What happens is, you get, in the case of Martin, he doesn't delegate," said Cornford, the poetry professor who helped found the new Faculty Council. "This is classic Founders' Syndrome behavior. They alternate between micromanagement and neglect. Lower down the chain, there's no accountability because no matter what it says on the organizational chart, you actually have to see the president. He's chronically overworked and, in a sense, ineffective. I think that is what happens in nonprofits, and I've seen it in others that were not colleges, such as community organizations in the Mission. What happens is, people who are founders come to identify the organization with themselves. If people are disloyal to them, they think people are disloyal to the organization."
Molina, the interim president, said he and other board members are working day and night to bring the school up to a standard where it can keep its accreditation.
"There are people who have been there a long time, and they are founders, so to speak. There's been this dysfunction at the school that the new board members want to correct. We want to do it in a way that will save the school, stay true to ideals, and move forward, and set up a new model of governance that will be inclusive of the whole community," Molina said.
In order to build a sustainable organization, in other words, it's necessary, ultimately, to reject the founders' Kool-Aid. Otherwise, according to the examples of New College and another famous San Francisco organization, strange stories might start to emerge.
I hope he succeeds.