After losing half its staff, a 45-year-old tutoring program at Columbia is undergoing major changes that could jeopardize the quality of its services.
“The problem is so vast, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint something,” said former Double Discovery Center counselor Stephanie Louis, who resigned during the summer session. “DDC is a very special place and it’s ruined now.”
The Double Discovery Center—a longstanding Columbia program with a budget of over $1 million and a fleet of more than 100 student volunteers—serves nearly 1,000 students in grades 7-12. Nearly all are first-generation college-bound students from low-income families. The center provides tutoring and advising services during the academic year and a trademark residential summer program on campus.
At the start of the spring 2010 semester, DDC had 12 full-time staff members, 10 of whom were trained in teaching and college advising. But since then, half of that staff has parted with the program, marking the loss of decades’ worth of institutional memory. Among the grievances of departed staff were lower academic standards, insufficient fundraising efforts, and the executive director’s unsuccessful leadership.
One assistant director left in March and the other left in May. The outreach coordinator was gone by early June. Three tutoring counselors left over the summer, as did one interim assistant director, who lasted only a week. Some had no job prospects waiting for them or left for lower-paying work. This week, the president of the Double Discovery Student Organization resigned from her post, to which she had been elected in May.
“When our full-time staff members leave, the analogy that I make is when children hear that mom and dad are splitting up and someone’s moving out of the household. They [students] actually react to it in very much the same way, even if the staff members aren’t great,” DDC Executive Director Kevin Matthews, CC ’80, said. “As it turned out, all the people that left—they were all pretty great.”
DDC student Nicholas Velez, a senior at Frederick Douglass Academy, a public high school in Harlem, said he felt let down. “Not all my resources are gone, but the main ones that I need [are],” he said.
“Nicholas comes across as that cool kid that everybody wants to be with,” Louis said. So it struck her that when she left, he was crying.
Upperclassmen such as Velez, who have gotten to know counselors like Louis over time, have lost fond relationships that allow for a push to study harder and work on a personal statement for college applications. With new hires on their way—Matthews is in the process of bringing in five people—new relationships can be forged, but students and staff present and past agreed that the significance of this staff turnover is greater than the sum of its parts.
A shift in teacher standards
“It was my life while I was in college,” said Amber Moorer, CC ’08, who quit her job at DDC this summer and is now unemployed.
Moorer volunteered for the program throughout her undergraduate years at Columbia and eventually became DDSO president. It felt natural for her to work there after she graduated. At the time, most of the staff had advanced degrees in education or counseling, so she went to Harvard for a master’s in adolescent risk and prevention. Only then did she apply for a full-time position. But upon her return, and over the course of her year on the job as a counselor, she found that fewer staff members had advanced degrees. By the time she left, no one did.
According to Matthews, the University requires DDC staff to have a high school diploma, and a bachelor’s degree is preferred. Matthews himself has a B.A. in political science and previous experience in youth services management—he was DDC executive director from 1990-1998 before leaving to work as a nonprofit consultant in London—but he has no advanced degree.
“For me, counselors’ positions are perfect entry-level positions for people who are right out of college,” he said. “I’ve hired assistant directors without master’s degrees—that’s fine. They have to have some equivalent experience that they bring to the table.”
For Moorer and others associated with the program, this represents a break from tradition and a turn away from the educational example the staff set for students.
In previous years, counselors felt an unspoken obligation to have a master’s degree, Louis said, but now the standards are lower. “The truth is DDC is a hellhole right now,” she said. “There is no one there who knows their ass from their elbow.”
“This is going to sound elitist,” she added, but “there’s a difference between the people who go to Harvard and people who go to CUNY.” Since DDC espouses academic discipline, she said, “That should be represented in your staff.”
Elitism, at once part of Columbia’s intellectual draw and its institutional aloofness, can seem a double-edged sword at DDC. The program caters to a population of students underserved by the education to which they have access, and it projects an image that juxtaposes Columbia’s elite status with, perhaps, an antidote: accessibility for those who might not envision themselves on an Ivy League campus. This has benefits ranging from student recruitment to boosting the University’s public image as it begins construction on its Manhattanville expansion.
But with the loss of staff members with advanced degrees, Cameron McClure, CC ’12 and recently resigned DDSO president, said the quality of the educational services the center can provide will “definitely not” live up to past standards, even with new counselors.
Albert Bencosme, a senior at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics who has been going to DDC since 2007, agreed that the program won’t be the same. “I don’t feel like I’m going to be going to the office that much,” he said.
Shaun Abreu, CC ’14 and a DDC graduate, sensed that Matthews’ priority has been that counselors reflect the backgrounds of students rather than prestigious academic credentials. “Based on the people he hired, I would expect that there were more qualified people he could have hired,” Abreu said, adding that, from his standpoint, the center’s policy was that “the people they hire should be a reflection of the students, racially.”
Moorer said she was made to feel that “if you’re white, there’s very little you can do for our students.”
“Every white person that was there left,” Abreu said. “Marvin Cabrera [former outreach coordinator] and Stephanie [Louis] left. They weren’t white, but they experienced the racial tensions.”
“DDC has always been a place where real conversations about race and diversity take place,” McClure said. “I felt like this summer, it was much harder.”
Ganiatu Afolabi, CC ’12 and a DDC volunteer, said she appreciated the value of hiring staff who represent familiar backgrounds to those of the students.
“I understand the logic. A lot of the students don’t really have a lot of successful minority people in their life,” Afolabi said. “To surround them with successful minorities” can be inspiring.
Matthews, who grew up in a low-income, minority home in Washington Heights, serves as such a role model for academic success, having attended Columbia.
Nonetheless, students like Bencosme said a counselor’s racial background doesn’t necessarily correspond with his or her ability to connect with students. What he looks for is expertise. “You need to have that mental background,” he said.
Louis said that Matthews “has a very race-based mentality.”
Matthews called this claim “absolutely incorrect.”
“No one has ever raised an issue with me about there being racial discrimination,” Matthews said. “Our teaching staff is probably not as diverse as it could be. That might be more about the folks that we’re drawing and what little we’re able to pay.”
“We promote diversity,” said Anthony Jones, a current staff member who used to be a counselor for high school students and is now working with seventh and eighth graders. “We blend together and we make it work.”
Matthews later asked, “That there’s a race-based mentality—what the hell does that mean?”
Former staff and volunteers said they felt racial tensions more in subtle gestures than explicit denigration. Louis alleged that Matthews sought out black and Hispanic students for official photographs.
She said a student told her, “I think he doesn’t want me in the picture because I look white.”
Matthews called these criticisms “idle rumor-mongering” and asked, “Why on earth even raise those things if you’ve decided to leave? What’s the point?”
“This semester, I saw a lot that made me really uncomfortable,” Moorer said, citing Matthews’ “attitude toward education and toward our students, and the direction the center should be going in.”
Matthews is more concerned with how DDC appears than how it functions, she explained, demonstrated in part by his alleged submission of plagiarized student papers for a scholarship essay contest.
Each year, DDC holds a writing competition judged by its Board of Friends. When Moorer was looking through submissions, she realized that some had been plagiarized.
“Once you’ve read enough essays, you can tell what’s kid writing and what isn’t,” she said. “So I start freaking out.” She said she contacted students and asked them to fix their papers. On an essay written by a student with whom another counselor had worked, she marked a P with a circle around it to indicate that it had been plagiarized.
But as the deadline approached, there were not enough suitable essays to submit the 10 that the Board of Friends was expecting. Moorer said Matthews was more concerned with submitting the requisite number of papers than about plagiarism.
“He knowingly submitted plagiarized papers,” Louis said.
The paper marked P won.
Matthews has a different account of what happened. When asked whether he knew of any plagiarized papers having been submitted, he responded, “No. Not to my knowledge. Oh, and why would we say that in a newspaper? Why would we say that we had kids who plagiarized an essay? OK. Double Discovery Center, just like every institution dealing with students, has issues of plagiarism that we have to deal with. And there may have been—in fact, I am sure there were a couple of students that plagiarized some information, and a number of those students were told to rewrite their essays, resubmit them, or don’t submit them at all.”
He added, “If indeed one of the winners had plagiarized parts of the paper, I didn’t know that, our board members didn’t know that. And quite frankly, if a staff member knew that, they should have said something.”
Moorer and Louis said they had brought the problem to Matthews’ attention well in advance, as evidenced by last-minute revisions. The winning essay was the same allegedly plagiarized version that Moorer had submitted to Matthews. In the email Matthews sent to the board, which Moorer shared with Spectator, there are clear syntactical disparities between the writing in the winning essay and on its accompanying application form.
“He wanted to make it look like the people who submitted these papers were brilliant scholars,” Louis said. “It isn’t the fault of the kids, really, at the end of the day. It’s the fault of the people who allow that to occur.”
Decline in fundraising
Several people affiliated with DDC, including students, said there are deficiencies in the program’s resources.
Financially, DDC has had to work with less since the global economic downturn stung the center in 2008. When Matthews came into his position a year ago, the program had a full-time development officer whose job it was to fundraise. (DDC receives a little over $1 million in federal grants and Columbia College contributes between $42,000 and $44,000 annually, but the center also seeks outside resources.) The development officer and another position—that of volunteer coordinator—were the only two jobs at DDC that were not covered by grant money, Matthews said. So when the development officer left to pursue a teaching career, he decided not to replace her.
“I knew it’s a position that we’re going to have to bring back at some point. This is not a one-person job,” Matthews said. “But as a way of saving money, you know, it was attrition. That was something we could do at least for a year to put more money in student services. And not surprisingly, I would say that our outside giving is probably down $10,000 from what it was the year before I started, so that’s a direct loss in my mind. It was a gamble.”
Since then, Matthews said he has absorbed responsibility for fundraising.
“But that definitely didn’t happen. He brought in virtually no money,” Moorer countered. Now, she said, “It’s, like, fighting for SAT books. We don’t even have money for the essentials.”
At a staff meeting this spring, she was informed that there were “zero grants in progress.”
Marvin Cabrera, the former volunteer coordinator, left when Matthews could not find the grant money to cover his salary. Although Matthews said the programs require volunteer coordination, he is not looking to hire someone explicitly for that role. “We should all be able to recruit, train, and help supervise volunteers. Those things should be organic to DDC across the board,” he said.
Still, DDC volunteer Afolabi said she had been told that “the explanation is ‘change is good,’ when really there just isn’t enough money to do the same things anymore.”
“They’re constantly saying that they don’t have any money,” former DDC president McClure added.
DDC counselor Jones also noted that money is tight. “At the end of the day, I think you just have to get creative,” he said.
Still, Jones doesn’t think financial concerns are affecting his job or the students themselves: “Kids don’t worry about resources.”
But students have noticed changes. “After the recession, everything went downhill,” said student Bencosme. There have been none of the usual college campus visits, and summer field trips were canceled.
“This summer, we paid more and we got less. There were so many things we didn’t do,” added DDC student Kayla Young, a senior at George Washington High School. Two summers ago, students paid a $25 fee for the six-week residential program. This summer, the cost rose to $100 and students stayed on campus for about four-and-a-half weeks.
Former staff added that, in addition to the program having less money, funding is being used inefficiently. As an example, McClure said DDC overpaid for supplies at Ivy League Stationers (including $6 binders) rather than shop at a discount store.
Matthews argued that, though outside grants are small, DDC is by no means strapped for cash. “I need more time to do more fund development,” he said, adding that hiring new teaching staff has taken hours away from fundraising.
Matthews said he has been weighing his options for new fundraising strategies. He may seek independent nonprofit status for the program, which the University’s umbrella service organization, Community Impact, has. (DDC currently files grant applications under the guise of Columbia.) Another possibility might be to create a specific fund for DDC.
Now, he wants help. “I know I need that,” he said. He recently put out an ad for a development intern and hopes to recruit someone from Columbia’s M.S. program in fundraising management.
Transition in the office
But following the money only goes so far, and at times, there are more intangible considerations. With financial worries as the backdrop, DDC’s office environment has changed over the past several months. Staff members, volunteers, and students felt rising tensions come to the surface.
“The only way you can actually know why someone is leaving is by asking them,” Matthews said. “You can surmise all you want why, but nobody leaves a job for one reason.”
There were several reasons why six staff members left DDC. Moorer summed up her criticisms with an outburst of exasperation: “Ugh, God. It was just so frustrating.”
Louis said she had been “dealing with humiliation for at least six months.” She added, “I feel like there were people forced to leave. I was one of them.”
Upon the resignation of Rachel Ford, CC ’98 and one of the assistant directors, “I heard some hostility,” DDC graduate Abreu said. Ford had worked at DDC during all four years of college and for about a decade after. Now, months after her departure, her former colleagues said she is still seeking employment. Ford did not respond to requests for comment.
“They are brilliant at what they do,” said DDC senior Young, “and for them to leave the way they did, you just knew there was something wrong.” She said she plans to find tutoring resources outside DDC.
“It’s a giant question mark,” said volunteer Afolabi. “I don’t want to forecast failure. I don’t think the office is going to fall into itself, but there will be changes.”
“It eats me inside to know that there’s something going on with the center that Columbia doesn’t necessarily know about,” Abreu said.
“We tried to bring this to everyone’s attention, but no one cares,” Louis explained. For her, it’s clear that the problems are rooted in Matthews’ leadership. “He’s honestly probably the worst thing to happen to DDC,” she said. “He should be fired. I don’t have any ill will toward the man, but he should be fired.”
Matthews sees this as a moment of transition, not collapse.
“It looks as though the center has some instability,” he conceded, but “we are anything but shaky as an organization. There’s been some change. Change is hard for people to deal with. It makes people wonder lots and lots of things, and because people wonder things and people talk out of turn behind folks’ backs doesn’t make it so.”
But even after resigning as DDSO president, McClure is concerned about the center’s fate. “I hope that either the board looks at what’s going on and makes some serious changes or, by the grace of God, they hire a really strong staff that have had 10 years of experience with an identical program,” she said. “I’m not sure they yet realize just how much they’ve lost.”