One stupid mistake can cost you everything. Perhaps no one knows that
better than David C. England.

On March 12, while Mr. England was president of Des Moines Area
Community College, some 20 Iowa narcotics agents raided his home and
found a smoky room and more than two pounds of packaged marijuana
along with some seedlings. That day, as agents searched his cozy
suburban house, Mr. England, 51, thought, "My life is over."

To be sure, his career in higher education may be. After resigning the
presidency and resolving the criminal charges with a plea bargain, Mr.
England is hoping to write a book about his experience and has started
applying for administrative jobs at two-year colleges. But many who
believed in him simply shake their heads and wonder why he threw it
all away.

"I just thought that for David, the sky was the limit," says J.
William Wenrich, who just stepped down as chancellor of the Dallas
County Community College District, where Mr. England obtained his
first presidency, at North Lake College. "I truly expected to see him
turn up at one of the well-sought-after posts in this business."

A onetime community-college student, Mr. England parlayed what started
as a part-time teaching gig into a career in administration.

Supporters say he seemed genuinely driven by a desire to reach out to
higher education's disenfranchised. He was a charismatic deal-broker,
and had succeeded at getting college administrators and faculty and
staff members here behind a strategic plan, which was the first in the
Des Moines college's 38-year history. Even groundskeepers at DMACC
(D-Mack, as it is known locally) praised his approachable,
down-to-earth demeanor.

The initial frenzy the arrest stirred at the 13,000-student college
has died down, but its infamy still bites. "I can safely say that it
was the most embarrassing and well-noted occurrence in our history,"
says Donavan M. Honnold, the college's public-relations director.

The Raid

By most accounts, it was an especially blustery winter day when
college officials got word that something serious was going on at the
England home in Johnston, a well-to-do community just outside of Des
Moines.

Kim J. Linduska, then vice president of academic affairs, had gone to
a nearby hospital to check on her husband, who had recently been in a
car accident. Her visit was cut short by a call from Trudy Little, a
secretary in the top administrators' office.

Dave Palmer, senior vice president for governmental affairs, was
filling in for Mr. England -- who had called in sick for the second
day in a row -- at a meeting of the state's 18 community-college
presidents at a hotel near the state capitol. He had just finished a
lengthy address when Ms. Little called his cellphone.

Mr. Honnold's desk phone started ringing too. It was a reporter from
the Des Moines Register who had lots of questions for which Mr.
Honnold had few answers. By the time he got off the phone, several
broadcast reporters and their camera crews were waiting for him
outside his office.

Over at the hotel, Mr. Palmer broke the news to the two-year college
presidents. There was stunned silence. Then, one of them asked, "He
has teenage kids, right?"

"This has got to be a terrible mistake," Mr. Palmer recalls saying.
But by the meeting's end, a ticker was running across the bottom of
the broadcast on Channel 13, the local NBC affiliate, which was on in
an adjacent room.

The early reports -- which turned out to be true -- stated that after
receiving two separate tips that Mr. England was in possession of a
large amount of marijuana, narcotics agents raided his home. He was
being charged with trafficking. Marijuana was found in every bedroom
in the house. Charges would be forthcoming against his entire family.
He was smoking a joint when law-enforcement officers raided his home.
The charges could land him in jail for more than a decade.

Back on the main campus in Ankeny, Alfred Butts, a custodian, had been
gathering trash when some co-workers summoned him to a lounge to hear
the incredible news that was being reported on the television.

Damage Control

"Everybody was in shock, but nothing really surprises me," he says. He
went back to the trash.

By midafternoon, Ms. Linduska, Mr. Palmer, and several other top
administrators had gathered back at the campus to do damage control,
and to come up with a plan. When Joe Pugel, the chairman of the Board
of Directors arrived, he swiftly made the decision to place Mr.
England on paid administrative leave, and to name Ms. Linduska acting
president.

The phones kept ringing. It was students, parents.

"They wanted to know, does this affect accreditation? Will my degree
be worth anything?" says Ms. Linduska, who fielded many of the calls.
She left campus that day around 10 p.m.

At about the same time, Mr. England was in a cell at the Polk County
jail, trying to ignore the banging of a nearby inmate. He cried. He
stared at the ceiling and eventually drifted off to sleep.

The Aftermath

Fallout from the arrest has varied.

College officials ordered an audit by law and accounting firms to
determine whether any college funds, students, or employees could be
tied to the charges. The audit eventually turned up nothing. The
officials also monitored enrollment closely in the weeks after the
arrest to see if students were jumping ship, but their head count
actually was much higher than at the same time the previous year.

Just as a fund-raising drive to acquire a building adjacent to the
Ankeny campus was beginning, some alumni and a few other donors asked
why Mr. England was still on the payroll. Nevertheless, Mr. Honnold,
the public-relations director, says he is unaware of any promised
donations that were withheld.

Two weeks after his arrest, Mr. England resigned, forfeiting his
salary of nearly $200,000 a year, perquisites, and pension. He
eventually pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to
deliver it, maintaining that he had shared it only with his wife.
(Under Iowa law, such a claim fits a trafficking charge.) He received
a deferred judgment, which means that his conviction will be cleared
if he stays out of trouble for the next two years.

Meanwhile, a radio station's morning disc jockeys and their callers
cooked up lots of jokes that college officials did not find funny. The
college eventually pulled its advertising.

A local resident whipped up T-shirts emblazoned with a marijuana leaf
and the words, DMACC: School of Higher Learning. Gary Shatto, a friend
of the local entrepreneur and a student at the community college, says
the shirts still are "selling like hotcakes."

Reporters from the Register filed a Freedom of Information Act request
and pored over Mr. England's e-mail correspondence, telephone records,
and expense reports. If they found anything unusual, they didn't
report it. But the request cost the college some $23,000, mostly in
lawyer's fees.

Days after Mr. England's arrest, three national community-college
associations held annual meetings in Phoenix. Between sessions on
shrinking state budgets and homeland security, Mr. England's name was
on everyone's lips.

One well-known leader of a sizable college district remarked to a
reporter: "If all of us who hit one when we went home at night got
busted, there'd really be a leadership crisis. ... Still, what was
this guy thinking?"

The Dream World

Unemployed and with his name now absent from the daily headlines, the
6-foot-6 former president is loquacious, contrite, and yet dignified
during a three-hour confessional from a sumptuous floral love seat in
his living room.

Dressed casually in a cream-colored T-shirt, khaki shorts, and a pair
of moccasins, he appears at peace with his transgression, ready to get
some things off his chest. "I made a very big mistake in my personal
life," he says. "I'd like to think that doesn't erase my
accomplishments."

His Texas twang trembles only when he recalls pleading with
law-enforcement officers to spare his wife, Donna; daughter, Jessica,
23; and son, Charlie, 17, from being charged. (His wife and daughter
also were charged with felony possession and trafficking charges. His
son was charged with misdemeanor possession. All three also were given
deferred judgments.)

Mr. England says he liked to smoke pot perhaps two to three times a
week, and only late at night. He had a stressful job. He came of age
in the '70s. He had, in fact, been convicted of misdemeanor marijuana
possession when he was 19. Throughout his adulthood he had "run into
it occasionally but wasn't always a regular smoker." His wife, he
says, joined him infrequently; his kids never did.

He resents any suggestions that he was selling the drug. But a college
president can't exactly cop bags on the street corner. So he bought in
bulk. Then he decided, "since we had seen some commercials linking the
drug trade to terrorism, and my wife has a green thumb, we decided to
grow our own."

The couple kept the plants locked away in a tiny pump room in the
basement and had only started growing them two weeks before the raid,
he says. They had found evidence that their son was smoking pot, and
they had disciplined him for it. They weren't sure whether their
daughter, a junior at Iowa State University, was using marijuana. "We
just weren't the Cheech and Chong family that everyone seems to
think," he says.

As to what he was thinking?

"I wasn't, to be honest," he says, fiddling with his wedding band, one
leg folded over the other. "As a college president, you can get pretty
arrogant, detached from reality. ... I had drifted off into my own
little dream world."

Never Say Never

Mr. England, who says he hasn't smoked marijuana since the day of his
arrest and plans never to do so again, stays in touch with only a few
DMACC officials, Mr. Palmer among them.

"David and I actually bumped heads a lot on the job," says Mr. Palmer.
"Since the 'incident,' I've only gained more respect for him. He's
owned up to his mistake with as much finesse as anyone could possibly
muster. That takes heart. I now consider him a friend."

As the college moves closer to selecting a new president -- a search
committee last month announced four finalists, including Ms. Linduska
- -- students, administrators and faculty, and staff members are largely
forgiving, though they haven't forgotten.

"We've had to work really hard to recover from the shock," says
Melissa Jacobson, 31, a student who had met Mr. England at a
college-sponsored breakfast. "It was embarrassing, and it overshadowed
all the good things going on here."

As for Mr. England's chances of gaining another presidency, Larry H.
Ebbers, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at
Iowa State, thinks they are slim.

"I would never say never," says Mr. Ebbers, who conducted DMACC's
latest presidential search "He does have a lot to offer, but most
boards would probably be wary, considering. It probably depends on his
personal connections."

For now, Mr. England says he is enjoying spending time with his
family. He has an agent and hopes to find a publisher for his book,
which he says will be about how he became so obsessed with success
that he forgot about what is important.

Ultimately, he is hoping to work his way up to another CEO position.
He has just begun applying for some top administrative posts, his
applications attached with a long letter of explanation. "I've done a
lot of good things, and I still have a lot to offer," he says. "I just
made one really big mistake."


Pubdate: Fri, 08 Aug 2003
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, The (US)