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September/ October 2013 America’s Worst Community Colleges

The San Francisco Bay Area’s economy may be high tech, but its community colleges are the bottom of the barrel.

By Haley Sweetland Edwards

There was a beat and a half, a moment of slack-jawed disbelief—did the head of the English department just use the word spanked? And then, as if on cue, the squabbling commenced yet again. Eventually, four and a half hours into what would, in total, be a six-and-a-half-hour meeting ending at nearly 1:30 a.m., the board passed a motion requiring that the faculty implement the policy by the following spring semester.

It was a compromise, but a bitter one. Some faculty members stomped out of the meeting, vowing never to come back, board members rolled their eyes, and the student representative on the board gave a speech calling shared governance “sham governance.” More than a year later, after many more stand-offs like that one, two faculty members I spoke with refused to even utter Ngo’s name, inadvertently elevating him to a kind of locally elected Lord Voldemort.

When I asked Rodrigo Santos, a former temporary member of the City College board who had witnessed a few pitched battles over the years, if he thought the meetings were efficient, he laughed out loud. “I guess you could say it’s the purest form of democracy,” he said. “It’s sort of amazing to be a part of that. But yeah, I wouldn’t say ‘efficient.’ It’s really, really hard to get anything done.”

That nightmarish scenario is, unfortunately, not uncommon at many California community colleges. According to minutes from dozens of board meetings across the state, battles just like that one sometimes occur over almost everything you can imagine—from staffing structures and sexual harassment training to whether the board is allowed to change the campus calendar without approval of the academic senate first.

Part of the problem here can be traced to the passage of the system’s first shared governance law, Assembly Bill 1725, in 1988. It required district-level boards of trustees to ensure that faculty, administrators, staff, and students are “given every reasonable consideration” in the board’s decision-making processes. As written, that law actually makes sense. Karen Saginor, the former academic president, is right: boards should be compelled to consider the opinions of faculty, administrators, staff, and students.

But here’s the problem. Two years after that first law passed, two more regulations, approved by the CCCCO rather than a new state statute, enlarged the original language of the law. Instead of requiring that boards give “every reasonable consideration” to campus interest groups, the new regulations added a legal “obligation” for the bodies “to reach mutual agreement.” The regulations also added language—quoted by the faculty members at that City College board meeting—requiring the board to “rely primarily” on the opinion of academic senates on eleven topics. The first ten topics are fairly elastic, applying to any decision that could affect academics on a campus. The eleventh is “other.”

The upshot? Nowadays, when some boards try to make a decision without an academic senate’s “mutual agreement,” or if a board cannot prove it was “relying primarily” on the academic senate (which is hard to do when the decision is contrary to what the academic senate would like), then it can be sued. In 2003, Diablo Valley College’s academic senate sued the college after the board changed the staff structure without its permission; the academic senate lost.

Ngo, that outspoken San Francisco City College board member, describes the “mutual agreement” and “rely primarily” language as a de facto veto. “If the faculty doesn’t want the board to make a decision, all they have to do is withhold their consent. And suddenly, the onus is on the board to show that it can still legally move forward,” he said. “It’s the filibuster for California community college governance.”

These blurry chains of command have resulted in two primary problems at some district boards across the state. The first is that easy decisions, like City College’s attempt to implement that new, uncontroversial policy on placement exams, either take way too long or are simply tabled at midnight and never made at all—an even worse scenario during periods of extreme budget cuts.

“After AB 1725, there was this sense at the chancellor’s office [in Sacramento] that absolutely every group under the sun had to have a seat at the table and they all had to be equally represented, and so people went back to their own districts and replicated that,” said John Didion, a vice chancellor in the Rancho Santiago district, who has been an administrator at California community colleges for more than three decades. “So suddenly you had all these people in the room and unless they were in agreement, nothing could happen. It was disastrous in a system as complex as ours—there was just a whole lot of paralysis.”

The second problem that arises from these shared governance procedures is that when everyone is responsible for decision making, no one is accountable for it. “There’s no one in charge,” said Robert Shireman, who has been involved in higher education policy in Washington, D.C., since the Bill Clinton administration. He is most recently responsible for reforming need-based student loans under Obama and now heads California Competes, a Bay Area-based nonprofit dedicated to higher education reform. “So instead of arguing what program should we expand on, or how do we reach out better and improve success rates, the meetings are all about who’s supposed to be making that decision and who’s not allowed to make that decision. Everyone is at each other’s throats constantly.”

William Walker, the student representative on the board for the 2012-13 academic year, told me that part of the problem is that going against the faculty on any question is a third rail. “The board is incompetent,” he said. “They can’t make any decisions. But if you say we need to change that—we need a special trustee who can force decisions through—you’re going to be labeled ‘anti-faculty’—and if you want to get elected, that’s the worst thing someone can call you.”

California Competes recently filed a lawsuit against the state of California on the grounds that those two additional regulations overreach the original intent of Assembly Bill 1725. If the judge decides to nullify the regulations, it will feel for many reformers in California like removing a mossy hairball from the shower drain: everything else will suddenly start to flow better.

But even if the problem of confused chains of command in “shared governance” gets solved, there remains the larger cause of dysfunction within the California community college system: its decentralized power structure. For nearly fifty years now, the seventy-two community college districts have been required to abide by the CCCCO’s “minimum standards” and codes, but, besides that, they’ve pretty much done as they’ve pleased. Each district comes up with its own strategic plan, and its own staff, curriculum, and faculty structures. Each maintains hundreds of its own unique policies on issues ranging from transfer requirements and prerequisites to wait lists, remediation, full-time faculty, and basic student services, and each is only as good as the leadership that makes it.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.

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