California Competes challenges faculty veto

California’s community college faculty wield too much power: Regulations which let academic senates veto decisions by elected boards are invalid and illegal, complains a legal challenge by California Competes, a nonprofit group of business and civic leaders.

Robert Shireman, the group’s executive director, said that the regulations create a tangled, dysfunctional  bureaucracy that does not respond to the needs of students. “It creates a situation of gridlock instead of cooperation,” he said.  “In order for any large organization to move forward, somebody ultimately has to make a decision.”

Under the proposed changes, local governing boards would be required to seek input from the faculty, staff and students prior to policy decisions. However trustees would have the final decision-making power.

Divided governance has given California’s community colleges a  “national reputation for dispute and dysfunction,” said Shireman.

The ship’s sinking! Call the committee!

City College of San Francisco could lose accreditation and close this spring, unless “those in charge make the tough decisions needed to right the ship,” writes Robert Shireman, director of California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, in the San Francisco Chronicle. But who’s in charge?

. . .  CCSF has been part of a grand experiment in democratic management forced upon community colleges by an obscure rule adopted 22 years ago. While the original motivation for the shared-governance requirement was understandable, even laudable, in hindsight we can see that empowering everyone leaves no one in charge. California’s community colleges are capsizing as a result.

In the 1980s, “junior” college faculty wanted the status and power of university professors, Shireman writes. They got much more. The state Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges ordered community college trustees and chancellors “to defer to academic senates on a wide range of topics.”

CCSF went all-out in implementing the new state requirement. Today, an Office of Shared Governance manages 46 committees that develop policies that feed into a faculty Executive Council. Further, a petition process can put any issue to a full faculty vote. The CCSF Board of Trustees, elected by the voters of San Francisco to run the college, is required by the state to rubber-stamp the Shared Governance decisions (or indecision) or risk going to court to prove that the disagreement was “exceptional” and “compelling.” The result of this blurring of responsibility is predictable: Decisions don’t get made, no one is held accountable, and everyone blames everyone else.

Two independent reviews have offered stinging critiques of CCSF’s processes. The accreditor found “a veil of distrust among the governance groups” instead of clear decision-making roles. A fiscal review found the college paralyzed by a culture that undermines good management, preventing it from making the decisions that would stave off bankruptcy. Decision-making “appears to have been driven more by power, influence and political whim, than reason, logic and fairness.”

While a few exceptional chancellors have worked with faculty to adapt to difficult times, most community colleges are “stumbling along” without strong, clear  leadership, Shireman writes.

The state board needs to end shared governance, argues. More urgently, the CCSF academic senate “should formally step aside to put the duly elected trustees squarely in charge so we all can hold them fully accountable.” A sinking ship needs a captain, not a committee.