THE RISE AND FALL OF SANTA MONICA COLLEGE: PART ONE
On October 5, 2010 the White House hosted its first ever conference on community colleges. No President in the history of the United States has been as proactive in promoting community college education as Barack Obama. Though President Obama is himself a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard University, he has made a point of extolling the critical importance of community college education to workforce development and the future competitiveness of the United States in an increasingly competitive global economy.
The conference on community colleges was hosted by Jill Biden, wife of the Vice President, and herself a veteran instructor in the community college system. President Obama has spoken on numerous occasions from the campuses of community colleges. Though it regards itself as the pre-eminent community college in the United States, Santa Monica College has not been one of those campuses.
Community colleges are, by and large, the workhorses of higher education, providing open door admittance to post-secondary education for the millions of students who for academic, financial, or personal reasons are unable or unwilling to attend a four year university. At a time when our public education system no longer ensures that its graduates are either literate or numerate, a community college education may be the only way for millions of young people to attain the skill sets they will need to secure gainful employment in our post-industrial, information-based economy. The statistics on the enhanced earning capacity of college graduates vs. high school graduates are well established.
The increasing complexity of the econosphere (the ever growing expansion and diversification of jobs within an economy) places an enormous responsibility on the community college system to continuously adapt. When many of the students in the community college system were born, there was no such thing as website design or computational biology or dozens of other fields of study. Many aspects of colleges’ contemporary curriculum are unrecognizable to boomers who attended universities forty years ago. Then again, many courses are entirely familiar.
Santa Monica College in particular has all the characteristics of what political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff called the multiversity in his work on higher education, “The Ideal of the University.” The multiversity in Wolff’s description is a sort of academic service center for the society in which it finds itself. The multiversity attempts to be all things to all people. And SMC has certainly endeavored to be that. In addition to its conventional academic offerings across a variety of disciplines, the college has an emeritus school for elderly students, ESL for foreign students, a nursing school, a cosmetology school, a fashion design school, an arts and entertainment academy, a small business development center, overseas studies programs, community outreach programs, performing arts and fine arts programs, a planetarium, a modern swimming pool, a world class running track, etc.
On the face of it, it’s an ideal situation. A relatively affluent community engineers a community college that transcends many of the limitations of other community colleges located in less affluent, less populous cities and towns. After all, the California Community College system is the largest higher education system in the nation with 72 districts and 112 campuses. Approximately three million students are enrolled in these colleges—far more students than the UC system and Cal State system combined. And community college students are educated for a fraction of the cost of educating university students. The line in Sacramento is “everyone is favor of community colleges, but no one wants to fund them.” And therein lies a major problem in community college education, but not the only major problem.
As Wolff points out there is an insurmountable obstacle in managing the multiversity. Because of the fact that the institution includes such so many different, independent departments, there is a continual fight over resources—namely money. Of course this is no different from any large size organization, academic or otherwise, but the problem is compounded due to the relative independence and radically contrasting needs of the separate programs that co-exist uneasily within the same institution. It is not the same thing as competition between the sales, marketing, accounting, and production departments within a corporation, or even between different academic departments in a more traditional college.
For example, the administration of Santa Monica College prefers academic programs to vocational programs because vocational programs have greater overhead in terms of equipment and maintenance requirements. This does not mean that academic programs ipso facto have greater value to the students than vocational programs have. It means that the College has made a financial decision to value academic courses over vocational courses. There is no democratic process by which these allocation disputes can reasonably be resolved.
As a consequence, community colleges in the multiversity model are run by a strong central authority, capable of either forging consensus on allocation demands between the competing departments or simply imposing solutions by fiat. Multiversities are dictatorships by necessity and almost all community colleges are run in a strictly hierarchical fashion with the decision-making power residing with the college’s president and his or her lieutenants. Faculty retains power over such academic areas as course offerings, curriculum, grading, and so forth because they have exclusive expertise within their respective fields of instruction. And while there is nominally a state-mandated shared governance system under the education code that requires “input” from faculty, staff, and students, the “output” of that system is only non-binding recommendations to the college President.
The choice of the community college president is the single most important decision that the college’s governing board must make because that individual will bear the primary responsibility for the way in which the college functions and the direction in which the college will go. If under-funding is the first major problem facing community colleges, the paucity of effective leadership for them is the second major problem.
The longest serving President in the history of Santa Monica College was a quirky iconoclast named Richard Moore, who ran the College for a couple of decades beginning in the 1970s. Moore was an experimenter who would “try” things like playing foreign language tapes over speakers in the rest rooms or shutting down the central switchboard for one hour twice a week so that everyone could get in some reading or painting buildings in garish pastel colors. But his chief contribution was a radical transformation of the college from a small conventional community college to a truly international school with students from Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa.
Moore realized that many parents overseas wanted their children to secure an education in the United States and that SMC could provide them with a cost effective alternative to the universities. Furthermore, by establishing reciprocal arrangements with UCLA, CSUN and other universities, these students could transfer both themselves and their credits at the end of their SMC education—a win-win for the universities and the parents of the foreign students, as well as the local students, who could meet students from countries they might never get to visit. What Santa Monica College is today is largely a product of the vision of Richard Moore.
Moore didn’t simply market the college overseas. He brought world class scholars like Stephen Hawkings, Jane Goodall, and Carlos Fuentes to the school. When Bill Clinton was first elected President, he paid a visit to Santa Monica College. Politicians, scholars, Nobel laureates, rap stars, labor leaders, civil rights leaders—you name it—came to SMC to see and be seen. The College was a destination for public figures when Moore ran it.
And while Moore was a controversial figure with his share of detractors, he was a visible presence on the campus. He would eat in the cafeteria among the students or with faculty and staff in their dining facility. He visited computer labs unannounced. He taught classes. He maintained an open door policy. Employees could make an appointment to see him and register a complaint or make a suggestion. When he convened a general assembly to talk about issues with the College, everyone was present. He loved his little fiefdom.
All of Moore’s choices were not great. Some of his confederates were accused of financial improprieties and in 1994 he resigned and took a job as President of the Community College of Southern Nevada and subsequently went on to be the founding President of Nevada State College. And while SMC has never lacked the contentiousness that invariably characterizes academic institutions, it can be fairly said that if there was ever a Golden Age at the College, it was when Richard Moore served as its President.
When Moore left the College’s business manager, Tom Donner took over as the interim President, while the board initiated its search for Moore’s replacement. Donner, an attorney and a CPA, was a long time fixture at SMC. He had started out in the College’s accounting department as a classified employee (the designation given to non-academic employees of the college) and had risen through the ranks to become the College’s business manager, which made him SMC’s virtual chief operating officer.
Some of the older classified employees can remember partying with Donner in the “old days,” but as he climbed to the pinnacle of power and control at the College, he began to distance himself from the lower strata of the hierarchy. Donner, a bald, bespectacled man with a sonorous, if somewhat nasal voice, is a bean counter’s bean counter. At Board meetings he was given to lengthy, desultory ramblings about the more arcane aspects of the State’s complex funding schemes for community colleges, thoroughly convincing everyone and anyone in attendance that whatever clarity they presumed to have about the College’s finances was purely illusory. A supply-sider to his marrow, Donner never discussed expense side of the ledger, but only the revenue side.
Community college funding in California has evolved into a highly complicated, multifarious scheme, the details of which are lost on anyone without a solid technical understanding of accounting theory and practice. Besides the division between capital funds (used exclusively for activities such as property acquisition and building) and operational funds (used for paying everyone and running the college), there are a host of conceptual schemas such as categorical vs. non-categorical funding, FTES (full time equivalent students), out-of-state tuition revenue, apportionment, equalization, compensation for growth, cash vs. accrual accounting, etc. Overlay a maze of legal requirements regarding the use and abuse of funds and you begin to get an idea of how complex operating a community college can be.
The chief point to be understood about community college finance is that it is a somewhat loosely coupled system—meaning that the revenues do not map out to the expenses in a strictly linear fashion. It is an important point. Money that the state provides for specific purposes is agglomerated with other monies that are spent on whatever the administration determines is in the “best interests” of the college.
What Donner lacked in terms of organizational acumen he had in spades as a financial engineer. For over two decades Donner kept the books at the College while operating a small tax business down the street on Pico Blvd. His general ledger, where he accounted for the District’s revenues and expenses, may not be quite as indecipherable as the Mayan codices or Sumerian cuneiform, but it always remained a formidable challenge to auditors, regulators and the successive chief financial officers who have sought in vain to fill his shoes.
Nevertheless, Donner, while acting in his capacity as the College’s interim president maintained the “collegiality” that Moore had inculcated during his lengthy tenure. He still had general assemblies that included all of the employees—staff, faculty, and managers.
The choice for a successor to Richard Moore came down to a contest between an inside and an outside candidate. The inside candidate, Darroch “Rocky” Young, a long time Vice President under Moore, was a home town favorite, a Pali High graduate, and by and large popular with staff and faculty at the College. He was favored by the Board members who had not been endorsed by SMRR. The outside candidate, Piedad Robertson was a veteran administrator, having served at Miami-Dade Community College in South Florida and Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts. She had also been Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under then Governor William Weld. She was favored by the SMRRniks.
Robertson is a woman with undeniable political skills and she presented well during the question-and-answer sessions that candidates are subjected to. During the vetting process, however, it was revealed that she had sustained not one, but two prior votes of no confidence in her official capacities. She was also a member in good standing of the older Cuban exile community in Miami, a group that is virulently anti-Castro, anti-Communist, anti-labor, and predominantly allied with what used to be called the neocon wing of the Republican Party.
The Cuban exile community is a potent force in American politics. There has been a five decade old embargo against the island of Cuba and American citizens cannot legally visit the island without going through some special program sanctioned by the State Department. Cuba is still unable to attend conferences organized by the Organization of American States solely due to U.S. opposition, a running sore that was brought up to President Obama by the heads of state of every other Central and South American and Caribbean nation during the last Summit of the Americas conference held on the island of Trinidad a couple of years ago. All these policies are artifacts of the political clout of the Cuban exile community of South Florida.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Cuban exiles is the privileged immigration status enjoyed by their compatriots on the island. Any Cuban who can find his or her way onto American soil has automatic citizenship in the United States. Contrast that policy with the undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans who are hounded by the authorities for taking a death defying journey across a stretch of God forsaken desert for the opportunity to work in some minimum wage job in the U.S. These immigrants outnumber the Cuban Americans approximately 20 fold, yet their political influence was insufficient to even pass the Dream Act, affording citizenship to the children of undocumented residents of the U.S. who have grown up here and want to secure a university education or serve in the military. .
Given the opposition of the faculty and several Board members to Robertson’s candidacy combined with all the red flags and SMRR’s progressive bona fides, one would have thought that Young was a shoe in as Moore’s replacement. But the SMRRniks went with Robertson and she took over the College in 1995.