The last time the Contra Costa College District axed its on-campus division chair positions, things couldn't have gone better. Administrators shed the instructor-held posts three years ago at their Los Medanos and Contra Costa campuses to streamline operations and cut costs and not a peep was uttered. "They happily accepted the change," chancellor Chuck Spence said of the faculties, "and we haven't heard any complaints."
But when the district imposed the same change last fall at its third and largest campus, Diablo Valley College, things couldn't have gone worse. Instructors hosted a protest. The faculty senate hired an attorney, and, if the matter isn't solved this week, the senate says it will sue.
So what went wrong?
One problem, instructors say, is that DVC president Mark Edelstein never stopped to share his reorganization plans with the faculty. His action came as a professional slight, and may even be a violation of state law. Instructors also say replacing faculty members with business-management types further pushes them away from the administration building -- and the big decisions made inside it.
Losing representation is a disturbing concept to some members on the DVC faculty senate, and it's one they say could result in turning DVC -- a campus of 24,000 students and the state's largest feeder into UC Berkeley -- into a diploma mill made for profits, rather than an institution built for critical thinkers. This week, state-hired mediators on the campus are hoping to announce a compromise between the faculty senate and the president's office.
The tussle began in September when Edelstein mailed letters to all thirty of his division chairs, notifying them they'd be relieved of their administrative duties and could return to the classroom. Division chairs give up half of their instruction time to handle their nonteaching workload.
It was the first time instructors received word of a shake-up, says Irene Menegas, a DVC English instructor and faculty representative on the state Community College Board of Governors. "It wasn't that he wanted to do away with the division chairs so much -- it's the process that he's going about in doing it," Menegas says. "It's not a collaborative one which, by law, we are entitled to." Menegas is a member of the faculty senate and one of its most vocal advocates. She's stepped forward as an informal spokesperson while leaders are under a gag order during mediation.
In 1990 the state adopted AB1725, a law that gave community college faculty members stronger negotiating rights with campus administrators, similar to those secured by their brethren at four-year universities. AB1725 requires a community college administration to enter into "collegial consultation" with the campus faculty senate when reorganizing is put to the table. Menegas and her colleagues consider Edelstein's letter of termination to division chairs a violation of the consultation clause in AB1725, and have since hired attorneys to challenge the president and district -- but only if mediation fails. In a worst-case scenario, Menegas says, a state court could find DVC in violation of AB1725 and withhold funding next year.
Yet president Edelstein says the college's actions haven't been unlawful -- only efficient. They are necessary, he says, to adjust to the changing landscape of community college education in California. Abolishing division chairs is just one piece in a larger, well-documented reorganization plan that's been in the works for years, he says, and one that several community colleges are implementing.
Twenty five years ago, when community colleges operated free of charge and were typically quaint institutions specializing in lifestyle-enhancement classes, division chairs assisted administrators with keeping head counts and scheduling courses.
Now, with university-like enrollments that peaked in the mid-1980s and are currently riding another large spike following the dot-com bust, community colleges are resembling larger institutions badly in need of effective, trained administrators. DVC's peers in size and stature, DeAnza College in Cupertino and American College in Sacramento, have replaced division chairs with deans. Deans can help speed up the famously slow academic bureaucracy. "The college has changed since it opened, and so has education," Edelstein argues. "We thought the organization of the college also needed to change."
Menegas agrees that community colleges have had to change their game plan to accommodate the masses, but the true cost of losing faculty-held division chairs shifts the balance of power on campus heavily into the administration's favor.
Without academic voice inside the administration, decrees will be handed down and opportunities for dialogue will evaporate, she believes. "A straight manager would further remove faculty from the decision-making process," she says. "The truth is the longer they are out of the classroom, the longer they're out of touch with the needs of students. You can hardly blame management to want to cut costs, and to bring more money into the system, but that really has to be mediated by folks who are inside the classroom."
Ted Wieden, chair of the physical sciences and engineering division, finds himself caught between his faculty senate and the president's proposal. He's eager to get back to teaching full-time, but is concerned once he leaves the post he's conceded ground to the administration.
"I don't think any instructor wants to be a division chair," says Wieden. "But it's something we do because it needs to be done -- because we're on the front line where the faculty meets the administration."
Like his cohorts, Wieden is stationed at the top of the organizational pyramid for groups of faculty members. He oversees five department chairs, about 120 faculty members in all, and about 5,000 of the campus' 24,000 students. Wieden is elected by his peers to a three-year term and then approved by the college president; either side can remove him at any moment. Everything from student complaints about a flaky instructor to maneuvering course scheduling to evaluating peer reviews to signing grant proposals comes across Wieden's desk before the administration gets a chance to weigh in -- and vice versa.
If the college administration wants to cut an earth science 101 course, it's Wieden who brings the hard news to the faculty and then plays switcheroo with instructors and classrooms. Wieden also oversees peer evaluations and reviews, and has a hand in hiring new instructors.
The biggest decision a division chair can make, especially at a perpetually cash-hungry community college, is whether to kill a course when only a handful of students show up for the first class meeting. At DVC, where faculty members are paid about $2,000 per three-unit class, it takes twenty paying students for the college to break even. Too often, Wieden says, a second-year transfer course like Japanese II only attracts, say, fifteen students, and administrators move to kill it immediately.
"As a faculty member I have to ask, 'What is community college all about?' " Wieden says. "And the answer is that it's about small enrollment with individual instruction. So I might work to keep the class. The administration might say, 'We don't have enough,' and that might be true." The bottom line is that running classes with low enrollment is not as cost-effective as running classes with large enrollment.
"But a permanent administrator might not see keeping the class as 'productive' based on costs alone," Wieden explains.
Mark Edelstein concedes the switch to full-time deans will, in fact, cost the college more money up-front. But over time, the effectiveness of using specialized deans will mediate the costs. He adds that most will have teaching backgrounds and will remain tuned into the needs of academics. Edelstein says that as it stands now, using part-time faculty members who are on campus only nine months of the year is failing the school's needs, and denies claims that nonfaculty deans will jeopardize student-instructor interaction.
"The deans are going to be more accessible," Edelstein adds. "They'll be full-time employees with a greater level of training in terms of college policies and state law and be able to more effectively provide information to students in those areas. They'll also bring greater consistency to the position because they won't be turning over as the division chairs frequently do."
Later this week, faculty senate members and president Edelstein hope to announce a compromise that might include offering faculty members first dibs on the dean's positions, or requiring the president to "highly recommend" deans to teach courses on campus.
Instructor Menegas says if mediation fails and a deans-only system is forced upon the faculty, teachers at DVC will feel like voiceless workers on a factory floor. That despair could leave instructors wary to go the extra mile for the college, and, ultimately, for the students, she says. "If this is imposed, the faculty will be so demoralized that I fear they won't be compelled to do the extra things that we are known to do. My concern is that faculty will meet their contractual obligations, shut the door, and go home. All the stuff they do on the side, all the extra stuff, is going to die," she explains.
Still, division chair Wieden says now that he's got his pink slip, which arrived on March 15, he won't return to his job as chair no matter what -- even if the faculty senate prevails in keeping the post.
"Why would any instructor want it? It reduces our teaching load by half and puts us in a position where we're not compensated fairly. The repercussions of [getting deans] would be to send us back to the classroom, which for most of us would be fine anyway."
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