The Brown Act and Your Curriculum Committee
Members of curriculum committees regularly interact outside of meetings as a part of their daily routines. They may gossip in the halls about a new noncredit corequisite to be considered at the next meeting or talk around the copy machine about planned program revisions. Members also sometimes seek to add items for action to the agenda during curriculum committee meetings. Such actions as these may all be innocent, but they may nevertheless be legal violations of the Brown Act. Curriculum committees may therefore want to learn about the Brown Act and consider their relationship to it.
Faculty who are reading this publication may well be acquainted with how the Ralph M. Brown Open Meetings Act applies to academic senates, as the responsibility of senates to follow the Brown Act has been acknowledged for many years.  However, the degree to which curriculum committees must adhere to the Brown Act has been less clear and has received less discussion. The details applying to this issue may vary depending on how each curriculum committee is organized within its college’s local decision-making structure, but ultimately the outcome is almost always the same: if the college’s curriculum committee is a standing committee of the academic senate or of the board of trustees, then it is required to adhere to the Brown Act, also known as section 54950 et seq. of the California Government Code.
The Brown Act applies to legislative bodies of local agencies, including school districts. A “legislative body” is defined in California Government Code as follows: “(b) A commission, committee, board, or other body of a local agency, whether permanent or temporary, decision-making or advisory, created by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of a legislative body. However, advisory committees, composed solely of the members of the legislative body that are less than a quorum of the legislative body are not legislative bodies, except that standing committees of a legislative body, irrespective of their composition, which have a continuing subject matter jurisdiction, or a meeting schedule fixed by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of a legislative body are legislative bodies for purposes of this chapter” (§54952(b)). Per this definition, even if the curriculum committee is a recommending body to the academic senate, since it is a standing committee with “continuing subject matter jurisdiction,” it is required to follow the Brown Act. Therefore, if your curriculum committee is delineated in your academic senate’s constitution or bylaws, in college policy or regulation, or in the college’s formal structure as a subcommittee of the academic senate, even if the curriculum committee only makes recommendations to the senate, the committee is legally required to adhere to the Brown Act.
Title 5 §55200(a)(1) also allows colleges to establish curriculum committees that are not academic senate subcommittees. In instances where a college has placed the curriculum committee elsewhere, the committee will in all likelihood still be required to follow the Brown Act, because Title 5 §55200 requires governing board approval of courses. Since the board of trustees is required to conform to the Brown Act, if the curriculum committee has continuing jurisdiction on a topic or a meeting schedule set by its governing body, it is also required to adhere to the Brown Act. The explicit exception in the Brown Act is for advisory committees made up of less than a quorum of the body that do not have continuing jurisdiction on a topic or a regular meeting schedule, such as temporary task forces. Since course approval must involve the local board and the curriculum committee may be an academic senate subcommittee, in almost every imaginable scenario the curriculum committee must abide by the Brown Act.
In most cases, a college’s curriculum committee should demonstrate its transparency and commitment to the people it serves by following the Brown Act in the same manner that the academic senate does: by publicly posting agendas—placing the agenda in a public space, such as outside the board room or any other accessible location, as well as on the college’s website—at least seventy-two hours in advance, agendizing public comment, and providing a brief description of agenda items to inform the public. The Brown Act prohibits serial communications or other discussions outside of announced meetings. It also requires bodies to provide copies of materials to any person in attendance, to allow for recording of meetings unless the recording would be so intrusive as to interrupt the meeting, to ensure that meeting spaces are accessible, and to treat everything that takes place during the meeting as a matter of public record.
Thus, gossiping in the hall or talking around the copy machine to sell ideas and convince colleagues to vote a certain way is not how a curriculum committee—nor any senate committee—should be operating. All standing committees of an academic senate, as well as the senate itself, should be transparent, fair, and objective, and that means having open discussion in meetings, not side conversations around a water cooler. Holding ourselves accountable to these requirements provides the space for productive meetings conducted based on distributed agendas and appropriate materials provided to all members and the public. Committee and campus community members will appreciate the routine and the effective practice. These routines, if taken up not only by the curriculum committee but by all standing committees of the academic senate, can promote more widespread understanding of and input on the senate’s work on academic and professional matters on a college campus.
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