The California Citizens commission on Higher Education has produced a highly critical report on community colleges. Entitled “The Looking Glass Itself: AB 1725,” the Commission’s report implies without substantiation that both the quality of California community colleges and the number of successful graduates are declining. At the same time, the report omits discussion of the system’s strengths, such as its open admission policies. In reaching these conclusions, the authors of the report use misstatements, selective statistics, and unsubstantiated conclusions to portray California community colleges in the worst possible light. Given the biased tone of the report, community college faculty and their Academic Senate must wonder what the Commission’s true goal is.
The Citizens Commission is a private, independent group, funded by three non profit foundations and organized to evaluate and recommend policy on higher education in the California. Its 24 members mainly comprise representatives from business and industry many of them current or retired CEOs. Only three members are or have been associated with educational institutions. No member is associated with community college and none is a faculty member.
On April 15, 1997, the Commissions held a roundtable discussion with community college panelists to consider the operations of California Community Colleges in relation to Assembly Bill 1725. The preliminary report of the April meeting contains the misleading and critical statements noted above.
An important weakness of the preliminary report is the apparent confusion among the Commission, its staff, and the authors of the document concerning the difference between AB 1725 and Title 5. This confusion produces misstatements and inaccurate conclusions. For example, the report alleges that the passage of Proposition 13 and the implementation of free flow “undercut some of the primary reasons for the existence of local boards.” The report claims that free flow resulted in local board decisions having a wider effect than just on the voters in their respective districts. The authors seem unaware of the fact that a considerable percentage of out-of-district students were already crossing district lines under cross-district agreements prior to free-flow.
The report argues that Proposition 98 undercut the funding levels of community colleges as provided in AB 1725 was never fully funded and that Proposition 98 set a funding floor, not a ceiling.
The document down-plays, omits, or misrepresents other important issues. Its criticisms of AB 1725 overlook the difficulties encountered by the chancellor’s Office to monitor compliance by local governing boards with state law. Its discussion of personnel fails to mention the replacement of credentials with minimum qualifications or the institution of peer review and an extended tenure review period, all of which have contributed to academic and professional excellence. And the report implicitly assaults local districts’ need for flexibility in responding to local circumstances by inferring that different shared governance policies at different colleges is a problem.
The report claims a consensus was established on policy issues at the April meeting that contradict some of the most deeply held views of community college faculty and their Academic Senate. For example, its statement that “participants believed that students could pay higher fees…” is opposed by the Academic Senate, which believes that California should maintain its policy of free access to post-secondary education at community colleges. It also claimed that all present supported, with small qualms, performance based funding approaches. The Senate representatives did not do so.
Indeed, the very purpose of the preliminary report itself is unclear. Although the Commission says this document is not a position paper, the self-declared purpose of the Commission is to “..develop an Action Agenda to be submitted to the Governor, the Legislature, the institutions of higher education, the business community and the public.” In addition, members of the Commission allegedly were chosen for their ability to develop long-term policies in the public interest and actively promote their recommendations before the audiences important for higher education’s future.” The lack of faculty representation on the Commission is a conscious omission in view of this stated purpose. At the April meeting, Commission staff indicated a belief that those internal to the system are incapable of making sound policy recommendations in the public interest with regard to higher education. It is unclear, however, shy the Commission believes it is well positioned to determine what is in the public interest for the vast number of citizens of California.
The Commission stated its deliberation would last approximately eighteen months. With the focus of the roundtable discussion on community colleges and AB 1725, it is not clear if and when the Commission plans to incorporate an assessment of the operations of the four-year public and private colleges (originally stated as part of the Commission’s focus).
Academic Senate representatives have indicated that we would welcome opportunities for public dialogue with Commission members to engage in serious debate and deliberation about the future of public higher education in California. We also would encourage the Commission to provide opportunities for members of the public to be included in such public policy deliberations.
The Academic Senate has endorsed neither this Commission nor its report. The methodology employed in the report provokes serious questions and generates concern that the Commission’s work will serve to polarize rather than to further higher education in the state. The energies of this select group would be better spent in addressing means whereby California governmental leadership could facilitate community colleges in fulfilling the visions set forth in the Master Plan for Higher Education and AB 1725.