While California debates the mission of its community colleges, now is a good time to review the mission for the Academic Senate, as it might be changing as well. The change of the community college mission raises questions about which communities we serve, how to expand and still keep the quality of all programs and services at the highest possible level, and how to do more with less funding. All those issues apply to the Senate mission as well. Given recent developments, there are two striking issues that warrant consideration of changes to our mission. One principle that is missing from our mission is so obvious that it's surprising we haven't noticed it, and the other is emerging and should give us pause to consider the direction of the organization in the future.
The current mission statement for the Senate can be found on the ASCCC webpage and states:
The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges fosters the effective participation by community college faculty in all statewide and local academic and professional matters; develops, promotes, and acts upon policies responding to statewide concerns; and serves as the official voice of the faculty of California Community Colleges in academic and professional matters. The Academic Senate strengthens and supports the local senates of all California community colleges.
The Senate does a great job with the current mission. We deploy over a hundred faculty to various committees and task forces which develop and promote policies. We are the official voice of the faculty in academic and professional matters, which is widely known and respected in the state. The Senate's resolution process and democratic structure enable us to mobilize faculty and affect policy change, and the quality of our work is outstanding. So what could be missing from that mission? What is obviously missing from the current mission is the explicit commitment of the Senate to academic excellence. Our implicit work to promote academic excellence can be traced to our support of the 10+1, but because of the Senate's unique position in the state, we should not be shy about confirming our role in upholding academic excellence for California's community colleges. The second issue is less obvious but critically important which is our role in responding to legislative direction as a driving force in the work of the Senate. We absolutely want to consider the former because it encapsulates the very nature of faculty and, unfortunately, may be stuck with the latter.
Let’s start with the easier and more desirable addition to our mission. We successfully cover governance, and the shuffling of people from meeting to meeting on policies, but somehow our core reason for existence has been excluded. It's possible that the oversight was just a natural occurrence of work conducted during the last few decades, when governance was new and under development in many colleges. Most colleges were growing, and faculty were busy helping their institutions meet student demand, all while we were trying to help faculty learn about their roles as leaders. For whatever reason, quality and excellence were lost from our official lexicon, and we need to bring them back. Academic excellence should be at the core of all Senate decision making, business, policy, programs, and committees, and if senates - state or local - are not responsible for academic excellence, then who is?
At least one academic senate in higher education in California has a focus on academic quality and excellence. The CSU Academic Senate begins its constitution by stating that "the purpose of the Academic Senate of the California State University (ASCSU) [is] to promote academic excellence in the California State University." Our constitution, bylaws, mission and value statements all seem to skip this fundamental aspect of our work but address other important goals and worthy missions for the Senate. With pressure to count students who pass courses, earn degrees, secure employment, go to orientation, or transfer, it's even more important for us to return to the reason the Senate exists -- to promote academic excellence in the California community colleges.
Local senates were officially created with legislation in AB 1725 over twenty-five years ago, but the state Senate was not created by legislation. However, today the Senate is named in several bills that require us to take action regarding academic and professional matters. This reality may force expanding or changing our mission. In legislation, we are directed to do work for the citizens of California, often without direction from faculty, and the Senate does not have a choice in whether to comply with legislative mandates. We must understand the goals of the bill's author and attempt to do our best to meet the letter and spirit of the law. Sometimes a statewide response makes sense, but sometimes it does not. And in either case, even with legislative direction, faculty should still be setting the direction for academic excellence through the Academic Senate.
Mandates from the legislature also cause the Senate to redirect its resources to fulfill the requirements of a bill. If the bill includes funding, then we feel we've received a bonus. However, the bills usually give direction and expect us to cover the costs through some other means. An obvious example of this can be seen in Senator Padilla's bills SB 1440 and SB 440 on the associate degrees for transfer. Luckily, we secured grant funding to support Senate work to accomplish the requirements of SB 1440, and we're searching for funding to meet the outcomes required in SB 440. Senator Steinberg's 2012 bills that direct the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates (ICAS) to review, select and arrange OER textbooks in a digital library (SB1052 and SB1053) are examples of legislation that started with a commitment of significant state funding which has dwindled to a reduced amount today. Not only does the bill itself cause a disruption to regular Senate work and processes, but it also impacts our use of scarce resources. The mission guides use of resources too.
A more recent example can be seen with SB 490 (2013) by Senator Jackson. This bill connects local colleges that participate in the Early Assessment Program (EAP) with the ASCCC regarding mathematics and English courses (from Ed Code § 99301.c.4):
(4) Participating community college districts are encouraged to consult with the Academic Senate for the California Community Colleges to work toward sequencing their precollegiate level courses and transfer-level courses in English and mathematics to the common core academic content standards adopted pursuant to Section 60605.8.
The Senate acts as a consultant on many occasions, and we will develop a way to fulfill our obligations under SB 490. However, this bill directs us to conduct our work differently than in the past. Districts, not faculty, are encouraged to consult with the Senate regarding curriculum. A district could designate the local district or college senate as consultant with the state Senate, but if the district chooses to operate with a different process, our role as a resource to faculty will have shifted into a new position not covered by our current mission. This particular legislation further directs districts participating in EAP to modify local mathematics and English curriculum to align with Common Core State Standards (CCSS); the Senate has no resolution recommending or encouraging faculty to modify curriculum at the college level to match K-12 expectations in sequenced courses. The state Senate has no interest, nor should it, in local curriculum decisions, unless resolutions direct us to take such an interest. Clearly, resolutions are needed for spring plenary about how to implement SB 490.
From our experience with recent bills, when the Senate is named in legislation, legislators recognize the volume and quality of work accomplished by the Senate. At the same time, we’re also seen as a means to standardize our system. New laws and the governor's initiatives send the message that our system should be more centralized and fewer decisions or policies left to local control. Every time that the Senate is named in legislation, we should be proud but at the same time concerned for what we will be expected to do to bring about standardization of the curriculum and other areas of the California community college system. Standardization is not part of our mission nor do we want it to be.
The Senate plays a role within the governance structure of the community college system; being directed by the legislature changes that role. Usually our recommendations go to the Board of Governors regarding academic and professional matters just as local senates make recommendations to their boards of trustees. Now we're jumping over or going around our regular consultative processes. The Senate then has three masters: faculty resolutions, the system's governance process, and the legislature. However, the heart of our work must be our resolution process. Ensuring that faculty continue to drive the work of the Senate will be a challenge in the years, and the resolution process is more critical in today's environment.
The question remains: do these realities warrant a change to our mission? The Senate is included in legislation more often, and when appropriate, we acknowledge work that should be directed to faculty. As the Senate takes on more work at the bequest of the legislature, our resolution process must remain our priority. The Senate should be the flag bearer for academic excellence, and including such language in our mission grounds us in our work for faculty and students. At the same time, the Senate's mission must be to carry out its fiduciary duty to the positions adopted at plenary, ensuring that faculty are determining the best educational experiences for students.