Life on the High Wire: Torrents and Treacle

March
2005
Ian Walton, Vice President

In the past year President Kate Clark has written of principled perspectives, pragmatic suggestions, idealism and integrity. To an outsider it might just seem that statewide faculty leaders are terminally confused. And local faculty leaders are not exempt from that charge because, as every local senate president knows, the life of a local faculty leader mirrors that of a statewide faculty leader. It's a delicate balancing act for us all, coupled with painful step-by-step progress along the neverending high wire to the future. Occasionally we feel poised to plunge into the seething political torrents below-but more often we feel about to be engulfed by a gravity-defying tide of treacle. Don't panic!

Are you doing something strangely wrong, or perhaps are you justifiably paranoid? No-you're just being a leader in the chronically under-funded educational system that California provides as a lifeline for its less privileged citizens. Every once in a while you will feel overwhelmed by all those compromises between idealism and pragmatism. But think of it as the very balancing act that's necessary to take those small but important steps forward. It's your job as a faculty leader-so enjoy it!

The January Board of Governors meeting in Sacramento provided several high-level examples of this balance phenomenon. Discussion of a system mission and strategic plan disclosed that the Board has a current mission statement to "ensure accountability in the prudent use of public funds." But there seems to be no mention that an indispensable prerequisite to this accountability would be to secure adequate public funds in the first place. If you interact much with teenagers, the response "duh" may come to mind. What could be a loftier goal for Board members than to secure the appropriate funds described in their own Real Cost of Education project? After which, it might be time to worry about prudent use.

Mindless accountability also rears its ugly head in a legislative demand (AB 1417-Pacheco) for a district level accountability system and the $31.4 million that is currently held hostage in the Governor's January budget. The Oversight group working on a response to this demand includes Executive Committee Members Kate Clark and Jane Patton. What will be presented to the Board of Governors in March is a proposal that shows integrity and a promise of actual value to the system and has been endorsed by an outside review panel. But we fear the Department of Finance will not like it. In this case the idealistic conversation ranges from an extreme of "tell them we don't want the $31.4m" to "give them all the raw data and let them calculate any rankings and conclusions they please." Los Rios Chancellor Brice Harris has compiled a oneinch thick document listing 627 reports his colleges must already submit to be "accountable" to a wide variety of agencies. Imagine the cost of producing each of these existing reports, plus the cost of the proposed new structure necessitated by AB 1417 compliance. Then total the cost for all 72 districts. Finally, ask whether those funds could be better spent on direct services to students-classes or counselors perhaps.

The tidal wave of treacle that is the accountability movement often seems to embody this same logical conundrum. It calls for vastly increased measurement but never asks if the cost involved benefits or harms the student. The Academic Senate repeatedly pointed out to the Accreditation Commission that to require an institution to be accountable for student outcomes while simultaneously removing the larger accountability of the institution (or perhaps the Legislature or public) to provide the necessary physical and human resources for success was disingenuous bordering on dishonest. The same dishonest transfer of responsibility is seen in the federal "No Child Left Behind" bandwagon (now variously dubbed "No Child Left Unpunished" or "No Dumb A** Idea Left Behind" or at the very least "Large Numbers of Children Left Behind"), which seems to posit that lifelong learning should be replaced with lifelong testing. At a more pragmatic level, the same political balancing act also appeared in the Board of Governors' January discussion of the 2005-06 system budget. Should we pragmatically be thankful for a wonderful budget that showed a 6-7% increase and provided funds for growth and COLA?-Or should we be idealistically disappointed because not a single one of the Board's proposals for fund restoration was included-let alone the new requests that we didn't even bother to submit because we'd already assumed a pragmatic position of not requesting new funding in a tight budget year. Of course the Governor did provide a windfall $20 million that nobody asked for. He wants more courses and articulation in the vocational area, but, by concurrently proposing to suspend the 75:25 faculty requirement, he will not have any of the full-time faculty necessary for both those endeavors to succeed. Board of Governors members who nervously eyed the summary execution of the STRS (State Teachers Retirement System) board members who dared to vote against the Governor's proposal to dismantle the retirement system may favor being pragmatically thankful for whatever the budget contains. But executions don't exactly promote inspired leadership in others. You undoubtedly face a similar dilemma every week in your campus leadership role. Should you speak out or remain diplomatically silent? You have to find the right balance.

I saw the idealism/pragmatism split again last month as Chancellor Drummond's task force on 75:25 got under way. Every task force member agreed with the suggestion of the Chancellor that 75:25 full-time faculty/parttime faculty ratio should be an "ideal backdrop." But while some administrators in the state may want less than that, faculty groups are likely to want more. It's already been an ideal of the Legislature and the Board of Governors for close to twenty years and was recently adopted by the CSU Board of Trustees as their objective as well. The concept is based on the well-documented evidence that students benefit from the increased personal contact that full-time faculty are able to provide-especially those most-at-risk students who are the fundamental raison d'etre of our system. Pragmatists look at the data on 75:25 compliance since 1988 and point out that since the goal was enshrined by AB1725 not only has the system-wide percentage of full-time faculty failed to increase towards the goal-it has declined from 63.1% to 62.2%. Chancellor's Office data shows that thirty local districts have declined in that time period, in one case, from 88.5% in 1988 to 52.0% in 2004. Faculty would like an enforcement mechanism that actually produces some progress toward that elusive 75% goal, which was included in Education Code language as a floor but is commonly assumed to be a ceiling. Cynics worry that the Chancellor and Board may simply want the annual fight over this issue to fade away. But the task force has great hopes of soaring above the void to produce a solution that works for everyone and produces genuine progress within a simpler regulatory framework.

The CBO (Chief Business Officers') funding allocation proposal provides another example of idealism and pragmatism. As with most of the discussions involving money, the balancing act would be non-existent, or at least much easier, if it were not for the chronic under-funding that continually forces us to choose from a list of almost equally bad alternatives. The hope of the architects of the CBO proposal is that it will lead to a simple, understandable formula and greater system unity on budget matters. Then that valuable political asset will help with increased future funding requests. The pragmatists wonder why any district would support a formula that results in a short-term loss of funds when the long-term behavior is unknown. Equalization districts need only point to the carefully crafted deal that everyone finally supported last year. It presumed a three year funding cycle but has already fallen victim to the current Sacramento "a deal's only a deal for one year" mantra (most visibly seen in the abrogation of last year's Proposition 98 suspension deal). The second and third year equalization funding they believed was promised seems unlikely to materialize. Thus, these districts read the CBO proposal as worsening equalization by increasing the disparity in funding among districts.

The Academic Senate is often accused of impractical idealism for its repeated objections to mandatory student enrollment fees: we oppose fees. The Academic Senate's recently published paper What's Wrong with Student Fees: Renewing the Commitment to No-Fee, Open-Access Community Colleges in California (2004) goes further, calling for a roll-back of the current fee level. The paper makes a fundamental argument that rather than starryeyed idealism, this position is clearly in the best economic and social interests of California. At the very practical level, it's also useful to establish a marker as far away as possible from those who want a continually rising proportion of educational costs to be shouldered by the students and their families. Then when the political horse-trading starts, the compromise in the middle stands a chance of being more reasonable than if we hadn't staked out our idealistic starting position. That's a tactic that appears daily on local campuses.

So what's a poor local senate president to do?

Know that every small step forward on the high wire does, in fact, make a difference for your students.

Keep your integrity-and avoid the treacle.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.