The Rules of the Game - And When to Break Them

Ian Walton, President

Consult, Confront, Collaborate ???

The theme for Spring Session will explore the endless series of "fight or flee" decisions that we all encounter on a routine basis. Choosing the right answer often determines whether or not we are a successful leader. Some local senate presidents never make it as far as "consult"-but that's usually because there's a structural problem with participatory governance at their college. Their best strategy is to call in the Technical Assistance shock troops. But for the rest of us, there's this nagging little doubt about whether the consultation is working-or whether it's working well enough. And if you determine that it needs to work better on a particular issue, that's where it gets tricky. Should you cooperate and try to get what you want by playing the game and following the rules? Sweet reason combined with liberal doses of low cunning and artful negotiation may also help. If you fail-or even if you succeed-will you be perceived as having sold out the cause, and be eaten for lunch by a particularly nasty senate meeting? Is there ever a time to dig in your heels and fight-even if it means going down in flames? The really tricky part of this strategy is deciding when-or how often-to confront. Or perhaps you need to change the rules. And always remember that your esteemed opponent (colleague) will be making exactly the same calculation. It's important not to overbalance from resolute into dogmatic-and thereby "toss out the baby with the bathwater."

Chancellor Drummond used those exact words in his measured response to the recently released report "Rules of the Game: How State Policy Creates Barriers to Degree Completion and Impedes Student Success in the California Community Colleges ." And I'm sure he was calculating whether to keep his head down, acknowledge some of the problems in our system or employ some of the more quotable phrases circulating on system listserv reactions to the report. Particularly good examples of those were: "a study that is flawed on many levels", a "typical university view" with an "elitist view of education" and "a direct assault on access." The Academic Senate and other statewide faculty groups have to make the same calculation. It would be very easy to run right into the trap of being dismissed for reacting as predictable, self-interested faculty.

The report provides a great statewide example of consult, confront or collaborate. Because of its high profile media release the report completely missed an opportunity to consult. It correctly identified some areas of our system that could be improved, such as student retention and success. The system strategic plan and the basic skills initiative have already launched considerable efforts in these areas. The Academic Senate supports and participates in these activities. But the report also repeats the well-rehearsed university-centric view that education is only useful if you transfer or get a degree. And it parrots the tired old administrative clich "give us complete budget flexibility and we'll solve all your problems." It could have facilitated a thoughtful dialogue instead of proposing simplistic solutions.

Instead, the report chose to confront. It claims that the current funding policy based on enrollment at third week census encourages the "FTE chase" and discourages completion by students. But it doesn't offer any proof and it doesn't provide an alternative that's better. In an environment where, by every conceivable measure, the community colleges are funded at 50 cents on the dollar , it's a natural survival technique to "game the formula" for maximum revenue. With the present formula, this results in efforts to enroll as many students as possible. That's called access. And it's actually a good thing! Just setting foot on campus changes the lives of many of our most disadvantaged residents-whether they take a non credit ESL class or a single class for their employment, or a more structured program. If a student never even comes to college, then you completely eliminate the chance of any possible benefit. As Chancellor Drummond eloquently puts it "the success rate of students who have no access to college is always zero."

If the report had tried to collaborate it could have explored the likely effects of different possible formulas. If you change the funding formula without increasing the funding level, people will still play games-it's the only way to survive. Specifically, if you fund based on selective, artificial outcome measures such as number of degrees you'll see completely different distortions. Unfortunately the report made no attempt to analyze those replacement games in a thoughtful way. What distortions could we expect to see? We do know that the single most effective-but mindless-way to improve educational outcomes is to be more selective about the students you admit. Stanford plays that game to perfection. That's their role. But admitting only the "best and brightest"-which actually means the most socially and economically advantaged-is exactly the opposite of what the community college system should be doing. Selective admission will be precisely the effect if you fund community colleges on outcomes, and give colleges authority to raise fees and keep the revenue like UC and CSU. The Academic Senate has a long-standing position in opposition to such additional local fees. And as for budget flexibility-the report author obviously talked with administrative groups who have long sought the repeal of the "50% law" and the "75/25 regulations" because they "hamper flexibility." Their abolition is at the very top of the ACCCA legislative agenda for this year. Unfortunately the author did not have any official conversation with her faculty colleagues in the community colleges to learn why they believe that these two measures play a significant role in maintaining instructional quality and academic integrity in a hopelessly underfunded system. Community Colleges are not research institutions.

When you ask members of the public how much of each public dollar should be spent directly on classroom instruction they tend to reply 70 or 80 cents.

And yet "Rules of the Game" recommends that it be allowed to drop below 50 cents. It will be interesting to see if the public supports that idea. The explanation for the recommendation given in media articles was that colleges are unable to hire counselors because of the 50% law. The Academic Senate has long proposed that counselors and librarians be included in the formula as long as the target percentage is raised in an appropriately neutral manner. If you just abolish the law you've got no guarantee of getting more counselors rather than, say, more administrators.

The report also attacks the 75/25 regulations that set a goal to preserve a cadre of full-time faculty. Interestingly, the CSU system just put such a goal in place. More importantly, recent reports confirm a correlation between measures of success for community college students and the proportion of fulltime faculty. We know exactly how colleges behave when you give them unrestricted money. Witness the fact that our non credit programs that are not subject to the 75/25 regulations boast an appalling figure of 90% part-time faculty. In the past two years the system has received over $200 million in non categorical COLA and equalization funds with no accountability. It's fairly certain that it was not spent on faculty priorities such as equity for part time salaries, benefits and office hours despite the specific suggestion in the Governor's veto message that colleges could now afford to make that their choice. Why would you want to give colleges yet more flexibility? "Rules of the Game" shows no evidence that the state policies under attack actually cause any of the "problems" identified, nor that they will be solved by any of the recommendations.

So "Rules of the Game" is an example where we didn't consult because we weren't given the chance. There are some ideas that we could have supported-where work is already in progress, such as improved student success and more effective assessment and placement.

Presenting the report as an aid to thoughtful dialog could have been useful. Instead it was released with the maximum potential for conflict and misdirected media attention.

So simply opposing the recommendations may in fact be the only correct response at this point. The many groups that represent our system will have to decide whether to confront or collaborate.

At Spring Session we'll discuss this and other good examples of the collaborate-or-confront phenomenon, such as the recent Board of Governors dilemma about the emergency regulations for enhanced non credit funding or local decisions on what senate activities to maintain during a work-to-contract situation. Every time you turn around you'll find another example. Please bring them with you and join us in this exploration.

1. Shulock, N. and Moore, C. (February 2007), Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy, California State University, Sacramento

2. AB1725 (1989), Program Based Funding Model / Board of Governor (2003), Real Cost of Education Project / Assorted state funding comparison studies

3. Jacoby, D. (2005), Effects of Part-Time Faculty Employment on Community College Graduation Rates, University of Washington / Bailey, T. et al (2006), Community College Student Success: What Institutional Factors Make a Difference? Columbia University

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.