"Where are We, and What are We Doing Here?"


"Where am I?" and "What am I doing here?" is a brace of questions that Executive Committee members ask often, as they wake up in strange-or vaguely familiar-hotel rooms, having departed home turf for YAM (yet another meeting). I recall that my own disorientation was chronic when, as Vice President, I was often traveling four to five times a week. Things are better as President; now I just wake up on cold rainy mornings in Sacramento wishing that the sun would shine.

"Where are we, and what are we doing here?" have become questions of some urgency for our system to answer, for, if we don't, there are others who seem more than willing to answer them for us. And I'm not sure we'll like their answers.

So, where are we? We're here at the beginning of 2002, the largest postsecondary system in the known universe, in a state whose governor seems to be an educational elitist without a clue what the community colleges do, a legislature in which those who do have a clue are quickly being termed out, a Master Plan on the verge of publication, the higher education portion of which is being written, by his own admission, by a staffer named Charles Ratliff,1 whose history shows him to be enamored of corporate accountability schemes and a "do more with less" mentality, and, oh yes, we're in an economy that's gone South, our base funding's been cut, and more cuts are promised. That's where we are.

What are we doing here? We're struggling, as always, to fulfill our multiple missions: we are trying to be the gateway to higher education for millions of people who, for the most part, need substantial preparation if they are to succeed at our four-year universities; and we are offering vocational education to new and incumbent workers and, through the Economic Development Program, trying to help regional businesses become more competitive. And we're trying to do all this with the lowest per student funding of all the segment of public education-five times lower than UC, and two times lower than CSU.

To help matters along, we are faced with constant criticism from those who think we should be doing more: the Governor and the Legislature think our transfer rates are too low; UC and CSU, now that their facilities and-from their perspective-their funding are impacted (we should have their funding problems), want us to handle the freshman and sophomores they have no room for; and business people can't seem to decide whether they want entry-level workers to provide a quick fix for their bottom line, or skilled generalists who will be with them for the long haul, so, for them, we are either too slow or too fast. It's little wonder, in the face of all these demands, that we find ourselves a little confused about what we're doing here.

As institutions of higher education, the answer should be simple: we provide quality education, the equivalent of anything students would get in any of the public postsecondary segments. This should be the case, whether the students' goal is transfer or vocational training. The distinction between our transfer and vocational education functions has been blurred, in fact, by the Career Ladders Initiative of our Board of Governors. The blurring occurs in the repeated call for the "integration" of vocational and "academic" education for the traditional vocational education student. What this call acknowledges is that the best vocational training will not only have the specific focus of a vocational area; it will also include a strong component of general education, with exposure to the arts and sciences, to history and language and mathematics, to all those areas that have classically been considered to prepare one to live a rich life and to function effectively in the world.2 The Career Ladders Initiative, in other words, recognizes that, as Neil Postman tells us in The End of Education, the preparation for making a living has always been well served by a good general education.3

A quality public education is one which does not serve a public, but which creates a public, to cite Postman again.4 Its goal is the self-actualization of its students, the creation of literate, compassionate people, capable of contributing to a democratic society. As Howard Bowen tells us, the goal of higher education is the development of the whole person, involving the transformation of resources, not into things, but into "desired intangible qualities of human beings."5

As obvious as this concept of quality may seem, it appears to be lost on many of the Master Plan staffers and accreditation commissioners of the world, who-perhaps forgetting their own educations-seek to define quality in terms of "measurable outcomes" and the acquisition of "skill sets."

Over the years, my own commitment to our system of community colleges has deepened as I have witnessed, again and again, the dedication of colleagues-vocational and academic-to the "whole person," to enhancing and enriching the potential of students' lives. We can't let ourselves be distracted from or confused about what we are doing here. It's simply too important, and we must keep our conception of quality as the actualization of potential clearly in focus, both for ourselves and our friends and our critics. And with that clarity of focus, we must demand the resources to make the promise of quality a reality.

1 Mr. Ratliff asserted, at a meeting of the Intersegmental Coordinating Council (ICC) on January 18, 2002, that, because the Master Plan workgroups had had little time to attend to higher education (they were almost exclusively concerned with K-12), he would be the author o f the higher education portion of the new Plan.

2 We might note that a plumber who works on pipes and drains is called a "plumber" and is said to have a "vocation"; a plumber who works on the human anatomy is called a "doctor" and is said to have a "profession." As Regina Stanback Stroud has pointed out (Vocational Education Seminar, San Diego, February 8, 2002), our four-year universities are deeply involved in vocational education through their professional schools. And we would add that the need for a good general education is no less pressing for these professionals than for our vocational students.

3 Postman, Neil, The End of Educational: Redefining the Value of School. Vintage Books, New York, 1995, p. 32.

4Ibid., pp. 18, 57, 197.

5 Bowen, Howard R., Investment in Learning: The Individual and Social Value of American Higher Education. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1987, pp. 33-36, P. 12.