An Open Forum for Faculty at Santa Rosa Junior College
The AFA Dialogue has been created to air concerns of all faculty. The AFA Update will continue to be the factual voice of AFA, while the AFA Dialogue will encourage conversation and publish personal opinions about workplace issues and political concerns. We invite any faculty member to submit letters, articles, or opinion pieces. The opinions contained herein are solely those of the writer and AFA neither condones nor condemns these opinions. AFA reserves editorial prerogatives.
Strategic Planning and the California Master Plan
by Terry Mulcaire, Regular Faculty Member in the English Department
470,000 students have been unable to find the seats they need in California Community College classrooms this fall—this disturbing detail, from a recent LA Times story, testifies to the depth of our current troubles. Community colleges, including SRJC, aren't just cutting budgets; we're being forced to close our doors, and in doing so, however reluctantly, we are relinquishing an ideal of open-door admission that reaches back to the original 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education.
The SRJC community has reason to be grateful, in this crisis, for the new energy, ideas, and enthusiasm that Dr. Chong brings to SRJC, and to welcome his efforts, exemplified by this fall's PDA events, to include the campus community in collaborating on a new strategic plan for the college. And so in that collaborative spirit, I'd like to articulate a question raised for me by the PDA program, one that needs to be addressed, I think, before the faculty can effectively collaborate in strategic planning. It's simply this: what is the relationship of our strategic planning process to the unprecedented crisis we are facing?
A moment in Rob Johnstone's workshop on Best Practices crystallized this question for me. Arguing that we need to be developing new incentives to promote what he called "the completion agenda," which will support and speed up student success, Johnstone pointed out somewhat dismissively that the main economic incentive in the community college has for a long time been to "put butts in seats." Now on the one hand, his point here is clearly worthwhile—who doesn't want to reward institutional changes that promote student success? But "putting butts in seats," for all its dismissive tone, is also a pretty accurate way to describe the Community College system's foundational principle of open door admission. As the 1960 Master Plan put it, describing that system's role, and citing language from the Educational Code of the day, Community Colleges were charged with offering access to "any student capable of benefiting from instruction." This meant a lot more than not turning away 470,000 students, most of whom are seeking to earn a degree or certificate, or to transfer. It also meant that if a 60-year-old grandmother wanted to study Asian art, we used to provide a seat in an Asian art class for her butt. It meant that if a 40-year-old professional with a bachelor's degree wanted to take a golf class for the third time, we would accommodate her. It meant that the college had a principled commitment and an economic incentive to seek new ways to serve the broadest possible range of members of the community who would benefit from instruction.
I have long believed fervently that this commitment to open access, broadly understood, is a beautiful and shining keystone in the institutional structure of the California Community College system. It's a big reason why I sought work here at SRJC. I understand how direly it's threatened now; I understand, too, that it may be beyond saving—or even, as much as I hate to consider it, already dead. What I am unable to discern clearly, however, is the stance of the strategic planning process in relation to that traditional model of the community college and the current crisis that threatens to dismantle it. I walked away from Rob Johnstone's presentation thinking, "He seems to be assuming that the open-door model of the community college is finished, and stepping in to replace it with the 'completion agenda.'" But on reflection, I'm honestly not sure that's correct. Indeed, I wonder whether Johnstone himself is clear on this question, or if he's just doing his best, like the rest of us, to respond creatively and productively to the relentless tightening of budgetary screws.
If we are to collaborate meaningfully in strategic planning, the SRJC faculty needs to be clear on this—on the relationship between our strategic plan and the Master plan, between our planning for the future, on the one hand, and on the other, the fundamental changes that are now happening to the college we've known in the past. Does the strategic planning process allow for collaboration in defense of the traditional open-door identity of this college? If not, then I suggest that a clear and general declaration to that effect is called for, and perhaps a decent interval to allow many of us a period to mourn the loss of a cherished ideal. And if the open-door college is a thing of the past, this raises broad questions about the identity of the college that we'll be planning for. Will it define itself by its commitment to something like the completion agenda, or its California avatar, the Student Success Task Force? If not that, then what? Shouldn't the faculty be leading any such process of articulating educational first principles? Might the SRJC community, under the urgent pressure of this crisis, be proceeding on the basis of assumptions about first principles that may not be clear to some, or even any, of the stakeholders in the planning process?
We all want to step up and help fashion a future for SRJC. But shouldn't we be clear about where we are—and where we used to be!—before we decide where we ought to go? Please consider this as a first, small effort to help us start down that path.