Guest Editorial: On Academic Democracy

by Gregory Keech on March 15, 2013

The City College Board of Trustees voted on October 25, 2012 on a “template” which would reduce the number of department chairs from 61 to seven. Thirty chairs waited over seven hours to speak to the item, which was placed at the end of the evening’s agenda. The stated purpose of the proposal was to reduce the college’s teetering budget by $2 million. After several inflated claims of the cost of department chairs ($8 million, then $5 million) were retracted, the true figure turned out to be closer to $3 million. Reducing this key element by $2 million effectively destroys this democratic management system at a time when City College needs all the stability it can muster.

Department chairs are elected by faculty. At City College, chairs are also organized as a bargaining unit in the form of the Department Chairperson Council, which in turn has elected officers.
City College is rife with democracy. In my department, English as a Second Language, our local Campus Coordinators are also elected, as are the members of our standing committees which look at such discipline-specific matters as curriculum. In January 2010, our department structure was recognized in a study written by the California Community College Collaborative (C4), Transferring Promising Practices, under the auspices of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Riverside. On page 43, the authors write:

“A non-hierarchical, faculty-driven governance structure reinforces instructors’ sense of agency and gives them a strong sense of ownership of the programs. Various committees oversee curriculum decisions and frequent meetings contribute to a sense of collaboration.”

This sense of agency inspires faculty to be more productive in the classroom and in their level of engagement in the business of the department: monitoring student success by assessing our effectiveness, responding to community interest in new courses, creating better pathways for students to follow toward their academic and career goals. A strong sense of ownership also results in a high level of volunteerism. Faculty regularly donate their own time to scholarship fund drives, professional development activities (which have been very poorly funded in recent years), and engagement in their disciplines on a state and national level. City College of San Francisco is recognized nationally for its excellence: The Radiology, Journalism and Speech Departments, among others, have recently received national recognition.

If faculty lose their voice, and if departments lose their effective interface with the outside world, City College will decline. Disempowered faculty will be demoralized and not inclined to volunteer their time, energy and expertise. Chairs, under the current proposal, will have such unrealistic workloads that they will be lucky just to get a schedule for the next semester out, much less engage in the myriad activities which make this college great.

Faculty and chairs are “on the ground.” We have direct contact with the people who are a college’s very reason for being – students. Our right to choose our leadership in a democratic, informed and responsible fashion is being abrogated by this plan, in a nation that is moving ever closer to corporatocracy, in which only the most powerful have rights. It is time for City College to stop this pretense of saving money by eviscerating one of the most effective aspects of the College’s structure. It is time for City College to embrace its faculty and chairs and recognize us for our deep knowledge of our disciplines and communities, and our lifelong commitment to educating our students.

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