Capitol Alert

A 'rebellion' mounts among community college professors as California pushes for change

Eloy Ortiz Oakley talks to reporters after he was named chancellor of the California Community Colleges on July 18, 2016, in Sacramento.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley talks to reporters after he was named chancellor of the California Community Colleges on July 18, 2016, in Sacramento. The Associated Press

As California leaders prepare this week to change the way the state funds its community colleges, a revolt is growing among professors who say it's too much too soon for a system already undergoing rapid transformations to improve dismal student outcomes.

Over the past two months, the academic senates from at least half a dozen colleges, as well as the faculty union for the community college district in the Sacramento area, have passed votes of no confidence in system Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. They criticize Oakley, who took over in December 2016, for ignoring faculty input as he has advocated for a wide range of changes, including the new funding formula that will, for the first time, consider student performance in determining college budgets.

"Statewide, there's definitely a rebellion brewing," said Gayle Pitman, a professor of psychology and president of the Academic Senate at Sacramento City College, which has not yet passed a vote of no confidence. "Faculty aren't being brought to the table. They aren't being engaged the way we've traditionally been engaged."

Oakley disputes he has left anyone out of a process that he notes requires only consultation, not agreement. He attributes the backlash to fear of the unknown, which he believes will dissipate over time as the changes have a positive effect.

But the furor has gained enough traction to earn Oakley a show of support from Gov. Jerry Brown. In a statement, spokesman Brian Ferguson wrote, "Chancellor Ortiz Oakley is boldly pushing California's world-leading community colleges to meet the challenges of the future and better serve its students — and he has the administration's full confidence."

Professors say their frustration with Oakley has been building since he was sworn is as chancellor of the 2.1 million-student California Community Colleges. While the system's 114 colleges operate in some ways more independently than the state's public universities, they have been subject to several sweeping policy changes over the past year-and-a-half, including an overhaul of how new students are placed into remedial English and math classes.

Oakley was a driving force behind many of those shifts, which aim to address perpetually low completion rates. Fewer than half of students transfer to a four-year university or finish a degree or certificate within six years.

Tensions began to boil, however, when Brown unveiled in his January budget plan two more major proposals for the community colleges: an entirely online college, to serve adult learners without a higher-education degree who need to brush up on skills to advance in their careers; and a signification revision of the funding formula that has historically awarded state money to districts based on how many students they enroll. Both are expected to pass this week as part of a budget deal with lawmakers.

Faculty leaders contend that the online college — which will receive $100 million to launch and $20 million annually after that for ongoing costs — is a waste of money that duplicates online course offerings already available at existing colleges while diverting resources from those campuses.

They have significant grievances about the funding formula, which will dictate how more than $6 billion is allocated to the community college system in the state budget each year.

Under the new formula, which would take full effect within three years, 60 percent of funding is based on the traditional metric of enrollment. Another 20 percent is based on the number of low-income students at a college. Those components echo a similar overhaul of K-12 school funding under Brown in 2013.

But most controversially, the final 20 percent of the funding is performance-based, using metrics such as the number of degrees a college awards, the number of students who transfer and the number of new students who complete transfer-level English and math courses in their first year, with even more funding for good outcomes among poor students.

Adam Wetsman, an anthropology professor at Rio Hondo College and president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, worries that final piece will encourage schools to push students through to completion at the expense of their learning. Simulations show about a fifth of districts would be set to lose funding under the formula.

"You're going to have this mad scramble to start conferring as many degrees as possible to students," he said.

Wetsman said faculty feel that Oakley, Brown and other policymakers are listening to "these outside advocacy groups that are funded by multibillionaires that want to transform education," rather than the professors who know what they need in their classrooms.

"Chancellor Oakley has the best intentions in the world. And we all align" in our goals, he said. "A bad solution to a problem doesn't solve the problem."

The chancellor's office has defended both proposals as a way to serve students who have historically been left behind in California higher education and to stanch financial losses from declining enrollment as the economy improves.

Oakley said the funding formula rewards colleges that can address longstanding inequities in their academic outcomes. While "I respect the right of faculty to voice their concerns," he said, he feels an urgency to act quickly.

"We are not just concerned about enrolling students. We are concerned about enrolling them and getting them through," he said. "I have to respond to the needs of communities, of regions, of the state of California."

Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, also rejected faculty complaints that they have not had a proper chance to weigh in on the funding formula. She said her organization, one of many business and civil rights groups that joined Oakley in advocating for the proposal at the Capitol this session, has been pitching a similar idea for nearly a decade.

The new formula is better because it will force colleges to prioritize the things students need to finish in a timely manner, she said. "Our students are the rush. And they’ve been waiting a long time."

The votes of no confidence by faculty represent an effort to get the attention of Oakley and other policymakers. Several professors said they expect more to follow when classes resume for the fall semester.

"Many of us have been frustrated by the lack of financial resources and the nonstop stream of changes from the Capitol that have been at odds with our needs," said Jeffrey Michels, a professor of English at Contra Costa College and president of the California Community College Independents, an umbrella union group.

Michels said the online college and new funding formula feel driven more by politics, at the end of Brown's final term as governor, than by policy. Several professors pointed to a 2016 study from the liberal think tank The Century Foundation that concluded performance-based funding does not improve student outcomes.

Dismissing Oakley's consultation with faculty as the "illusion of inclusion," Michels said the real solution to helping students is hiring more full-time faculty rather than the part-time instructors who teach a large chunk of community college classes.

"I don't need incentives for student success. As soon as I see my students, I want them to succeed," he said. "What affects my relationship with my students is having the time and resources to support them."

Related stories from Sacramento Bee