Playing Nice: Academic Senates in Multi-College Districts

Member, Relations with Local Senates and Executive Committee

"Every happy family is alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way."

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

In Spring 2006, the Senate passed Resolution 13.05, "Research the Effectiveness of Multi-College Districts," which includes the following resolves:

"Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges research the strengths and weaknesses of multi-college districts, particularly as they affect senates, time and effort of faculty, duplication of governance, implementation of governance as required by the Legislature, and other areas; and

"Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges collect and report on the effective practices for functioning in a multicollege district by the Fall 2007 Plenary Session."

The resolution notes that "Multi-college districts now exist in 21 of the 72 districts in the system," while a review of the ASCCC directory suggests that only 9 (about 43%) of college senates in multi-college districts have a district academic senate to coordinate and support the work of the individual college senates. Given the fact that SB361 provides increased financial incentives for districts to create centers and colleges, how should faculty leaders regard the establishment of multi-college districts? Can district senates enhance the ability of college senates to work effectively with administrators and trustees, or do they merely provide an additional layer of turgid bureaucracy for faculty to wade through?

A breakout at the Spring 2007 Plenary Session sought to open discussion on this topic by bringing together four faculty leaders from four very different multi-college districts: Zwi Reznik (State Center District, with Fresno and Reedly colleges and multiple centers), Beth Smith (Grossmont-Cuyumaca), Dolores Davison (Foothill-De Anza) and Jane de Leon (Los Rios, comprising Sacramento City, American River, Cosumnes River and Folsom Lake). The breakout was very well attended and there were many more questions asked than there was opportunity to address.

Zwi Reznik is union president for a district without a district senate, and discussed the problems that arise regarding issues for which bargaining considerations require a district wide solution, with examples drawn from (1) grading policy [Title 5 53200 #3], (2) distance education, and (3) single course equivalency. Although the State Center district has no district senate, the college senates have felt an increasing need to collaborate and work in unison as much as possible.

Beth Smith, the author of the original resolution, is a college senate president in a multi- college district with no district senate; Beth lamented the time involved in preserving a faculty voice in multi-college districts. Decisions that ought to be made at the college level have to be re-discussed at a district level, and advocating on behalf of faculty and the college senate leaves increasingly little time for teaching. Beth observed that there is an inherent tension in the goals that lead administrators to develop centers and colleges (chiefly monetary) and faculty priorities, chiefly curricular.

Both Dolores Davison and Jane de Leon come from multi-college districts with district senates. The Foothill-De Anza district senate is very informal (lacking even a district senate constitution), while the structure and procedures of the Los Rios district academic senate is clear and well known across the Los Rios District. The Foothill-De Anza college senates conduct two joint meetings a year, typically shortly prior to fall and spring session. The Foothill and De Anza college senates have had the greatest success cooperating in the area of grading policy (specifically +/- grading) and tenure committees, where senior faculty have been willing to serve across college boundaries for the good of both faculty communities.

Jane de Leon provided the most positive picture of what a district senate can do to support the work of college academic senates. The Los Rios district academic senate has a clear structure and meeting cycle which integrates the work of the college senates. Issues go forward to the Los Rios board when two or more colleges agree to forward an item (each college is represented by its senate president at board meetings). On almost all items, the district senate has been able to work on the basis of consensus, thus indicating the unity faculty have been able to demonstrate to their board. Two items in particular were suggested as accomplishments of the cooperation made possible by the district academic senate: (1) discussion of how colleges can integrate and honor the assessment results of their sister institutions without waiving their own academic and professional autonomy, and (2) the development of a mechanism that provides college academic senates a formal role in the annual evaluation of college presidents.

Each of the four panelists allowed a brief period for questions, and it was evident that this is a topic about which there is substantial ongoing interest. The topics chosen independently by the panelists suggest some of the areas the college senates might most easily find grist for discussion within their districts: grading policy, tenure and faculty evaluation, and assessment. Reflection on the areas which are subject to both collective bargaining and which are also academic and professional matters suggests that issues with a workload aspect (distance education and calendar) would also be useful topics for district senates to consider.

Ardon Alger from Chaffey College asked about a study of the efficiency of multi-college districts, especially in light of economies of scale arguments that are used to justify adding campuses. A review of the most recent Faculty Obligation Number report suggests that there is not a great disparity based on multi-college district status. In district-reported numbers, multi-college districts attributed 61% of instruction to full-time faculty while single college districts attributed 59.2% of instruction to full time faculty. The System office reported statewide average is 60.12%.

Balancing the allure of growing through the addition of colleges, Francine Podenski from City College of San Francisco pointed out that her district has resisted the allurements of increased funding in spite of the challenges of maintaining a single academic senate in a district with a single primary college and ten centers.

At the end of the session, it was clear that there were many more questions and observations than there was time to accommodate, so perhaps a subsequent breakout would be of interest. It seems clear from the comments of all of the panelists that local senates have a trickier task in multi-college districts, but it also seems clear from the experience of senates in the Los Rios district that a thoughtfully organized district senate can do a great deal to help avoid senate-to-senate friction and can even potentially make local senates more effective by modeling effective faculty collaboration to local boards of trustees. No two multi-college districts are completely alike, but at their best, senates always seek to support the voice of faculty in academic and professional matters. How that can best be accomplished in any institutional setting remains a challenge for local senates to confront and resolve.