Reforming community college governance in Washington

While K-12 school districts elect their local school board members, no mechanism exists for substantive citizen input into the Washington Higher Education system. Community college boards of trustees are simply appointed by the governor. Several states (including California, Texas, Michigan, Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico, Kansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio) elect community college boards of trustees as a means to facilitate local control, transparency, and public accountability. Gary Davis, a member of Illinois Community College Trustees Association, reiterated that: “One key to effective governance is political legitimacy.”

As a strategic gateway to college degree paths as well as vocational training, community colleges pivotally impact taxpayers, students, parents and employers, and must be responsive to local community needs. Community colleges confront a multiplicity of daunting tasks including: rising tuition costs, state funding issues, a plurality of poorly prepared students necessitating viable remedial programs, and the often conflicting twin pressures of bridging the gap between the high schools and four-year colleges. Increasingly, the mission of colleges and high schools overlap in Washington with the Running Start Program (college credit for high school students taking class at a community college) and programs that enable high school teachers as adjuncts to instruct college classes in the high schools. Seemingly intractable conflicts persist over somehow reconciling a college-level quality of instruction with an open enrollment policy. When “student success” is defined by high retention rates plus college completion, authentic college level course standards would be an impediment. Indeed, state funding of the college is predicated on the number of full-time enrollees.

Administrators succumb to the temptation to jettison academic achievement in order to garner greater Tasked with addressing these challenges, how are board of trustee members selected by the governor? Is there a search committee? Are there any specific qualifications? Or is the appointment a form of political patronage where candidates are simply forwarded to the governor by the local party organizations often upon the recommendation of the college administration itself? Do these boards actually establish the policies of the college and objectively evaluate whether they are being effectively implemented?

The California Community Colleges Classified Senate declared: “The undisputed success of community college districts in meeting the educational needs of their student population is due in part to locally elected trustees. Local board members are held responsible by the voters for ensuring that programs offered meet the needs of the community. They provide a local perspective and help to create and reinforce a sense of community identity.” Though admittedly there are no magical bromides for higher education, don’t citizens invest more trust in open elections rather that acquiescing to dictates emanating from Olympia?

Governance by appointment can be infected by a variety of maladies. 1) The trustees can simply defer to the expertise of the college CEO and rubber stamp the policies advanced by the president. Monthly board meetings become listening sessions in which the president offers an upbeat narrative about recent campus activities. 2) A close, personal relationship is nurtured between the board of trustee chairman and the college president that undermines the distance necessary to scrutinize dispassionately the president’s performance, which is a policy requirement. 3) Board members become insulated, intentionally or otherwise, from external points of view. How could one evaluate the college administration without obtaining unmediated input from faculty, staff and interested community members? Many college administrators also employ the tactic of cognitively overloading the board with lengthy research studies, marinated with academic jargon, crafted to advance the administration’s agenda. A full range of options and perspectives are not delineated. The board is not presented with the alternative information essential to being legitimately informed and therefore its oversight function is fatally circumscribed. 4) Systemic problems of higher education can be obfuscated instead of honestly confronted. Boards of trustees are strongly tempted to simply ratify the administration’s job performance because it reinforces their confidence in the job they themselves are performing. Their function can become nothing more than ornamental.

Electing board of trustee members could ameliorate at least some of these pitfalls. They are directly responsive and accountable to the community that they are entrusted to serve. Instead of boards making decisions in secretive executive sessions or retreats, these policy issues would be publicly aired.

Some colleges enforce a groupthink code of silence, mandating that all board members espouse the position taken by a majority of the board. The California position paper reiterated: “Furthermore, local boards have the ability to embrace the concept of collegial governance as a fundamental policy of the college. The mechanism of participatory governance is enhanced by input at local board meetings by all constituency groups.” Critical thinking is a universally acknowledged goal of college education.

Community college governance should exemplify the very academic goals that it professes. As a public institution, colleges should serve as platform for deliberative democracy and encourage civic engagement. In the process, they would be more accountable to local community needs.