New President faces new challenges

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President Dr. Kindred Murillo addresses audience before Julissa Arce’s “My American Dream” event held by The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
Photo by Natalie Mosqueda

 

Two days after America inaugurated a new president, Southwestern College got a new chief executive too.

Dr. Kindred Murillo officially assumed the presidency on in Jan 23. She came here from Lake Tahoe Community College where she was superintendent/president.

Murillo took over from interim president Robert Deegan, who came in soon after Dr. Melinda Nish resigned on June 30, 2016.

Murillo has served as faculty and in several administrative roles during her 20 years in the California community college system.

Murillo’s first weeks as president have already seen controversy as the college was hit with several lawsuits.

Former dean Dr. Donna Arnold and IT employee Johnny Blankenship have filed separate lawsuits charging racial discrimination and retaliation. Soon after, a former SWC employee filed suit against the college alleging serial harassment when she worked in the campus police department.

Murillo gave a lengthy interview with the Sun to discuss her background in higher education, her thoughts on the current political climate and her hopes for the future of SWC.

What is your history in Higher Education?

It kind of goes back to when I went to Barstow Community College. I was determined to be a history professor when I was going to school. I was a young mother and I had two children and I was going to community college. So with this goal in mind. I had a professor who said “you know there are a lot of teachers right now and you have a really good mind for business, have you thought about moving into business?” I said no, not really. He said “there are a lot of jobs in finance, you should think about it.” So I actually changed my major because I had two kids to support and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time looking for a job, so I went into business. After being in business for about 15 years, I decided to go back and do what I love, which was to teach. So I went back to school and got my Master’s degree. When I got my Master’s Degree I became an adjunct at Desert Community College District, and then moved into faculty, and then moved into administration. That’s been 20 years, right now.

What was your experience like in your previous colleges?

 

My roles have changed who I am, they really have. When I was at Lake Tahoe Community College, and I’ll start there because that has been really impactful. There were little defining moments at each college and working as a Superintendent/President over the entire college and very closely with students and really trying to ensure student success and completion has given me a different viewpoint about my role.

One of the things I was exposed to at Lake Tahoe Community College was working with students that had been told “you will never do anything in your life, you might as well just plan on working in the hotels and restaurants in Lake Tahoe because you can’t get off the hill for higher education.” For me, that became sort of a defining moment. No one should ever feel that way about their life, that they have no door out to a better life. That you’re going to have to get stuck working in a restaurant as a server or as somebody working in a hotel room cleaning because of the fact that don’t have access to higher education.

That became a change in who I was. I became determined. Everybody that wants an education (should have the opportunity) to have it. They have to be able to do it and that’s what community colleges do and that’s why I love them. I fell in love with community colleges back when I first started, but when I really fell in love was when I was in the classroom at Contra Costa College in the East Bay area where I was involved with so many students that needed us the most and I learned a lot about one of the things that I care very deeply about which is the achievement gap. I believe if we don’t create that opportunity with every student regardless who you are and where you came from, then we are not doing our job.

We have a problem in the United States and in California about students not having that opportunity and ability to move forward. We spend a lot of time working on desegregating data and learning about and having dialogue regarding how to close the achievement gap.

Pasadena City College was an amazing experience. I have never worked as closely with faculty that were so dedicated to students. They would walk to your office and say “okay you’re going out to Welcome Day and you’re going to be serving students today” and I would say “I thought I was supposed to be working on this today.”

What was so important about my experience there was that I saw how much how much faculty really love students and the dedication so many of them have for students. That was a defining moment for me. That’s when I became a really big advocate for our faculty and what they do in their classrooms. When you have faculty that loves students you have a great college, and when you have classified employees, that love students, you have a great college. If we all are united around our students, then we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. And that’s what I learned at Pasadena City College.

I learned to love diversity on a campus. There is no majority on the Pasadena campus. We had a sculpture in front of my office that represented the different ethnicities and races on our campus. It was so fun because it was so equal in so many ways. That’s the kind of environments that invigorates me, and that’s part of the reason why I applied here, because I love the diversity.

 

How will you create the mantra of “access of opportunity” at Southwestern College?

 

It starts with the board, me, the administration and the faculty. We have to model that behavior. We have to be inclusive, we have to be transparent, and we have to be respectful. Through doing that, we model that. I believe that we become what we talk about and how we model our behavior. So if I’m respectful, if I’m very thoughtful with what I do, then I hope it translates to other people on the campus and that we continue to built this culture of inclusion.

This campus needs to be extremely inclusive because of the diversity and the changing diversity in this area. There’s lots of things going on in California and frankly in the nation right now that are putting pressure on that. I want to make sure people feel safe on this campus, that they have an environment they can learn in, and that they know that we care about them. This is a safe zone. I believe all colleges should be a safe place. We have to create that environment. If we model anything different, then it sends a message to you as students that we don’t care and that we’re not inclusive and that we’re not trying to help you get access and succeed in your programs.

We have to keep an eye on making sure you have that. There’s a lot involved in that because there’s a lot of programs you run and things you do, but I believe it starts with your attitude, who you are and how you treat other people.

What are your feelings about Betsey DeVos’ positions of education, and do you think she will be good at her position?

 

I wish I could know if I feel like she would be good about her position. I think we need to get to the facts around people. There’s so much stuff going on right now, it’s hard to work your way through knowing who these people really are. It’s very frustrating from my point of view. I really don’t have an opinion about her. I think we have to stop and really understand people and what they’re doing and what their real positions are, and move away from the hype. That to me is worrisome.

While I don’t appreciate some of the positions she has, I feel like I really don’t know everything about her, and I can’t make a good judgment call on that at this point, because there’s a lot of hype and a lot of positioning.

My sense is we need to stop, take a breath and get to facts. I feel like there’s so much hype about everything. I get up in the morning and read the papers, and I have to dig to get the information that I want to get to. I’m not going to sit in judgment of others until I understand who they really are. I don’t understand a lot of the appointees at this point. I don’t approve of some of them just because of what I know from the past and their positions. Like the Supreme Court appointee. I haven’t had time to dig into it. I just (arrived at) this college, where do you think my focus is at? On the students. So tonight and this weekend, I will probably do some reading on that, because to me the Supreme Court is critical. That is one of the most critical appointments Trump will make and I want to be well informed.

What do you think of the Republicans’ stifling of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and the Republicans not necessarily working with Democrats?

 

I think that is one of the problems in our country right now. I think it is systemic., the positioning of extremes -democrat vs. republican. When Republicans did that I did not appreciate it and thought it was inappropriate. I will say the same sometimes with Democrats. I have not seen as much of that lately, but I have seen it because I have worked closely in California with different groups. From my point of view, doing things that way makes things worse, and that’s part of the problem right now.

Let’s. Work. Together. We need to be working together. We are a country that has come through immigration, bringing lots of people, lots of ideas, and we are very proud of these things. I come from immigrants. My husband’s family comes from immigrants. Why wouldn’t we work together to continue to support our nation that way? I’m about people, not the separating into tribes.

 

What did you think about Trump’s executive order of the Muslim Ban?

 

Personally, I don’t like it. I think it’s wrong. If I was in political office somewhere, I would be pretty vocal about that. I think that protesting it in a way that is civil and respectful is very appropriate, because that is the way we sometimes have to get our point across. As far as the order goes, I think it went too far. It impacted people that I care a lot about. That to me is hurtful. I don’t think we should be operating like that.

What did you think about the Woman’s March?

 

I loved it. I wanted to participate but I couldn’t. All my friends were marching in the snow and I saw all these pictures about it. I thought it was a very organized, thoughtful protest. It was about everybody, even though it was supposedly a woman’s march. It was very inclusive and exciting to have people come together in all these different cities and all over the United States saying “look, we are concerned about this and we are going to fight to make sure we are including everybody and that we’re going to fight for civil rights, and for people.” That’s why I love education. If you really look at it, civil rights is very connected to education, because your civil rights are tied to the ability for any person to have a decent life. Fairly, equally, with equity. If we can’t allow people to have that and provide that opportunity for them, then what kind of nation are we?

What do you think about the Berkeley protest that erupted into violence?

 

I’m a person that believes that we don’t destroy property and we don’t get violent. I really believe that. I haven’t had a chance to dig into the information about the incident. But if people’s lives were being threatened, then maybe you have to call it. But unless you’re looking at real problems with a speaker, then you have to respect first amendment rights. I wouldn’t say people cannot speak unless it was really threatening someone’s safety and that would be the calling point. I am not as concerned as property as I am with people, but I still believe violence does not get us where we need to go. I was very saddened to see that.

Would the campus support free speech, even if a speaker held an unpopular opinion?

 

We should hear it. You saw this with the election. If you think about it, if you live in a community that is mostly Democrat, most of the people of you’ll associate with are Hillary supporters. And if you’re a Trump supporter, you’d feel like your viewpoints were being thwarted and that you didn’t have to right to speak and be put down. With that being said, if we’re going to build inclusion and toleration, we have to hear all viewpoints, regardless if we agree with them or not. That’s why I get up in the morning and read various newspapers that have different viewpoints. That way I hear from both sides and not focusing on just one. It’s essential if you’re trying to be inclusive.

What is your goal for the campus in regards to accreditation?

 

My goal is to never be on warning again. I wouldn’t promise that we will get off warning. I am hoping that we do. People have worked really hard on this campus for the past 18 months to really turn this around. I never want to be at the point here where we have this happen again.

Accreditation is not something you work on every six or seven years. It’s something that you should be working on all the time. And it’s not about accreditation. It’s really about the standards of practices. If you look at the standards, it’s all of us in the state of California that came together and said “these are the best practices for colleges.”

We agreed to that. These standards were not sent down from the USDE in Washington. They were developed our peers. They’re supposed to be the best practices for good colleges. If you continually live by those standards, you don’t get to this point where you get a warning because you’re not meeting.

There’s another factor of this. We have a lot of regulations that come from the USDE. We don’t have much control over those. Those are compliance things that we have to do. As far as the rest of it, it’s just good standards of practice. If you continue to always meet those, it is really important to the quality of the program you have. It’s all about continuous improvement.

What is your past experience and outlook on accreditation ?

 

I believe in peer review. I think it’s important. If we don’t do good peer reviews, the USDE will try to take it away from us. There’s legislation being proposed in Washington to move us from peer review, to having bureaucrats coming into our college.

What are your thought on freedom of the press, and a journalist rights? to not be scrutinized by administrations or governments?

 

I believe in the freedom of the press. There’s no question about that in my mind. I get concerned when I see things that get put out in the press that have no factual basis. If I tell you something is my opinion, it is my personal opinion. I think if we delineate between that, we have a right to an opinion. I’m not someone who takes those things personally. You have a right to say what you need to say. Just make sure there’s delineation to reporting facts and opinions. If we do that well, it will help with a lot of things in the United States.

As a president, I try to be data informed. If two different people come to me with an opinion do you think they represent all 26,000 students at this college? I always delineate out what the majority thinks.

I represent everyone here at the college, so I need to think about that in the whole context. I hope journalists do the same. The journalists that I have respected in my life have done that. They delineate from opinion and facts. I totally respect and I don’t take things personally. Yes it hurts when you get criticized personally, but I would also tell you that you have the right to ask questions. I used to teach decision making advocacy at Copper Mountain Community College, and the first thing I would do with students is work to figure out what is good journalism and what you needed to toss out. I think it is really important to look at good journalism.

What do you think about student journalists? Do you think they should have the same rights as someone who works at the Washington Post?

 

I think journalism is journalism. You are in a program to be a really good journalist. You have to take the hard knocks like the rest of us. That’s part of the learning. So yes.

I know you have a good reputation and have a lot of awards. I worked with a newspaper at Contra Costa College. They also have a lot of awards and are proud of their history.

If you’re going to be a good journalist in the future, you have to be one now. We have to treat you like adults. Students in community colleges are adults. As an adult we have to deal with the consequence of our actions. I think if our expectations are this, then we have to give you the same responsibilities and freedoms. It all works together.

If there’s one last thing you would want to say, what would it be?

 

I came here because I believe in what we do. And I believe this college is one of the places where we can really do good work around inclusion and student success. In the areas that really need to be focused like achievement gap and the opportunity gap for people who don’t have opportunity to be able to come in and succeed. That is why I came here and the only way we can do that is if we come together as a campus and really focus on what we believe in, which is students.

There’s a lot of work to be done in that area and I think I’m the right person to do that because I’m very inclusive. I’m naturally inclusive. I ask a lot of opinions before I make decisions. When I do make a decision to move forward, its been thoroughly vetted. There’s been a lot of information gathered and it’s had a lot of input.

I think this college can do such great things in this community. I said it at my forum, I think it’s got so much more potential than its showing. And it needs an advocate and it needs someone to pull it together and really show the world how good it is. Because there are so many good things going on at this campus and it gets overshadowed by some of the negative things, and the negative things are really a small number of people. But because they are so negative, they overshadow 95 percent of the people on this campus that are doing really great work. My focus is making sure the good stuff is where we’re spending our energy.

What is your comment about the pending lawsuit by former dean Dr. Donna Arnold?

 

I have been told there is a pending lawsuit, but I haven’t seen it. It hasn’t been sent to the college. It’s hard to talk about it when you have no idea what the lawsuit is. Depending on what that might be would determine what comments I would make. Unfortunately, we have not been served as of this moment that I’m aware of, unless it has come in the last few minutes. I have heard of the allegations, but like I said before until I have all the facts, I don’t feel comfortable making comments when I really don’t have the facts.

 

Why was Larry Lambert put on administrative leave?

 

I cannot talk about personnel issues. I would do that for anyone. My big concern always for people is making sure we protect their rights. Anytime we deal with a personnel issue, I am going to be concerned about protecting that person’s rights and so that’s why I cannot make any comment on that.

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