General Douglas Macarthur said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
There is no fading away for Governing Board Member Nick Aguilar who announced his resignation June 30 due to health reasons. Even in his short two-and-a-half year term at Southwestern College, his impact was enormous. He is nearly-universally respected by faculty and staff for his courageous defense of free speech for faculty, students and the campus newspaper. He endured tremendous abuse from former Superintendent Dr. Raj K. Chopra and other board members.
Aguilar first came to SWC as a student but joined the army and served in Vietnam where he was awarded the Purple Heart. Aguilar served on the Sweetwater Union High School District board and on the San Diego County Board of Education. In both places he played indispensible roles leading the organizations out of chaos.
In the following interview, Aguilar candidly shares his personal struggles with a dysfunctional administration and governing board, a change in leadership and the college’s struggle with accreditation.
In his own words—the past, present and promising future of Southwestern College.
In the beginning.
“First, let’s begin with why I came to Southwestern,” said Aguilar. “Previously, I had a very comfortable seat with the County Board of Education. I decided to step down when I saw that Southwestern was under very difficult circumstances. There was a college environment of intimidation and a high turnover in top administration. I thought my talents and experience would be put to better use at SWC. I hoped to restore a collegial and collaborative college. Fear at that time created an environment that was tumultuous.”
“One reason I am leaving is I am experiencing some health problems. They have been exasperated by difficulties in the management style of the previous superintendent. With his retaliatory tactics, I felt personally attacked.”
Working with a dysfunctional superintendent.
“Chopra’s first reorganization plan (2009), combining departments and firing employees was unnecessary. From that point on, I found that Chopra did his best to isolate me as a board member and my efforts to create a collegial and collaborative college. In my observations, my opinion was that Chopra had no prior experience at the community college level and relied on what he knew best— a K-12 administrator.”
“Chopra had a top-down management structure where the superintendent has the last say. His way or the highway. If anyone disagreed with him, they risked very negative consequences. Faculty is protected by tenure, but classified employees had no protection. They were subjected to serious consequences. (Chopra said) Reorganization was based on funding, but the facts did not agree.”
“Chopra accused me of discrimination as a tactic for me not to be able to make inroads with former governing board members. Now there are two new members (Norma Hernandez and Tim Nader) committed to collegiality who will not accept any tactics to punish employees.”
A fresh start.
“Since the election of a new board, we have come a long way. First, when Chopra left it allowed the board to move forward and able to deal with the college’s issues. I believe the board’s unanimous vote for Interim Superintendent Denise Whittaker, was its most important decision. With her leadership she helped create collaboration between all the constituencies in the college.”
“The search committee worked together to find an excellent candidate. The governing board moved in a significant direction with the ability of both old and new members to work as a team of five. This enabled the board to model the collegiality and respect required in higher education.”
“Whittaker had experience, put it into action and modeled what a president should be. She was very effective to bring everyone together and changing around the adversarial environment. It was a difficult problem to walk into, accreditation.”
Thoughts on accreditation.
“I am very pleased in the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) decision to take Southwestern off probation. It was a team effort from all constituents in the college community. It is true sign of accomplishment to be at the point of losing accreditation and then regaining the status the college deserves. Whittaker contributed her leadership skills generously to get the job done in a credible, sensible way and backed with evidence.”
“From the beginning, I came with the view of a higher institution of learning, and it was not what happened. Chopra delegated his tactics to lower administrators. Faculty taught every day for removal from probation and even under the eyes of WASC the quality of education never faltered, even working under a lack of leadership and a dysfunctional governing board that did not have a clue how to run a community college.”
Picking up the pieces and moving forward with a new governing board.
“One of the biggest challenges for me to move on was with the problems at Southwestern. It was a major concern for me. I intended to resign a year ago, but I would not do so until Southwestern’s environment was restored. We brought some sense of justice for laid off employees. We did our best to resolve damage complaints and lawsuits satisfactory to the employees. It was very important to me to bring justice to those employees fired during Chopra’s reorganizations.”
“The college now faces the prospect of a severe budget crisis. Trust in the environment is critical, not continuing in an adversarial mode. We were able to get all the work together and then plan the next steps keeping first in mind the employees of the college and the education of students.”
“I was thankful that the board considered me for president, but I turned it down. I believe it is important for a new president to have a clear slate and no connection to prior administrators. Tim Nader is an excellent board president. He has the experience to manage the needs of the college as former city councilmember, mayor of Chula Vista and attorney at the Attorney General’s Office. These things give him a bag of tools to run a board and providing policy direction with a consensus of all five board members.”
A series of changes.
“I have to say something about all those who participated in the early retirement program. Southwestern now has a significant void of institutional memory and expertise. It all illustrates the committed faculty and staff under difficult circumstances. It also provides an opportunity to reinvigorate the campus when we get past the budget crisis.”
“There is a very good pool of very talented faculty and staff that are looking to teach and work in the educational field. Higher education has taken a big hit, but we will get a lot of great talent to become part of Southwestern in a couple of years. The college will have the ability to bring in individuals with fresh ideas and new perspectives. Given the current environment I am confident Southwestern will continue to get better in the long haul.”
“State-mandated shared governance was nonexistent. New policies adopted by the board ensure that the Academic Senate has direct communication with the governing board. As long as they can continue to engage in collegial process in planning all phases of decision making, Southwestern College will continue to be a model for the rest of the state and a service to its students.”
“The adoption of the new Free Speech Policy has now opened up the campus and community. They are no longer limited to a tiny space in front of the cafeteria. That was an abusive setting as we saw with the suspension of the four faculty members. The decisions made then were later rescinded, and rightfully so. This is a positive outcome. It makes it clear to everyone they have the right to express their views without any retaliation, with the exception of disrupting the functioning of the college. You can’t disrupt classes and teaching or go storming into the president’s office.”
A new path.
“I still feel reluctant in resigning but have come to the point of accepting that the college is now on the right path to provide a positive environment for everyone and the best student learning possible. It is a good time for me to step down. The college is now in good standing. This will give the governing board an opportunity to select a new superintendent. They have 60 days to fill the vacancy. Appointment of the new governing board member is the best way to go. The cost of an election during the current budget crisis is unreasonable.”
“This way the new governing board member will be a part of the process in selecting a new superintendent and part of the discussion. That is an important element. It requires finding someone with community college experience and experience in working collegiately with all constituent groups. This is important criteria and I feel confident that the board will get a candidate that fits these criteria.”
“I feel comfortable that I can now step down now and get the treatment that I need, knowing the college is on the right path. I was just fortunate to be a part of the community effort, because it took everyone. I could never have done any of this myself. I feel fortunate to be part of the reform team in having a new board, a critical key, committed in a way I have been trying to communicate.”
“Without the community’s help in getting two new governing board members elected, we could still be where we were. I am thankful to the entire college community for giving me the opportunity and knowing that I have been a part of this change. Look forward to what a community college can be not how it has been in the past.”
“Now, I am looking forward to coming back and hanging around,” said Aguilar. “But, this time, as a student.”