The Issue: After a nightmarish fall semester, SWC has rebounded in the spring.
Our Position: New leadership and re-empowered employees are turning things around.
This has been Southwestern College’s year from Hell. Why sugarcoat it? The last 12 months have been nearly catastrophic for this once-proud institution and we were at the brink of facing shutdown by the accreditation body that holds our life in its hands.
A corrupt and mean-spirited governing board stood behind its megalomaniacal superintendent and his misanthropic vice president/henchman as SWC was put on probation, lambasted in the national media for First Amendment violations and became a case study for dysfunction in higher education.
What a difference a little democracy can make.
Two board members were blown out of their seats and with them the college’s worst-ever superintendent Raj K. Chopra and his hatchet man, Nicholas Alioto. Les bons debarras as the French say – good riddance!
Our new governing board appears to have chosen the right person at the right moment. Denise Whittaker, a WASC expert who has served on 15 accreditation teams and has a strong history of leadership in many facets of California community colleges, was hired for one year. Whittaker hit the ground running and gave hope to staff and students. She brought along an experienced and talented friend, Bob Temple, to serve as interim VP of fiscal. Temple has been communicative and diligent, taking on tasks that needed immediate attention.
Whittaker told the board she could get SWC off probation and by all appearances she has us on our way. By March the school had successfully accomplished nine of the 10 WASC requirements to maintain accreditation. Among those was an authoritarian policy used to restrict free speech to one quad of the school for two hours per week.
Since Whittaker’s appointment, many of the capricious decisions made by the previous administration were overturned. Letters of reprimand were removed from the personnel files of professors Andrew Rempt, Phil Lopez and Dinorah Guadiana-Costa, which had been placed there in October 2009 after the trio was falsely accused of fanning a student-led campus protest about class cuts. These letters of reprimands, the criminal investigations and suspensions of these teachers put SWC in the spotlight of civil liberties organizations that scrutinized the trampling of free speech on campus.
To the relief of many on campus, Sylvia Lugo, Linda Gilstrap and Elisandra Singh were offered their jobs back after being fired by Chopra in 2009. Lugo and Gilstrap returned, Singh did not. She had landed another position in Texas. Gone still is former public information officer Nevada Smith, who was unfairly fired for reasons she is not yet ready to make public.
In December 2009, then vice president Alioto froze the printing budget of the SWC Sun newspaper and refused to pay printing bills, blocking the publication of an issue. The Sun lost another issue in September 2010 when Chopra and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Mark Meadows in July happened across Policy 6063, an outdated, outmoded artifact that had been buried for decades. Chopra used it as an excuse to halt printing of the school newspaper that was about to publish articles about illegal campaign funding. Negotiations failed and three issues of the Sun were paid for by members of the community and alumni such as J. M. Straczyinski, a staunch supporter of free speech, writer and creator of “Babylon 5” and writer of the Spider-Man Comic series.
A new policy written by the newspaper advisor based on others around America has passed the Academic Senate and appears to be on its way to the governing board for final approval. Procedures were approved by a vote of the Senate and the Shared Collegiate Council this month.
SWC also saw the creation of a new mission statement, another WASC requirement for a more supportive and positive campus climate. This policy says all the right things and puts teaching and learning first.
In a nervous five-day Student Learning Outcomes crackdown, faculty scrambled to clear one of the most serious WASC hurdles. A triage team of SLO writers, headed by Dr. Rebecca Wolniewicz, assisted in getting the unpopular-but-mandated items done just under the deadline wire.
Along the way, SWC turned a grand 50 years old. Voted into existence by the residents of Chula Vista on the same day John F. Kennedy was elected president, this land was originally a lima bean field. SWC has grown from a small school east of just about everything else in the tiny city of Chula Vista to a community college with satellite campuses strewn throughout the South Bay from National City to San Ysidro to Otay Mesa. Our school has an extraordinary history, including a host of well-known, successful alumni who have gone on to celebrated careers.
Chula Vista will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary and SWC is proud to take its place in the history of this culturally diverse corner of the country. Perhaps by this time next year we will have our accreditation reaffirmed and the community can once again be proud of us, too. Thank you to the faculty, staff, administrators and students who were courageous and held this college together when it was falling apart.
Next year will be challenging. Our budget will be reduced, our faculty and enrollment will be smaller, and we will hire yet another superintendent, our 10th in 10 years, counting interims and fill-ins. Southwestern seems to be on the road to recovery, but it is a long and winding road that will surely have bumps ahead. Like the souls who travel through the Aztec underworld in the Dia de los Muertos motif, you’ve got to go through Hell before you get to Heaven.