Pasadena City College’s (PCC) mission statement claims they strive “to provide a high quality, academically robust learning environment that encourages, supports and facilitates student learning and success.” Yet, as the search for the college’s new superintendent-president comes to a halt, the Board of Trustees (BOT) have yet again illustrated how out of touch they are with the campus community.
Contrary to the pristine image of an Aspen Prize Top 10 college that PCC promotes, the institution is plagued by discord between the campus community and the BOT, a lack of transparency to the public and revolving-door leadership—all of which are detrimental to student learning and success.
Despite an exorbitant $70,000 paid to a seemingly unnecessary search firm, no successor has been found to replace current superintendent-president Dr. Rajen Vurdien who had intended to depart this June. Due to the declaration of a failed search, Vurdien has agreed to remain at the college up until June 2019, or until the position is filled.
However, PCC deserves a leader who is invested in and committed to the college and doesn’t merely feel an obligation to hold the presidency. With numerous accolades achieved and a vibrant student body, it should not be this difficult to find individuals who want to dedicate themselves to leading PCC. But due to failure on the part of the BOT, PCC will face another year of confusion and uncertainty as another lengthy search begins.
Collaborative Brain Trust (CBT), the search firm hired by the BOT, required the large sum of $70,000 due to their contract including training of the hiree during the beginning of their time at PCC. Most of the other search firms the BOT were considering cost only around $30,000. Additionally, some of the other firms would have conducted a second search in the event of a failed search at no cost to the college. In the case of CBT, the college will be given no refund for the price they paid for the failed search and the presidential training they never received.
From the beginning, the search showed signs of ineptitude. The predominantly white 14-member committee tasked with screening applicants did not reflect the immense diversity of PCC’s student body. This has unfortunately been routine at the college and undoubtedly leads to a uniform faculty that many students cannot relate to.
Though the committee forwarded eight prospective candidates for consideration, the Board of Trustees only announced two finalists: Byron Clift Breland and Cliff Davis. According to the Academic Senate, it is customary for colleges to deliberate between three, or even four, candidates. Presenting only two finalists doesn’t offer much choice to the college. Additionally, it doesn’t allow for the possibility of a finalist withdrawing from consideration. This very dilemma occurred when Breland accepted a different position and dropped out of the running at PCC.
Instead of taking the logical step of returning to the pool of candidates, the Board decided to move forward with Davis as the sole finalist. This prompted justified outrage from the PCC community. The Academic Senate rightfully denounced the “mishandling” of the search, threatening a vote of no-confidence and urging the BOT to declare the search officially failed.
Much of the Senate’s opposition stemmed from concerns that the finalist, Davis, was unequipped to be the new president. It remains to be seen why Davis was ever even a serious contender to begin with, given his lack of experience with an institution such as PCC.
He has never worked at a college in California. The college where he is currently president, Ozarks Technical College Table Rock campus, will offer only 18 degree and certificate programs by Fall 2019, compared to the 173 PCC offers. The campus only offered 82 classes this semester while PCC’s math department alone offered 221 classes. The Table Rock campus consists of only one building the size of PCC’s C-building. Davis oversees only one dean while PCC has 14 deans and three associate deans. Everything points to him being woefully unqualified to be the president of PCC.
Additionally, Davis is a white male overseeing a college comprised of 84 percent white students in a predominantly Republican state. In 1998, he ran as a Republican for the Missouri State House of Representatives, as reported by the student newspaper of Missouri State University where Davis previously worked. The newspaper also cited some of his positions, including that he “opposes abortion rights.” He has also donated money to the campaigns of conservative politicians. These include contributions to Roy Blunt and Billy Long. Long infamously supported Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order to temporarily ban citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Blunt has voted against raising the federal minimum wage, holds an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association for his pro-gun voting record and voted in favor of a national ban on same-sex marriage.
It is startling and unsettling that the BOT would ever consider a candidate like this to oversee PCC. PCC is an institution brimming with bright and diverse students from all backgrounds, many of which are fearful for their future given the current political climate in the country. They shouldn’t feel further marginalized by an unsupportive administration while they strive to improve their lives through academia.
Furthermore, this is another case of the administration favoring unqualified outside hires over the many dedicated and capable candidates already at the college who would gladly and successfully do the job. Dr. Robert Bell, assistant superintendent/senior vice president of off-site campuses, and Dr. Cynthia Olivo, vice-president of student services, are two such individuals who applied for the presidential position but were not chosen as finalists for unclear reasons.
Each is already familiar with the campus and its student body, as well as both the areas the college excels and needs improvement. It makes far more sense to look to in-house candidates who have been on campus every day for years, supporting students in their educational goals and helping PCC acquire its achievements, than bringing in an outsider who must quickly become acquainted with the institution.
With three different superintendent-presidents and two interim presidents in less than 10 years, the issue of frequent turnover has also afflicted the PCC presidency. It’s vital that the next president chosen is passionate about devoting more than a few years to the college. In-house hires are more likely to already meet this requirement as they’ve already spent years within the school and understand what they’re getting themselves into when they become president.
Vurdien himself was an outside-hire chosen by the BOT despite objection from the Academic Senate. When Robert Miller, the interim president at the time, was passed over for the job, the Senate delivered a vote of no-confidence in the Board. The Senate preferred Miller, who had been carrying out the job for the past year, a man they knew and trusted to lead the college. In fall of 2015, shortly after he was instated, Vurdien told the Courier, “I hope to stay here a long, long time.” However, less than two years later, he announced his resignation.
PCC needs to establish more stability in its administration and hire a president who can commit to more than a few years of half hearted leadership.
The BOT’s decisions throughout this search process show they need to make more of an effort to understand the student body at PCC and advocate for their interests, including open communication with the community and press regarding their decisions. The BOT have made few public statements about this ordeal and have not responded to repeated e-mails and phone calls from the Courier’s Editor-in-Chief. It’s time they take responsibility for their actions, answer all queries and clearly disclose their past failures and intentions for the future.
PCC’s greatness lies in the many dedicated faculty members who truly care for the institution and the vibrant student body that spans numerous cultures and backgrounds. As professor and diversity initiative coordinator Dr. Christopher West stated at an Academic Senate meeting regarding the failed search, “I love PCC. I love this campus. I love the students, this is our tribe, this is our community … We’ve got folks on the Board of Trustees that don’t understand that.”
In their next presidential search, we can only hope that the BOT will move forward with transparency and forethought to the college they are governing. They must truly take students’ needs into consideration if they care to ensure that the college’s mission statement doesn’t simply exist as a meaningless hollow refrain.
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