“You’re asking the wrong person,” said Carol Curtis, in deadpan tone. The conversation then pointed to who should be asked. “The committee members that don’t respond. I mean, I don’t know why they don’t come,” Curtis said. Curtis is chairwoman of PCC’s Committee for Academic Freedom and Professional Ethics (CAFPE). Her committee oversees the campus-wide ethics policy. “But it’s a policy not just for faculty, it’s also for students and for management,” Curtis noted.
CAFPE failed to do its job properly when several members ignored requests from Curtis to meet in a quorum to investigate the allegation of an ethics violation made in late March. Four of the committee’s 14 members replied when the Courier reached out to CAFPE. Each declined a request for an interview. “Hope you can find someone who has some time for that,” said one member. “Unfortunately, I cannot discuss CAFPE activities,” said another. “[I] haven’t even attended one meeting yet,” said the third. “The chair … is Professor Carol Curtis. You may reach her,” advised the fourth.
CAFPE’s recent history is insightful. “We’ve never had a complaint. This is the first complaint that we’ve had,” Curtis said of the nearly five years she has served. Curtis candidly explained the situation. At first, the committee’s quorum failure was simple. “Because people don’t come to meetings,” Curtis said. The explanation has more to it, though. “We’re not a committee that meets on a regular basis, so that could be part of the problem,” Curtis said. “I was on the committee before, so I was just a member. But we didn’t make quorum then either, so it’s not a new thing. The committee was always sparsely attended.”
As chairwoman, Curtis took responsibility for the failure. “It was all done with good intentions. It causes angst when we have to vote and I can’t get a quorum,” Curtis said. “Because I’m kind of new at this, I’m not as Brown Act-savvy as I need to be. And so I’m trying to stay on top of that.” When CAFPE was made aware of the allegation, Curtis tried to schedule a date for the committee to meet. She needed a minimum of eight members for quorum. “I sent out [email] probably to 12 or 13 members, and then we had seven respond back with dates that were good for them,” said Curtis. “I sent out the [second] message saying that we’re meeting on the 30th at this time in this room to everyone. And then somebody who didn’t respond back to the original email came.” One member who planned to attend was out sick the day of the meeting, Curtis said. The absence, combined with non-responsive members, fell short of a quorum. Curtis tries to encourage meeting attendance as the committee changes.
“I’ve obviously not been successful at it,” Curtis said of her efforts. “We just added some new members … nine of them have been around.”
CAFPE meetings are subject to California’s Brown Act. A quorum of members (50% plus one) must attend for the committee to take action.
“I’m sure the complaint will move forward. So we did look at it with the small group,” said Curtis, knowing that low turnout invalidated their work. Their work did reach the Academic Senate (AS). Communication also confounds CAFPE. “I think people just get a lot of email, and so they see an email, they know they need to do something about this, they need to respond,” Curtis said. “But it’s like ‘I’ve got other things going on,’ ‘I will get back to that,’ and then it gets buried with all the email.” Managing her members’ crowded inboxes is outside of Curtis’ responsibility as chairwoman. She thought about future emails and flagging reminders. “I don’t send them that way,” Curtis said. “Maybe I should. Maybe I should send them as important, but I have not been doing that.”
The struggle for attendance and greater participation within CAFPE has had some success in the past. “We only meet when issues come up … last year we worked on bylaws, and it was a small subcommittee that worked on the bylaws, the policy and procedures. And so we had a smaller subcommittee that did the bulk of the work,” Curtis said. “But then when we voted on it, I said that we need quorum, so I got quorum by specifically saying ‘we need a quorum because we have to vote.’ Then people came. That was last spring.” In Curtis’ experience, absenteeism is not unique. “I’m on the Professional Development Committee as well … And I think we have issues making quorum with that committee,” Curtis said. “It’s best to keep the committee small because then you can make quorum. When the committee gets really big, then it’s harder to make it because you have to have a larger number of people show up.”
CAFPE is a standing committee under the AS. Curtis contacted AS president Lynora Rogacs for assistance.
“Punting it to Senate [is] not an endorsement, but Carol’s preference is for the Senate to assign an ad hoc committee,” Rogacs told the AS on May 6. “It is the purview of this body.” This process began a multi-week delay in the complaint investigation. “We still need to staff this committee, ladies and gentlemen,” Rogacs told the AS on May 20. The remaining CAFPE nominee was Edward Feser, associate professor of philosophy, and Rogacs’ colleague.
“He teaches ethics … I’ll speak highly of him, as I would everybody in social sciences,” Rogacs said. Feser was appointed by the AS vote. He did not respond to the Courier’s two requests for an interview. Formation of the new ad hoc committee allowed the ethics investigation to resume, after weeks of delays caused by CAFPE’s quorum failure. Three senators and an alternate joined Curtis and Feser. The committee is smaller than CAFPE’s required quorum. Terry Stoddard, senator representing kinesiology and head coach of swimming, assessed the transition from CAFPE to the AS. “Dialogue, debate, and conversation is the heart and lungs of Academic Senate,” Stoddard said. He initially wanted the AS to send the complaint back for CAFPE to handle with quorum. “The room didn’t support it. I lost,” Stoddard said. “We have a duty of responsibility for a timely handling of items on our agenda.” Despite the smaller committee, the delays to the investigation, and differences of opinion, Stoddard was satisfied. “That was a very long discussion. We suspended the rules,” Stoddard said. “I think we’ve come up with a good solution … That’s governance at its best.” Meanwhile, chairwoman Curtis and CAFPE will be meeting more frequently. “There are some things coming up that the senate president informed me of that they are going to be looking at with accreditation,” Curtis said. “That will involve the committee, in the future starting in the fall.” Curtis is mindful of the Brown Act. “Making quorum, and keeping minutes, and having points of discussion, and vote, and when you vote, you have to have the quorum, and you have to do all these things, is a little bit cumbersome,” Curtis said. “So when you’re just trying to get people to meet, that needs to be followed.” According to CAFPE’s webpage, required Brown Act meeting information is missing. Their two recent meetings, Oct. 2018 and Nov. 2016, do not have minutes. The semester’s final AS meeting is June 3. The outcome of the ethics complaint does not appear on that agenda. It is unknown whether the AS committee, including Curtis and Feser, has resolved and concluded its investigation.