10 + 1 Myths?: The Misrepresentations and Uninformed Perspective of Robert Shireman and California Competes


At a meeting of the Association for California Community College Administrators in February, Robert Shireman of California Competes continued his attack on participatory governance as it has been implemented in the California community colleges. Consistent with his earlier writings and presentations, he misrepresented the actions of local senates and continued his misinterpretation of regulations and the writings of others. His gleeful imitation of a faculty member referencing the senate-provided card that lists the 10 + 1 academic and professional matters that are within the senate purview as defined in Title 5 regulations is an indication of his complete lack of understanding of how the system operates.

In addition to a PowerPoint presentation that delineated incidents of “senates gone wild,” Shireman also produced a list of what he called the “10 + 1 myths” regarding faculty roles in governance. Of course, this list itself is poorly titled: not only does it include only ten supposed myths and fail to include “+1,” but myths are generally ideas or concepts that are or were believed by someone at some point. The classical Greek myths, for example, were actually a religious system for the Greek culture at one time. In contrast, most of Shireman’s so-called myths seem to have arisen only from his own imagination and are nothing that faculty members typically either claim or believe. Nevertheless, because Shireman has made his claims in a public forum on behalf of California Competes, the Academic Senate feels that addressing them is prudent.

MYTH 1: Shared governance means faculty members have the final say on curriculum matters.

All of us know that Education Code gives academic senates primary responsibility for making recommendations regarding curriculum, but local boards are in no way absolutely bound by such recommendations, and they can and sometimes do intervene in curricular matters. Certainly we hope that local boards rarely exercise this right, and because faculty typically do – and should – be the ones making curricular determinations, faculty may in some cases believe that they have final say. However, most of us are fully cognizant of the board’s role as an accountable elected decision-making body and the academic senate’s role as a recommending body. Moreover, over the past few years we have heard of various instances in which some colleges have eliminated elements of the curriculum over faculty objections. Therefore, while we may believe—and believe rightly—that faculty expertise in curriculum should be respected by local boards, we are also perfectly aware that faculty members do not have the final say on curriculum.

MYTH 2: Deferring to faculty expertise on an academic matter means accepting the majority votes of the academic senate and dismissing other perspectives.

This statement is, of course, completely inaccurate, and Mr. Shireman might benefit from attending a presentation on participatory governance. The academic senate is the voice of the faculty with respect to academic and professional matters, just as a local bargaining agent is the voice of the faculty with respect to working conditions. However, faculty are well aware that participatory governance is about ensuring that all impacted constituents are involved in decision making; indeed, only a system that ensures that all relevant voices are heard can produce fully informed decisions. The recommendation of the faculty is exactly that – their recommendation. While under Title 5 the faculty voice may rightly carry more weight than those of other constituencies regarding academic and professional matters, local boards regularly hear concerns from other constituencies and may act in a manner that is inconsistent with any recommendation made by faculty. Although the faculty perspective should be given greater weight with respect to those issues that are within the senate’s purview, no board is ever obligated to defer to faculty expertise.

MYTH 3: Accrediting standards require college presidents to delegate academic and curriculum issues to their academic senates.

Again, this claim is not so much a myth as a straw man created by Shireman. The Academic Senate has never made any statement that resembles this contention, nor are we aware of any local academic senate doing so. All of the comments regarding myths number 1 and 2 apply here as well.

MYTH 4: AB 1725 gave academic senates primacy on a list of campus issues.

This statement is less a myth than a matter of irrelevant quibbling over technicalities. AB 1725 sought to ensure the voice of faculty with respect to curriculum and academic standards. Education Code 70902 (b) (7) states that local governing boards will “Establish procedures not inconsistent with minimum standards established by the board of governors to ensure faculty, staff, and students the opportunity to express their opinions at the campus level, to ensure that these opinions are given every reasonable consideration, to ensure the right to participate effectively in district and college governance, and to ensure the right of academic senates to assume primary responsibility for making recommendations in the areas of curriculum and academic standards” (emphasis added). The obligation to permit “effective participation” of faculty, staff, and students, as well as the right of academic senates to “assume primary responsibility for making recommendations in the areas of curriculum and academic standards,” is then further delineated in Title 5 regulations, as the Board of Governors is empowered through Education Code to determine appropriate definition and application of these rights and concepts. Thus, AB 1725 specified that local senates have a unique role which is then further operationalized in Title 5 regulations; it did not give academic senates primacy in decision-making, but rather primary responsibility for making recommendations to the board in matters concerning curriculum and academic standards, and faculty statewide do not claim anything other than this.

MYTH 5: AB 1725 established the “right of academic senates to assume primary responsibility for making recommendations on academic and professional matters.”

Indeed, the precise language of AB 1725 and Title 5 are not 100% consistent. AB 1725 was legislation with elements that were later written into Education Code. The Board of Governors then defined, delineated, and operationalized the requirements created by statute in further detail that is not only fully consistent with both the language and intent of Education Code but also with the governance principles advocated by the American Association of University Professionals (AAUP) (R. Kreiser, personal communication, December 26, 2012). Such a relationship is typical of the difference between the language and detail in Education Code and that of Title 5. We are uncertain as to where Shireman sees any inconsistency or why this supposed myth even matters to him.

MYTH 6: The Title 5 governance regulations gave community college academic senates the same authority as the academic senates at four-year colleges.

Academic senates play similar roles in various educational systems both throughout California and nationally. AAUP Senior Program Officer B. Robert Kreiser cites Section V of his organization’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities in noting, “Because its members have special competence in teaching and scholarship, ‘the faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process’” (R. Kreiser, personal communication, December 26, 2012). The general role of the academic senate as intended in AB1725 is therefore consistent with that of parallel organizations at the university level. Title 5 language remains consistent with AB 1725 and with the AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities but actually invests more specific recommending primacy in community college academic senates than is sometimes afforded to academic senates at four-year institutions, though that primacy again remains limited to recommendations that are not finally binding on local boards. For these reasons, not only do community college faculty not believe Myth 6, but we do not even wish for it to be true.

MYTH 7: No one questioned the legality of the governance regulations until the California Competes legal challenge in December 2012.

Once again, we are unsure of the origin of this supposed myth; certainly it is not a claim ever made by the Academic Senate. Maintaining the legal integrity of the California community colleges’ system of participatory governance is an ongoing exercise, and at many points in the past various aspects of that system have been challenged or debated. However, most previous challenges have come from within the system itself, from those who actually understood how participatory governance is intended to work in our colleges and saw room for revision or change, rather than from a voice outside the system that has willfully misunderstood both the letter and intent of the Title 5 language regarding governance.

MYTH 8: The regulations “provide mechanisms under which local boards of trustees can take action contrary to the recommendations of the academic senate.” (Letter from Chancellor Brice Harris to California Competes, dated January 23, 2013).

This claim is not a myth; it is a statement of fact provided by Chancellor Harris, who clearly understands governance in the community college system significantly better than Shireman does. Nowhere in Title 5 are local boards bound to accept the recommendations of academic senates. Shireman’s own contention against this statement regards the use of “mutual agreement,” as he claims that no mechanism exists to prevent a senate from acting in bad faith to prevent such agreement and block change. However, Title 5 §53203 (d)(2) states, “In cases where there is no existing policy, or in cases where the exposure to legal liability or substantial fiscal hardship requires existing policy to be changed, the governing board may act, after a good faith effort to reach agreement, only for compelling legal, fiscal, or organizational reasons.” Thus, if compelling circumstances that necessitate change exist, the board is empowered to act in the absence of mutual agreement. Furthermore, as the Academic Senate points out in our own participatory governance presentations, the “out” language here is so vague as to merely require a board to identify a compelling reason before acting. A local board is clearly empowered to act contrary to the recommendations of the academic senate when it truly needs to, and if it does not truly need to, then Shireman’s claim that the community college governance system is broken seems at the least preposterously overstated and in truth is simply misinformed.

MYTH 9: “Senates do not have veto power over anything” (Michele Pilati, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, January 27, 2013)

Shireman’s inability to spell the Academic Senate president’s name correctly aside, this so-called myth is again a mere statement of fact. Shireman’s presentation claims to identify “no less than 21 typical situations in which presidents and local governing boards are prevented from taking action without the formal approval of their academic senates.” If such situations have occurred, they have done so because of a misunderstanding regarding Title 5 regulations on the part of the local colleges or districts, not because of any flaw in the regulations themselves. Or, perhaps the college presidents and local governing boards in these instances made a choice to defer to the faculty as represented by the senate, just as they might choose not to act due to the protests of any other constituency. Absolutely nothing in Title 5 gives academic senates the power to veto or prevent board action. If the boards themselves have allowed such a veto to exist, then the issue is a matter of choice or of clarification at the local level and does not in any way belie the fact that no such veto power exists under Title 5. Our own efforts to identify local senates that claim or exert veto power have yielded no results.

MYTH 10: California Competes is proposing “the elimination of shared governance” (Faculty Association for California Community Colleges, multiple communications with members).

The recognition of this claim as a myth or as fact may depend on one’s definition. Certainly if California Competes’ efforts are successful, they would eliminate shared governance as it has existed in the California community colleges. The AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities asserts that “Joint effort in academic decision making (commonly referred to as ‘shared governance’) is embodied in two basic principles: ‘(1) important areas of action involve at one time or another the initiating capacity and decision-making participation of all the institutional components and (2) differences in the weight of each voice, from one point to the next, should be determined by reference to the responsibility of each component for the particular matter at hand.’” (R. Kreiser, personal communication, December 26, 2012). Shireman’s proposals would eliminate recognition of faculty expertise in academic and professional matters and would reduce the status of faculty in college governance to an equal level with all other college constituencies, including students and staff. No respect would be guaranteed for the experience and knowledge of faculty, as all recommendations from all groups would carry equal weight with the board. While under such circumstances some system of input for decision-making might still exist, it would certainly not look anything like the concept of shared governance we have come to know or like one which follows the definition offered by AAUP.

Despite the obviously inaccurate content of Shireman’s “myth” presentation and the misguided and misinformed nature of California Competes’ campaign against faculty roles in governance, Shireman and his organization currently show no sign of recognizing their errors or of relenting. Faculty around the state will need to remain vigilant against these attacks and continue to clarify on a local level the misrepresentations being propagated by Shireman. Rest assured that the Academic Senate will continue to point out the lack of wisdom and validity in the proposals of California Competes and to defend the importance of the faculty voice in governance throughout the community college system.