The Never-ending Question


Although we are referred to as the California Community College System, I have long felt that this is in many ways a misnomer. Rather, I often refer to our "system" as a confederacy, given the delegation of significant authority to districts in spite of centralized funding and regulation. There is tension between these two organizational models, and the never-ending question that we constantly face is whether or not we need to become more of a system, thereby relinquishing some of the "local control" that we hold so dear.

There are many reasons to maintain local control, and in fact, the Board of Governors Policy on Consultation states that "the Board of Governors has the statutory responsibility to provide leadership, direction, and oversight for community colleges while preserving the maximum degree of local authority and control." This policy reflects that there are significant advantages to the large degree of autonomy granted to colleges and districts. The most often-cited advantage is responsiveness. Given the diversity of the communities in the State of California, it is essentially impossible to be responsive to the needs of each community via a centralized system. Instead, each college and district fosters and maintains good communication with the people in its service area, and the college and district respond to the specific needs and concerns that are raised.

System-level responses are often forged in the face of significant opposition, and arguments opposed to system-level decisions are often rooted in the issue of local control. One case in point is the change in mathematics and English requirements for the attainment of an associate's degree. The discussion on this issue lasted for almost five years, and the recommendation by the Academic Senate was ultimately moved forward by only a 60% majority. What emerged at the end of five years was a majority belief that students would benefit from an associate degree that required at a minimum freshman composition and a level of mathematics higher than that required for graduation from high school. However, opponents argued that different student populations argued more strongly for a local determination of associate degree requirements. In this case, most of the delegates to the Academic Senate's Plenary Session voted to relinquish some local control in order to promote what they felt were better standards for our degree recipients.

Another example is the resolution just passed at the Fall 2008 Plenary Session that instructs the Academic Senate to bring forward a delineation between associate of arts of associate of science degrees that will be codified in Title 5. Once in Title 5, these definitions will be imposed on all colleges in the system. Like the associate degree requirements, this issue also took almost five years of discussion and was passed by a similar margin. In spite of desire for local control, in the end, the delegates at the Fall Plenary Session agreed that it was important to define the two degrees more precisely in order to communicate more effectively about our degrees to the legislature, to employers, and to the general public.

An excellent illustration of the dilemma in pushing for system versus local control can be found in the case of the Lower Division Transfer Pattern (LDTP), created by the California State University System as an alternative transfer pathway for community colleges students. As a part of the LDTP process, the CSU developed a detailed course descriptor for each course in LDTP. Recently, some departments at some CSU campuses have decided to abandon previously established course articulation agreements and now require that course articulation be based on the LDTP descriptor. The response to this situation has been fierce on the part of community college faculty and articulation officers. However, the suggestions from community college faculty and articulation officers as to how to address the situation expose the tension between the system and the local. Some faculty have demanded that the CSU system continue to honor all existing course articulation agreements, and they want the CSU system to reign in the departments that have abandoned previously established course articulation agreements. Therein lies the conundrum. Faculty at community colleges hold as one of their highest prerogatives the local control of curriculum. However, it is exactly the local control of curriculum by faculty at CSU campuses that is causing the problem and that many community college faculty are railing against.

Perhaps the most common approach to achieving balance between the system and the local can be seen in the implementation of Advanced Placement (AP) credit and the future implementation of the Early Assessment Program (EAP). While the system is authorized in Title 5 to grant credit for AP test results, the determination of credit for AP scores is completely local. Department faculty decide whether or not to accept AP scores, which scores to accept, and what type of credit will be granted. More recently, the legislature passed a bill that permits the community colleges to piggy-back on the CSU's Early Assessment Program (EAP). With the EAP, 11th graders are given the option of taking an augmented version of the California Standards Test (CST). The additional items are used by the CSU to signal to 11th graders their readiness for college-level English (freshman composition) and college-level mathematics (mathematics courses with intermediate algebra as a prerequisite). If students attain a good enough score, CSU even waives the placement process and allows them to enroll in college-level mathematics and English. With the passage of the EAP bill, community colleges can do the same. Unlike CSU, however, which has established the exemption on the system level, for community colleges, mathematics and English departments will have the option of deciding how to use EAP scores in assessment and placement.

While this seems a workable arrangement between system and college/district, this approach has been highly criticized, especially by those outside our system. Nancy Shulock and the Legislative Analyst Office are two of the best-known critiques of the lack of system-level control. At a recent meeting that I attended of representatives of K12, CCC, CSU, UC, and industry, most of the participants expressed surprise and some dismay at leaving the decisions about EAP and AP to individual colleges and districts. They couldn't understand why our system didn't simply require all colleges to adopt a single policy regarding the acceptance of AP scores, nor could they understand why all colleges shouldn't accept the EAP as an assessment and placement waiver. They argued strongly for system-level implementation in order to provide for a consistent set of rules for incoming high school students.

Perhaps the important question is not really about whether we should act more like a system but rather about where we draw the line. What issues really should be decided on the state-level and applied to all? And what issues should be left to local decisionmaking processes? We expect system-level organizations such as the Chancellor's Office and the Academic Senate to facilitate discussions with intersegmental partners on policy issues, organize forums for conversation on major issues, and provide coordination for local implementation of system-level initiatives. But where do our expectations end and our grudging acceptance of system-level interference begin? Do we draw the line differently if we focus more on the needs of our different student populations or the needs of the state? Like all important questions, there is no simple or agreed-upon answer, simply the need for us to continue to engage thoughtfully and collegially in the question.