Problems at Santa Rosa J.C.

Santa Rosa Junior College

Editor's Note: The troubling events that occurred recently at Santa Rosa Junior College are complex and the faculty are still trying to understand them. Here is one faculty member's account of these events.

Faculty rights of tenure, freedom of speech, and privacy are threatened statewide by actions taken by the Santa Rosa Junior College District in response to anonymous letters critical of its President and Board of Trustees.

Beginning in August 1995, a flyer and then a series of anonymous letters appeared which criticized the professional performance and personal character of President Robert Agrella as well as the competency and leadership of the Board of Trustees. In the spring 1996, the Board authorized a secret investigation to identify the author of the anonymous letters. The investigators examined computer files in faculty offices at night and examined documents and analyzed handwriting from faculty personnel files without notice or consent. Dr. Sylvia Wasson, a tenured instructor, was alleged by the investigators to be the author of the anonymous letters. The Board took no immediate action but after copies of another anonymous letter were distributed in the fall of 1996 to the visiting Accreditation Commission, Dr. Wasson was summarily removed from the classroom in January 1997 the day before Spring classes were to begin, and proceedings to terminate her were initiated.

As Dr. Wasson took legal action to protect her rights, the existence of the secret investigation was exposed. The actions of the District became the subject of intense faculty and public outrage. The college's academic senate unanimously adopted unprecedented resolutions expressing no confidence in, and censure of, the President and Board.

Shortly before Dr. Wasson's legal action against the District was to be heard, the District rescinded her removal from the classroom, but the Board continued to allege publicly that Dr. Wasson was the author of the anonymous letters and that the termination proceedings could be reopened. Dr. Wasson has since filed suit against the District in both federal and state courts.

Although the final legal resolution of these events may not occur for years, they have serious implications for faculty rights. Faculty have a right to practice their profession and may only be removed from the classroom for grounds specified in the Education Code. Tenured faculty have a right to continued employment and may be terminated only for cause. These rights protect the right of academic freedom and free speech. The suit filed by Dr. Wasson contends that the District has evaded the limits which protect these rights.

Dr. Wasson was suspended pending a hearing on grounds of "evident unfitness for service" [Ed. Code 87732 (d.)]. Before the hearing could take place, the District lifted the suspension. The District also defeated Dr. Wasson's legal efforts to recoup the money she had spent in her defense.

The District proceeded against Dr. Wasson on the basis that she was the author of the anonymous letters and that the allegations in the letters were false. Dr. Wasson denies that she wrote the letters but claims that the letters are protected free speech. By abating the proceedings, the District not only avoided having to prove that Dr. Wasson was the author but also avoided an examination of the truth of the letters. The Board President has publicly admitted that no money was spent investigating whether the letters' allegations were true even though thousands of dollars were spent investigating their authorship. The District's tactics of administrative action and public accusation combined with systematic avoidance of formal process and determination of facts not only weakens tenure rights but also chills free speech.

The California Constitution expressly establishes the right of privacy. As an aspect of that right, confidential personal information in faculty personnel files should not be used for purposes other than those for which it was obtained. When the District's secret investigation was exposed, a number of faculty were shocked to discover that confidential personal information in their personnel files had been examined by the investigators. Those faculty were publicly identified in the media as subjects of the secret investigation. The District responded that privacy rights were not violated because of a District policy that confidential personal information may be examined without notice or consent if the President determines that there is a "need to know." The President has acknowledged that the majority of the faculty investigated were not suspected of writing anonymous letters. Faculty privacy rights are seriously subverted by the arbitrary use of such vague "need to know" policies.

Faculty should not have to rely on individual litigation to protect their collective rights. Because such litigation is frequently settled out of court in order to limit economic loss or avoid adverse publicity, decisions on the underlying issues are evaded and violations of faculty rights continue to impose the burden of defense on the individual. Neither should faculty have to rely solely on unions or associations to defend their rights; such groups may be limited by contract or lack resources to match those of community college districts.

The rights of freedom of speech and privacy are inseparable and are critical to the mission of faculty in the community colleges, particularly in curriculum. Throughout California, as the voice of faculty, academic senates can and must provide leadership in protecting and strengthening these crucial faculty rights.