SB 55 (Lowenthal) Creating a Uniform Response to Academic Senate Motions of No Confidence

Executive Director, Faculty Association of California Community Colleges

One of my greatest challenges as a legislative consultant in the State Capitol-oh so many years ago (I believe it was during the Mesozoic Era, but my memory eludes me)-was describing the working conditions for staff. Although the Legislature had to follow basic parameters, each assembly member and senator ran his or her own office as a small shop. There was no such employer as The Legislature, Inc., which would ensure that the employees were all being treated fairly and legally.

Although not an exact parallel, there's a roughly equivalent situation for faculty members in the community colleges. The System Office has almost no ability to assure that the best, or even good practices for that matter, are met. So we're left with 72 ma and pa shops (districts), each invariably sweet or sour depending upon their moods.

Now it's not that I have anything against small family businesses-after all, Polly's Decorators was a Lightman family business in the Bronx for nearly 60 years-but running large public agencies, like community college districts requires a different level of commitment.

Management cannot pick and choose which laws to follow, and which to ignore. Local board members cannot abandon their fiduciary responsibilities to the public by hiding behind information provided to them by campus or district administrators. A breakdown of these simple principles can devastate a campus environment.

For over a decade, faculty members from across the state have justifiably complained that their districts have been summarily ignoring the prescriptions contained in Title 5 53200-the regulation defining local academic senates, and obligating boards to "consult collegially" with them through primary reliance or mutual agreement.

How can a local academic senate fulfill its legally mandated duties if it's summarily shut out of participatory governance process? The answer is that it can't. Period.

Now that the obvious has been established, what's to be done with a campus or district environment whose management-faculty relations have deteriorated? This is the tricky part, because there is no clear answer. Academic senates, while maintaining their duties to represent faculty, are also protective of the campus environment. They have no interest in declaring war when communication can solve the problem.

And here's the rub: The very academic senates that have complained about being shut out of the participatory governance process, have also been foreclosed the opportunity to resolve tensions through further discussion. It's a classic scenario-one side offers to talk, while the other states that "when I want your opinion, I'll give it to you."
Frankly, that's untenable, and it's not what the community college-the great paradigm of democratic educational values-is about. A motion of no confidence may be the only option on the table.

According to a Community College League of California study, between January 1994 and August 2003, there were at least 35 no confidence votes across the state. About 40% of these votes occurred because faculty did not have an appropriate voice in the decision making process.

A poll conducted by the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges revealed similar numbers. Of the 116 respondents, 25 indicated that a motion of no confidence had occurred in the past five years, while 32 expressed that consideration was given to such a motion, but none was taken. The Academic Senate's poll further revealed that 73 percent of the no-confidence motions conducted in the past five years were undertaken by local senates. What's occurring is painfully obvious. AB 1725 [(Vasconcellos) of 1988)] established clearly defined functions for local academic senates in the context of a complex higher education governance structure.

While the mandates on the local senates are clear, the remedies for a district's non-compliance don't exist.
A complaint at a public or private meeting is only as good as the audience receiving the message. Going to court might compel a district to act, but it requires a lot of money and could be risky. The no confidence motion may be the only option.

That leads us to the most challenging question-once the motion of no confidence has been approved, now what?

Here's where follow-up correspondence with local academic senate leaders confirmed basic intuition. There's no progress with the underlying problem that triggered the motion unless the local governing board gets engaged.

That's why FACCC introduced SB 55 (Lowenthal)-legislation implementing a uniform process across all districts about how local governing boards must respond to motions of no confidence. When a local academic senate notifies a local governing board that a successful motion of no confidence in a campus or district administrator has occurred, SB 55 would require the local governing board to place the matter on its agenda at two meetings within a specified time frame. At the first meeting, the board would be required to inquire what happened to initiate the motion; and at the second, to determine whether there has been a resolution to the underlying problem, and whether technical assistance is needed.

SB 55 is not earth shattering. It is common sense.

More importantly, SB 55 is the first effort in recent history to provide local academic senates with the voice that was intended with the passing of AB 1725. Under the current structure, local governing boards can ignore motions of no confidence, preferring a deteriorated campus environment over the hard task of insisting that communication and dialogue occur to resolve underlying problems. On a side note, an extensive literature search confirmed that SB 55 is the first bill introduced anywhere in the country to address this problem.

Interestingly, SB 55 implements one of the recommendations provided to district chancellors by the League's paper: "communicate, communicate, communicate."

Needless to say, SB 55 is not without its detractors. On the next page are some of the arguments against SB 55, along with FACCC's response.

What's Next?

SB 55 will come for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee in January. Our legislative author, Senator Alan Lowenthal (D - Long Beach), is committed to assisting FACCC with the measure. He is a former faculty member at California State University Long Beach who completely understands and agrees with the aims of the bill.
Phone calls and letters of support are needed to Senator Jack Scott, c/o State Capitol, Sacramento, CA 95814; (916) 445-5976. Please send copies to Senator Alan Lowenthal, and to FACCC at 1823 11th Street, Sacramento 95814.
While FACCCC is willing to negotiate some of the particulars in the bill, its aim of bolstering local senates in the wake of roadblocks erected by some district administrations, remains steadfast. That's why FACCC is extremely grateful to the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges for all of its technical support and assistance with the measure. Particular thanks are extended President Ian Walton, Legislative Chair Dan Crump, former President Kate Clark, and Executive Director Julie Adams. FACCCC also commends all of the local senate leaders who have answered the survey questions, and have helped to lobby the bill.

It is impossible to predict whether the bill will progress. That's not the point. Faculty need to assert power and confirm their rights. SB 55 is the opening salvo.

Arguments Against SB 55 and FACCC's Response

Argument 1: SB 55 is really a ruse to advance local collective bargaining. After all, there's a lot of local communication between unions and senates, and sometimes local senate leaders come from union ranks.

Response: SB 55 is not about collective bargaining. While unions may initiate votes of no confidence, the bill is explicitly about how boards should respond to local academic senates.

While local faculty may have established liaisons between their unions and their senates, each side takes their role seriously enough as to not act as a front for the other.

The fact that some senate leaders may have come from union leadership ranks, and vice versa, is not an argument for status quo. If so, why have any rules for academic senates? Similarly, if an administrator at one district wins a trustee seat at another, he or she is not then rendered unable to function in the new role.

Argument 2: SB 55 will lead to increased faculty votes of no confidence.

Response: There is no evidence to suggest that local senates are using the no confidence motion as a strategic tactic; instead, it's the ultimate expression of frustration that its own mandated function has been thwarted.

Argument 3: SB 55 will encourage faculty members to irresponsibly bash administrators at local governing board meetings.

Response: SB 55 does exactly the opposite. Since current law is silent on how motions of no confidence should arise during a local governing board meeting, the faculty's only option may be to speak during public comment-a part of the meeting which is generally unrestrained.

SB 55 provides a framework for how local governing boards should conduct the discussions about no confidence motions. Discharging the requirements of the bill should be simple and not engender rancor.
Argument 4: Since no confidence motions can trigger personnel decisions, they should not be raised in open session.
Response: No confidence motions are not about sensitive personnel issues; they are about faculty grievances. The existence of a no confidence motion should not be a secret to anyone on campus or in the district. Neither should it be a secret to members of the local governing board.

Incidentally, the League's own study found that about two-thirds of CEO s remained in their positions for two to seven years following the successful passage of a no confidence vote.

Argument 5: Local governing boards should have complete freedom over what gets agendized.

Response: Education Code 72121 states that "It is the intent of the Legislature that members of the public be able to place matters directly related to community college district business on the agenda of community college district governing board meetings, and that members of the public be able to address the board regarding items on the agenda as such items are taken up."

SB 55 furthers the Legislature's intent language in the Education Code, and guarantees a discussion-albeit, possibly a short one-of a matter which goes to the heart of college governance.