Striking the Right Balance: Local Control vs. System-Level Decisions


When I first began attending Academic Senate plenary sessions, former ASCCC Executive Committee Member Richard Mahon semi-jokingly labeled me the champion of local control.  Richard’s reason for assigning me this title was that I loudly and emphatically protested whenever anyone raised the possibility of setting system-level standards or regulations that would restrict colleges’ ability to set their own standards or make their own decisions.  I fully believed in the right of colleges to manage their own resources and practices, and I continued to champion local control over all other considerations for a number of years.

Time has passed, and I have learned a great deal about how the community college system and individual colleges really work.  I continue to believe that local control over decision making should be the default position and that only for specific and compelling reasons should the system or the state impose decisions on colleges’ management of curriculum, finances, or other areas.  Each of our institutions is different and serves a different community, and each institution must therefore be allowed to determine for itself how best to serve the needs of its community and its students.  Yet I have also come to understand that in some cases legitimate reasons for system-level mandates or decisions do exist and that in some instances all of our colleges may be best served by a unified position, policy, or standard.

The need to balance local control with systemwide or statewide concerns is not new.  Each time Title 5 is added to or amended, the Chancellor’s Office, the Academic Senate, and other constituencies work to craft language that is specific enough to provide meaningful guidance and structure while still allowing the greatest degree of local flexibility that is reasonable in the specific circumstance.  Each time a new program or initiative is launched, the ASCCC consults with system partners to determine the best ways to address statewide needs and concerns without imposing on or mandating local decisions or use of resources.  In numerous cases in the past, the system has managed to strike an appropriate balance between these opposing perspectives, and in the coming months the system will be forced to do so again in a number of cases.

A Successful Balance from the Past: Faculty Minimum Qualifications

One very successful instance of the system’s ability to balance state level concerns with local control is the process for establishing faculty minimum qualifications.  Education Code §87356 mandates that the Board of Governors will establish minimum qualifications for faculty, administrators, and others, and §87357 states that the Board shall rely primarily on the recommendation of the statewide Academic Senate in establishing these qualifications for faculty. Education Code §87359 also allows for the hiring of faculty who do not meet applicable minimum qualifications through a local equivalency process.  Through these sections Education Code mandates that all faculty employed by California community colleges must meet a specified state-level minimum standard in order to ensure quality instruction for all students in the system.

In order to implement these standards, the Academic Senate has established the disciplines list process, which allows colleges to bring forward local suggestions for additions to or revision of the minimum qualifications for faculty disciplines. In addition, the disciplines list is always understood to contain minimum qualifications, meaning that any community college district can set a higher standard if it finds more rigid qualifications to be appropriate.  Finally, through the equivalency process allowed in §87359 local districts are able to determine for themselves the processes and requirements through which minimum qualifications will be met.  In these ways the system is able to maintain minimum standards for faculty qualifications at the state level while still leaving the final decisions regarding local standards and ways in which applicants can meet them to processes established at the local level.

The Baccalaureate Degree Pilot

A recent instance in which issues of local control and statewide standards have arisen regards the community college baccalaureate degree pilot.  Fifteen colleges were chosen to participate in this pilot, each having developed its own vision and plan for implementing its degree.  The Academic Senate has been tasked by the Chancellor’s Office to lead discussions of academic standards and parameters for these new degrees and has formed a representative task force to work with the pilot colleges and other stakeholders to develop requirements for general education and faculty minimum qualifications.

The colleges involved in the pilot are serving different communities and creating degrees for different disciplines, and therefore no single structure or plan are likely to serve all needs.  Furthermore, the concept of a pilot is to allow experimentation and exploration, not to restrict options.  For these reasons, the pilot colleges rightly expect to be able to develop their degrees in ways that they feel best suit the needs of their students and their programs, not to be forced to conform to one specific template.

On the other hand, the purpose of the pilot is to prepare the way for other colleges to develop and offer bachelor’s degrees in the future.  Already rumblings exist regarding the expansion of the program.  For this reason, the details of the pilot implementation will impact more than just the pilot colleges, and every college in the system has a stake in how the degrees develop and are perceived.  Although the degrees will be granted by individual colleges, they will be representative of the community college system as a whole, and thus all of our institutions have an interest in ensuring the quality, integrity, and viability of the degrees.  The parameters and standards for the degrees are therefore more than just a local issue and some level of statewide consistency and oversight is needed.

Balancing these competing but legitimate perspectives is at times a difficult task. The key will be to set parameters that ensure the integrity and quality of the degrees while leaving the pilot colleges as much freedom as possible to experiment within those parameters.  This challenge is what the Chancellor’s Office and the ASCCC Bachelor’s Degree Task Force must address.

Task Force on Workforce, Job Creation, and a Strong Economy

The Board of Governors’ Task Force on Workforce, Job Creation, and a Strong Economy, also known as the Workforce Task Force, is another recent example of the tension between local control and statewide interests.  Throughout the task force meetings between January and July, recommendations were proposed that would have granted greater oversight and control at either the state or regional level.  These proposals involved topics from funding to curriculum to faculty qualifications and beyond. 

Once again, all parties in these discussions have legitimate positions.  California is a very large state, and its various regions do have differing economies and different needs.  The concept of a regional approach to many issues is a logical way to address these matters.  Furthermore, some issues can best be managed at the state level, such as funding streams that are granted by the state.  As with the bachelor’s degrees, a sense of state-level consistency and minimum standards regarding curriculum and programs is also essential, thus requiring clear and efficient processes in the Chancellor’s Office.

However, faculty representatives and other task force members frequently found themselves reminding the group that curriculum is and should be approved locally and that for a college to plan and manage the overall resources of the institution and its instructional program, it cannot have select programs directed or developed by regional consortia or other external interests.  The same issues arose on topics such as faculty qualifications:  state level standards have been established, but local districts need to be able to work within those standards to employ quality faculty that will best benefit students.

On the whole, the members of the Workforce Task Force did an exceptional job of balancing local concerns with state and regional interests.  However, the need to reconcile these perspectives will not disappear when the Board of Governors approves the final recommendations.  The same issues will likely arise during efforts to implement the recommendations, and thus the same focus on appropriate balance will be necessary.

Local control has been and remains an important value of the ASCCC.  The Academic Senate has fought for and will continue to fight for colleges’ and districts’ right to make their own decisions and manage their own resources as most fully benefits their students and communities.  But in some instances state-level standards and requirements are necessary to ensure consistency and quality that will reflect positively on the system as a whole.  What happens at one college can and often does impact other, both in perception and in actuality.  The challenge is always to maintain reasonable overall standards and policies that benefit the system and the state while still allowing colleges the greatest possible flexibility.