Southwestern College pushed to the brink by brutal power struggle
February 7, 2010
Voice of San Diego
Andrew Rempt was correcting composition papers at his home when the doorbell rang.
Earlier that day, the Southwestern College English professor had stood with students protesting against class cuts. Now, the college's human resource director was standing on his doorstep alongside an armed campus police officer. Their message: Rempt and three other professors were banned from campus that night.
Three of them later learned they were being investigated for inciting students and not cooperating with campus police.
The incident enflamed the already volatile relationship between the South Bay community college's employees and Superintendent Raj K. Chopra. It has been an almost constant battle since Chopra was hired in August 2007, and there is no sign of letting up, even after the state's accreditation agency put the college on probation on Tuesday.
The president has acted unilaterally to enact massive budget cuts in the face of deep financial troubles, breaking course with previous administrations who involved faculty in decision-making. Now, three pro-Chopra board members are facing a recall, faculty is complaining of a culture of fear and California's college accreditation commission is threatening to shut the whole place down if the campus environment does not change.
The blunt and confrontational Chopra has a long history of turning around troubled districts and educational systems -- and of igniting brutal labor clashes. And he's drawn more scrutiny here for accepting a pay increase while laying off long-time employees, cutting classes and for apparently boosting a paragraph from Southwest Airlines' CEO in his Thanksgiving letter to employees.
Hundreds of college employees have united against Chopra and are taking out their frustrations on three members of the Southwestern board. In the crosshairs are trustees Jean Roesch, Terry Valladolid and Yolanda Salcido.
The campaign has until May 3 to collect the signatures of 20,000 registered voters in the community college district on a recall petition for each board member.
If three of the board's five members are replaced, the well-traveled Chopra may once again be out of the job. He landed at Southwestern in 2007, days before a new board at the Phoenix Union High School District was to fire him in Arizona.
"We feel so strongly that this governing board is so undefined in its ability to understand or to react in some way except through trying to hide their actions behind the president of the college," said Larry Lambert, a Southwestern employee. "There is no way that we feel like we want to wait until the possibility of another election."
Before Chopra was hired in 2007, the school had taken some bad advice from the state. It expanded too quickly and was offering more classes than it could afford.
Stipends were being handed out without board approval and the college's cafeteria was hemorrhaging about $300,000 a year. Employee health insurance was collapsing, its pension fund had been neglected and a budget line-item to pay professors for extra classes taught had never been paid into.
A consultant gave the college two years before it would "drop dead."
It didn't. But even though many of the original problems still exist, governing board members say it was Chopra's "no business as usual" style and willingness to make tough, unpopular decisions that has kept the college afloat and allowed it to fund more classes than the state is currently paying for.
Chopra had never worked at a college. He had created a 30-year reputation of turning around financially distressed K-12 school districts across the country. He also had a reputation of being confrontational and willing to butt heads with unions. Teachers in Arizona complained about a lack of collaboration and Chopra's top-down management style. But test scores went up and he was able to get the district through a national recession.
"That's why we hired him," Roesch said. "Because we knew that he had enough experience that he could pull us out of this drastic financial situation that others before him had gotten us into."
Professors have been less charitable and pointed out that the school was searching for a superintendent when 33 of California's 109 community colleges were looking.
Southwestern had turned over four superintendents in two years. The county's civil grand jury criticized potential conflicts at the school in 2008 and another investigation uncovered improper use of public funds by a former administrator.
The school developed a reputation of an overbearing governing board which limited the attractiveness of the college to top candidates, said Andy MacNeill, vice president of the faculty union.
Strife, Plagiarism and 'Mercenaries'
Chopra immediately implemented a hiring freeze when he started at Southwestern. Months later he eliminated about 30 vacant positions.
Faculty and staff complained that they had not been consulted as is required by a state law that says he has to consult "collegially" with faculty while making campus-wide decisions.
He reorganized again a year later.
The faculty senate, department chairs and an employee union slapped him with a no confidence vote, as well as accusations of harassment and retaliation.
At the same time, the superintendent's confrontational side emerged. One of the people he laid off had been a whistleblower in a sexual harassment case, another had publicly opposed a college bond measure. A third had been forced to tears in a closed-door meeting with the blunt superintendent, and yet another said she had been victim of Chopra's vitriol as well, having been called "stupid" by the superintendent.
The board ignored all three no confidence votes in Chopra.
"Instead of working together he slammed the door shut and refused to talk to us," said Patricia Flores-Charter, a faculty member.
She accused Chopra of "dismantling" Southwestern and said he has created a culture of fear and retaliation.
Relations between Chopra and faculty collapsed entirely when Chopra accepted a $14,931 raise in the midst of looming mid-year cuts in fall 2008.
While board members commended Chopra for taking on some of the work of two vacant six-figure vice presidents, saving the college money, faculty saw the pay hike as a relationship breaker, said Phil Lopez, the faculty union president.
Following his raise, Chopra was accused of plagiarism. A paragraph in Chopra's Thanksgiving letter to Southwestern employees was identical to one from a letter written by the CEO of Southwest Airlines. Chopra called it a "miscommunication" with his secretary but faculty added it to their anti-Chopra campaign.
Later, nearly 250 faculty members emptied the auditorium during a 15-minute Chopra speech.
Governing board members continued to hear the complaints about the superintendent as students, faculty, staff and community members began over-running the board's monthly meetings with hours of vehement comments.
They were up in arms about Chopra's decision to associate the college with controversial war contractor Blackwater and its "mercenaries." Other public speakers yelled over the college's decision to cut a quarter of its spring classes without considering any of the faculty's money-saving suggestions.
Class Cuts, Freedom of Speech and Probation
Tensions hit an all-time high the night that the human resources director and campus police officer showed up on Rempt's door.
They'd been sent by Chopra to deliver a notice to the four faculty members that they were being placed on paid administrative leave. The educators were accused of inciting students at a rally to leave the college's free-speech zone and march on Chopra's office. They were also investigated on criminal charges of disobeying and confronting campus police.
Facing pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, along with national media attention, the district ended the investigation. The professors were reinstated, one after two days, the other three after 14 days. The incident was the final straw for many Southwestern faculty members, including Veronica Burton, who said it inspired her to support the recall.
"Anybody can be attacked if you don't agree (with) what's going on here," Burton said.
Valladolid and Salcido resolved to improve communication on campus during an open forum in December.
Salcido and Roesch said the school has seen a long history of its superintendents attacked by the faculty leadership. They said the attack is not representative of the entire faculty or employee body, but rather the voice of a small vocal contingent who has been rabble-rousing at the college for many years. They say that this time they will not be intimidated and say their decisions have been in the best interest of the students, the college and the taxpayer.
Chopra said administration had already taken steps to improving shared governance after holding a four-hour meeting with campus groups in early January.
But at an open forum, a faculty member asked why she should believe that he is committed to improving campus climate. An awkward silence came over the room as Chopra waved his hand dismissively and refused to answer.