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GRCC faculty, administration vow to work out differences
Until recently Green River Community College's administration allowed its faculty the final decisions on such vital questions as class waiting lists, expectations, grading and classroom size.
Now, under a business-oriented model faculty say GRCC President Eileen Ely is aggressively pushing, financial bean counters without any academic experience are taking over their turf.
Faculty say the administration is bypassing them on such vital questions as prerequisites, which are being transferred to marketing people. That the administration no longer wants instructors to be the deciding element as far as the placement exams they use to decide whether a student is ready for a particular class. And that the administration wants more control over the books instructors use.
Two weeks ago, rumbling discontent boiled over into a 92-percent faculty vote of no confidence in Ely.
"It's about the lack of shared governance," said Hank Galmish, English professor, chair of GRCC's Instructional Council and faculty spokesman.
Administrators respond that the unhappiness comes from a lack of communication with an administration that is doing its best to respond to tough economic times and sharp state budget cuts.
"Both sides are to blame for the lack of communication," said Vickie Sheehan, GRCC's executive director of college relations and special assistant to the president. "The faculty have some legitimate concerns they want to discuss. But we need to know from our perspective exactly what the issues are. We know shared governance is an issue, but what does that mean? It's a broad statement."
Ely and Vice President of Instruction Derek Brandes were to have met Thursday with division chairs to have what Ely called after the vote, "a courageous conversation," about shared governance and other hot-button topics.
It is the first of what Sheehan expects will be many such meetings.
"The problems aren't going to get resolved in one meeting at all, but that's our first step," Sheehan said.
Under the college's traditional academic model, all credit classes — that is, the classes that transfer, award certificates, etc. — have been through a division and every division has been under the instructional council.
The English Division, for example, has rigorous prerequisites because its instructors know what it takes to succeed in a college writing class, Galmish said. If students lack command of basic English, he said, they are not going to succeed, they will take a class two or three times, or fail and simply leave.
"We've got a replacement model that's being pushed in — it's not unique here, it's all over the country — where the student is no longer in a relationship with faculty or the school as a consultant with a professional, but as 'a customer.' We were told directly about two years ago: 'If a customer goes to McDonald's and they don't like the product or the service, they'll go to Burger King.'"
The problem with the "student as customer" business model, Galmish continued, is the grading: if a faculty member doesn't give a student the grade that he or she wants, or doesn't allow the student to take the classes that he or she wants, the student will go to another community college.
That, Galmish, puts unfair pressure on the faculty.
"You can't just sell a grade," Galmish said. "I can't show you a document where they say to do it, but that's the pressure everybody is under, and the way the movement is going at the college is to bypass questions of prerequisites. Administration talks about customers, about prerequisites as being 'a pinch point in the pipeline,' and 'we've gotta keep the pipeline open.' We feel that they've been setting up models that bypass the entire instructional council.
"Since President Ely came on in 2009, 12 people have been dismissed or fired and replaced by people with a strong business model," Galmish said. "We see the administration not respecting the traditional academic model and taking away those questions and trying to run this as a business."
Galmish said the financial model simply doesn't fit GRCC's academic environment.
"As an academic model, it causes all kinds of terrible friction ... Look, we know that Olympia is not giving the money to the colleges that it used to. We know there has to be an entrepreneurial unit at every college now, and that we have to make a certain amount of money," Galmish said.
Most of the money GRCC makes today comes through its International Program, for which it recruits. Its big market is the large number of Chinese students coming in, many of whom who haven't finished high school and who are coming in on a Running Start model. They are at GRCC to get their high school diploma and their two-year degree to get to what they call 'a real college,' Galmish said.
Ultimately, Galmish said, the financial pressure is coming not from GRCC's administration but from lawmakers in Olympia.
"Washington is in trouble, so they telling all colleges they have to figure out how to make more money," Galmish said. "And faculty are not opposed to that; we understand that it's a reality. We're not trying to take over responsibility for finances, that's not our job. But at the same time we don't want them to take over our prerogatives of academic integrity. But faculty have to be a part of making some of those decisions, where it's not just financial at the cost of academic integrity. And that dialogue is not happening."
Sheehan noted that higher education as a whole is changing rapidly and that GRCC has just completed its strategic plan for 2013 to 2020. In that process she said, the college got an eye-popping look at how many developments external to the college are affecting it.
"Technology, for example, is changing by the minute, and we have to be up to speed and provide what's necessary for our students, the community and our business partners. We need to respond to the different changes that are out in the work force, to what positions or what job skills people need. And then of course there's the economy and the impact with the state budget," Sheehan said.
"I know from a faculty standpoint, they want to stick to the ideals of academia, which is what they should focus on. That's their expertise, that's where they need to be. With all these external forces pressing in on us, we are trying to find the balance that's going to work best. And it's going to have to be a collaborative process. But it really just comes down to a lack of communication," Sheehan said.