Hispanic Leaders, Maricopa Board Continue to Clash
Latino community looks to legislators to rein in community-college board members
By Pamela Burdman
A board member’s habit of maintaining an office on campus has gone from an arcane governance question to political controversy here, where Hispanic leaders are fed up with what they see as a pattern of micromanagement and insensitivity by members of the Maricopa Community College Board.
Tensions emerged last fall after a series of events that alarmed Latino faculty, students, and community members and prompted Latino lawmakers to draft legislation aimed at reining in the board. The first bill, introduced in the state Senate this month would cut trustee terms from six years to four and impose a two-term limit. Measures yet to be introduced include one that would expand the board from five to nine seats and a more drastic proposal to disband local boards and replace them with a statewide body.
“Every time we have had an issue at the board, we hit a roadblock,” said State Rep. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat. “If you looked at who was standing in the way, it was predominantly two board members. How do we make them more accountable to the community?”
Hispanics constitute about 24 percent of Maricopa residents, and 18 percent of students within the 10-campus district, one of the nation’s largest. But some 36 percent of K-12 students are Hispanic, and by 2014, Hispanics are expected to surpass 40 percent of high-school graduates, according to a report by the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE). (See story, page 19.)
“Arizona is going to be a majority minority state before the end of the decade,” said David Longanecker, executive director of WICHE. “If Arizona wants to be both economically visible and socially just, it’s going to have to find a way to make sure it’s serving that large share of its population. Arizona hasn’t quite fully come to grips with the changing nature of its population.”
Tensions Mount Over Time
Still, the turmoil at Maricopa comes as a surprise to education leaders who know Maricopa as a premier institution with a reputation for fostering strong Hispanic leadership.
The tensions began last summer, after Chancellor Fred Gaskin was fired, and the board limited candidates for a replacement to existing presidents and vice-chancellors, in spite of community pressure to conduct a nationwide search.
But by late December, two additional events provoked further outrage: In the first instance, an executive session discussion about the performance of Phoenix College President Corinna Gardea spurred concerns that the five-member board was prepared to fire Gardea, one of only two Latino presidents in the district. Recent retirements of two Hispanic presidents brought the numbers down, as did the departure of a third, Tessa Martinez Pollock, who had faced fire from board members seeking her termination. Community members feared that Pollock’s experience would be repeated with Gardea.
The second episode involved an inflammatory email that was circulated districtwide by a math professor denouncing a student-organized Dia de la Raza celebration as a separatist action. Glendale Community College professor Walter Kehowski’s missive complained about “diversity double-talk” and extolled “the superiority of Western civilization.” It also contained links to Internet sites that espoused White separatist notions.
The antagonism spilled over into a December board meeting, when Latino students and professors were joined by influential community members to press the board to renew Gardea’s contract and set limits on Kehowski’s electronic communication.
“This board has failed to administer its policies in a very appropriate and equitable manner and has allowed a hostile, chilled environment to exist and evolve,” said Manuel Frias, a local businessman. “There is absolutely no room in education for this to be allowed to continue to happen. This would never fly in a court of law, and I don’t think you want to go there.”
The storm calmed somewhat late in December when Dr. Rufus Glasper, the new chancellor, extended Gardea’s contract. The public outcry apparently made a difference. “If they hadn’t come forward, there was a likelihood that she could have been replaced,” said trustee Ed Contreras.
As for Kehowski and his Web site, Glasper said that both he and Glendale president Philip Randolph have spoken with the professor. “I cautioned him on the links,” Glasper said. In a public statement, Glasper called the e-mails “abrasive and divisive,” but noted that academic freedom prevented any punishment of Kehowski.
In an interview in late January, Kehowski said that he moved controversial links to the bottom of his home page, but not at Glasper’s suggestion. In early February, the articles in question had been placed on a separate page, with a link, “The Intelligence Page — my ‘Non Spin Zone’ Caution: controversial subjects discussed openly.”
Glasper himself was the target of some controversy after his promotion from executive vice chancellor, but Contreras, last year’s board chair, explained that the abrupt firing of Gaskin made it necessary to vest power with a trusted insider rather than risk another lengthy national search. Since taking over, Glasper has sought to smooth the ethnic tensions by inviting local Latino leaders to sit on an advisory board he is forming.
But community members remained frustrated by two trustees who for years kept offices on campus and who were viewed as exploiting the power vacuum caused by the chancellor shake-up to engage in micromanagement.
“How would you feel if you were president of a college and your board member was inviting people to come in and complain about the administration?” said one Hispanic community member.
One trustee, Gene Eastin, who for many years had an office on the Glendale campus and led the charge against Pollock, died in early January. His replacement will be picked by the superintendent of schools, and community leaders are hoping for a Hispanic, or someone more friendly to their concerns.
Twenty-four-year board veteran Linda Rosenthal is the other trustee at the heart of the controversy. She keeps an office at Phoenix College, shared Eastin’s Glendale office and regularly visits the student union at Paradise Valley Community College. The practice raises hackles inside and outside of the board.
“Policy-makers shouldn’t be on the campus,” said Dr. Cleopatria Martinez, chair of the math department at Phoenix College. “There’s a tendency for some board members to feel comfortable making statements that go beyond policy decisions.”
“We have to walk a fine line as board members,” Contreras said. “We have to provide leadership for the entire district and the citizens of the county as a whole. We cannot put ourselves in a position that undermines the leadership of those who have to answer to us.”
Contreras said that in his 10 years on the board, only he and one other trustee have opposed the practice, not enough to pass a ban. A few years ago, a statewide community college board was eliminated, leaving no oversight of district boards.
Ray Taylor, Association of Community College Trustees spokesman, said ACCT encourages trustees to stay out of day-to-day operations, but has no specific guidelines on the office question.
According to Richard Novak, vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, “Trustees should never have offices on campus. That sends all the wrong signals. They represent the broad public trust. They’ve got multiple stakeholders to be concerned about, including the internal stakeholders of the institution as well as the community. You don’t want people to feel they own the place when they’ve been around for a long time.”
In an interview in the office in question, a windowless box decorated with campaign posters, photographs, and other memorabilia, Rosenthal said that to her, an office on campus was a way of being available to the public long before answering machines and cell phones.
“I’ve heard this complaint over the years. It’s nonsense,” she said. “I do not wander around the campus. If you’re in the office, you’re not interfering on the campus. I’m a very involved trustee and I make no apology. I’m not moving out of here.”
Some in the community are looking to legislators to rein in board members. But the term limit bill’s sponsor, Richard Miranda, says his concerns are broader.
“There’s a diversity of people who aren’t quite happy with the community-college board,” Miranda said. “People are wondering whether or not they’re in tune with what community colleges should be doing. I’m not doing this for a specific group. It’s always good to have change. We have term limits in the legislature.”
Miranda’s bill may have a difficult time, with many legislators opposing term limits in principle and an upcoming ballot proposition aimed at eliminating them.
As for Rosenthal, she said diversity is important, but she doesn’t approve of the Hispanic community’s recent tactics: “It’s all a smokescreen. It’s grasping at straws to get more Hispanic influence on the board. They had a candidate in the last election. The person lost. What are we supposed to do? Hand them offices?”
If anything, her words are a sign that the conflict may not be over.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com