Academics Exchange Fire

On March 7 of last year the Grossmont College academic senate gave its highest administrator a vote of no confidence. The rancor between faculty and Omero Suarez, the chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, began after the passage in 2002 of Proposition R, a $207 million bond measure for building repairs, renovations, and new construction at the district's two El Cajon colleges. Most Grossmont faculty complain that Suarez favors Cuyamaca College in divvying up the monies. For years, they say, the district had visions of a fast-growing Cuyamaca. "But the college is like a business that's not performing," says one of them. "So the district keeps trying everything to move it along."

The Grossmont-Cuyamaca board of trustees supported Suarez in the conflict and, at its June meeting, voted to extend his contract and the contracts of the vice chancellors as well as that of the president of Cuyamaca College, despite the extensions' not being scheduled for that time. But the board did not extend Grossmont College president Ted Martinez's contract nor mention anything about his future. The Grossmont faculty took notice. In subsequent board meetings over the summer many praised Martinez for his leadership at the college.

The faculty may have paid less attention to the president's situation as other conflicts with the district board surfaced last fall. The most serious occurred in October over noncredit classes that Cuyamaca College offers residents of retirement and convalescent homes. According to many Grossmont faculty members, the classes are a gimmick to increase Cuyamaca's enrollment and make a greater case for expanding its campus. According to a September 19, 2004, article in the Orange County Register, community colleges all over the state are using questionable methods to increase enrollments.

But in December President Martinez suddenly became a hot item again. After finishing the fall semester and starting midyear holidays, the Grossmont faculty was shocked to read in newspapers that the district board had decided to let Martinez's contract lapse this coming June. To seal President Martinez's fate, Chancellor Suarez and the district board held a secret closed-session meeting two days before Christmas. The regularly scheduled board of trustees meeting had already been held on December 13, and faculty members had no idea any further district action would take place before they returned in January. In explaining the action Suarez said he suddenly remembered that by law the district had to give Martinez six months' notice that his contract would not be renewed.

To make matters worse, in the faculty's view, Chancellor Suarez told Martinez not to return to campus at the start of 2006. The district will continue to pay Martinez's $145,400 yearly salary and additional benefits. District board chairwoman Deanna Weeks refused to explain Martinez's termination, citing the confidentiality of personnel files.

By all accounts Grossmont College professors and staff love Ted Martinez Jr., who became the school's president in 1999, the year after Suarez became chancellor. Several tell me they thought the board's Christmas furtiveness was spineless. "Shameful," says one. "The district office has become an entity unto itself, hardly caring about the college." She goes on to call Martinez a great listener. "Although he didn't always agree with you," she says, "he respected your point of view."

One of Martinez's most ardent supporters has been student counselor Renee Tuller, who characterizes the ex-president as polite and gracious. "But," she says, "he's also a person who legitimately can say, 'Don't mistake my kindness for weakness.' " Tuller is convinced that Martinez fought Suarez hard behind closed doors over things like Cuyamaca's noncredit classes for the elderly.

Beth Smith, a math professor, represents the faculty as Grossmont College's academic senate president. "The board is hiding behind the confidentiality issue in refusing to explain what they did," she says. "Just like everybody else, I want to know why they fired President Martinez." But Smith has her suspicions. "In board meetings, Martinez spoke up for the needs of the college and its students. In return, board members dishonored him."

As an example, Smith mentions a meeting last year at which Martinez tried to explain to the board how serious the college's loss of full-time instructors was becoming. The California legislature has said that the ratio of full-time to part-time instructors in its community college system should be 75 to 25 percent. "It's a goal, not a mandate," says Smith, who nevertheless agrees that a larger full-time faculty is better for students. When Suarez came to the district in 1998, Smith tells me, Grossmont had a 62 percent full-time faculty. Today the percentage hovers around 50 percent and appears to be dropping further.

That's the point Martinez was trying to get across to the board, says Smith. "But the board members laughed and joked about what he was saying and quibbled in a belittling way with how he arrived at his figures. I felt sorry for him," she says.

Smith maintains that in relating to faculty, rather than discuss disagreements, Chancellor Suarez refuses to acknowledge them. "That is no way to solve problems," she says. "When you're in a relationship, you have to deal with an issue that's brought up even if you don't think there's a problem. What the chancellor does is deny there are problems. As faculty members, we have a duty to say what we think is harming the college." And state law requires that community colleges operate under "shared governance," adds Smith.

Board members come primarily from the business and government communities. None of them has extensive experience in education. Their recent decisions as a board have almost always been unanimous. I ask Smith if they lack confidence in their own opinions about higher education and only rubber-stamp the decisions of a domineering leader. She concurs that Suarez is domineering. "As for the board members," she says, "I wish they would ask more questions before going along with everything."

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