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."

In 2005 Rick Walker, 35 and a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, served as both president of the Associated Students of Grossmont College and the school's student representative on the district board of trustees. "At first," he tells me, "when the faculty voted for no confidence in Suarez, I supported him and the rest of the board. I started voting right along with the rest of them on everything. It was at the June district board meeting that I was sworn in as student trustee. During that early time, I had very good rapport with Suarez and quite often got to speak with him one-on-one. Later I began to feel that the faculty was right about a lot of things and started to let people know. Then the chancellor accused me of going over to the other side."

By the October board meeting, Walker was also feeling heat from board member Tim Caruthers, a local chiropractor. Walker felt strongly enough about it to send Caruthers an e-mail complaining of his "rude" behavior in saying, "I don't have time for you." In a return e-mail Caruthers told Walker that "all you've done is alienate yourself from everyone at this district."

Caruthers then put in a California Public Records Act request for all the messages Walker had sent using the district's e-mail. When Walker learned of it he made a similar request for Caruthers's e-mails. In doing so he discovered, and brought to the attention of the board, that Caruthers had been using the district's e-mail system to advertise his chiropractic services.

Walker tells me of another e-mail exchange last fall, one between Caruthers and geography instructor Tim Cliffe over the way low pay for part-timers makes it difficult for the geography department to staff its classes. The e-mails escalated in inflammatory language and eventually circulated in the computers of the whole Grossmont community. At one point in the exchange, Caruthers wrote of the difference between his being a businessman and Cliffe's role as a publicly paid teacher. "I pay more taxes in six weeks," wrote Caruthers, "than you do in an entire year. You will always be a larger pig slurping off the public trough."

Throughout 2005 Walker, a computer science major, had a part-time job as a Web analyst for Grossmont College. A week before Christmas his boss called him in to explain that district policy forbids someone from being both a board trustee and a college employee. Since Walker needed his job, he resigned from the board. Then the other shoe dropped. Grossmont fired him anyway.

In January, when the Grossmont College community learned what happened to Walker, many members linked it to President Martinez's fate. In some eyes the two have taken on an aspect of martyrdom that is contributing to the ongoing struggle against Suarez and the district board.

Although his perspective may have become skewed by now, Walker does represent a third point of view on the conflict between the faculty and the district administration over Martinez's treatment. Since people at Grossmont think Martinez did a good job during his tenure, I ask Walker why he thinks the district released Martinez. "They wanted the president to stand the faculty down," he says. "Instead he fought for their concerns."

Meanwhile, Walker and Caruthers continued their electronic feuding. The student notified the board member in a February 18 e-mail that he'd discovered yet another website where Caruthers cited his district e-mail in a chiropractic advertisement. In response Caruthers addressed an e-mail back to "Little Ricky," saying, "Your obsession with me is rather endearing. It's as if you have a school girl's crush which is flattering. Let me ask you something. Are you gay?" In his next message, Caruthers writes, "I've grown tiresome of your games. They match your stature." The e-mail is addressed "Little Man." Walker is five foot two.

Now Walker has filed a sexual harassment complaint against Caruthers with the chancellor for California Community Colleges. Walker is also charging that Caruthers retaliated against him by helping to get him fired from his Grossmont College job.

A friend told Walker recently that he should become a board trustee from the community after he graduates next year. "That's too early," he says. "I want to run against Tim Caruthers, whose term expires in 2008."

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