Commentary by Penny Scott
It was a less than happy ending to the school year at Lane Community College when the closing remarks of some board members were geared towards chastising their critics and those of President Mary Spilde.
The setting was the June 10 Board of Education meeting where the 2015-16 college budget was adopted. Closure of the Electronics Technology and Automotive Collision and Refinishing programs was included.
Speaking with the greatest intensity and length, was board member Gary LeClair. He complained about what he described as a constant parade of people who come before the board every month. “I’m reminded of the little kids that go up to my wife and go mom-mom-mom-mom-mom. They don’t stop until you finally say something to them,” he said.
Only moments before LeClair had expressed that he was insulted by accusations that the board doesn’t care. Caring is something he obviously values, but he misses the apparent reason why people address the board month after month — they do so because they care.
His unfortunate analogy, used to describe intelligent adults participating in an orderly meeting process, exercising their constitutional right to free speech, was itself an insult.
Board member Tony McCown made no comment about the critics of Lane’s leadership. He chose instead to focus on other things, including the celebrations of graduating students. Board member Matt Keating was absent.
Board Chair Pat Albright and board members Sharon Stiles, Bob Ackerman, Rosie Pryor and LeClair circled the wagons in defense of themselves and Spilde. Albright chose praising the board and Spilde, while the others expressed disapproval of those who have negatively evaluated the board and college president.
Mary Spilde is a genuinely good person of remarkable multi-faceted expertise. She’s a strong leader acting in accord with what she sees as right for the college. I believe that criticism of her is essentially a clash of worldviews; those with different ideas for Lane are frustrated and therefore critical.
Members of the board perceive this as an attack — I perceive it as honest and frank. Higher learning relies on open discourse, as does finding the way to the best decisions. I’m confident that the way through this difficult period will be found because the players are all sincerely doing what they believe to be right.
Some board members overreacted, evidenced by their indignation expressed through words such as attack, disgusting, vilifying and degrading to describe comments made about them or Spilde.
I respect their right to these expressions, as I do anyone’s. But I fear that their personal and professional allegiances to each other and to Spilde may have blinded them to the validity of the complaints presented to them about the systemic problems of the college they are charged with safeguarding.
The report released by the LCC Education Association on June 9 reveals that about 70 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with the administration and the board. This warrants serious consideration, not defensiveness. In fairness, however, board members had only received the report a day before the meeting and had little time to gather themselves.
Never before has there been a greater opportunity to bring true celebration to Lane. Completing its 50th anniversary year and with the Center Building transformation due to be unveiled fall term, all the elements are in place. It would be sad indeed to see a large piece of concrete and steel transform while the living-breathing college community it serves remains rigidly stuck.
Even at the eleventh hour, when it seemed over, students and teachers turned up to the meeting asking for the division between the college leadership and them to be closed, beginning with annulling the decision to cut programs and starting over.
Despite the current climate of heated arguments and accusations, the situation could be turned around almost overnight — it’s still the eleventh hour. It would take the college leadership making a quite a shift — a flying saucer turn — saying “yes” to the wishes of the majority.
The administration is required to present a balanced budget to the state by June 30. With a deficit of 4.6 million, finding $195,000 to save these two programs, and buy a year to bring this fractured college back together, would only require the desire to do it.
If shared governance is to become a reality at Lane every appointed decision-maker would have to be genuinely open to the possibility of cutting programs. The financial health of the college demands that people be prepared to do what they would rather not.
Continued disinvestment by the state may very well make elimination of programs a necessity going forward. Union leadership, faculty and students drawing a line in the sand on cutting programs can only further entrench the conflict.
Program cuts isn’t the only source of the conflict, however. It’s a convergence of many factors. For example, long-time faculty complain that shared governance was agreed in principle years ago, but something quite different happened — now, talk by the administration is seen as empty and even deceptive.
This perception must change. So, who’s going to change it?
Distrust cannot automatically be turned into trust. Something must be done to earn back trust that has been lost. The administration and board are being called right now to act magnanimously and put aside anything that might be stopping them.
Perhaps focusing on the students will provide the necessary impetus. Students don’t just learn in the classroom. The entire college environment is a classroom, and we all need to ask: what are we teaching?
My impression is that board members and administrators care very much about students. After attending a two-day board retreat last year, I made strong mention of this caring in the November 21 edition of The Torch. Nothing has happened since to change my point of view.
What I have not seen emerge from that retreat, however, is evidence of the college shifting to being learner-centered. This direction forward was enthusiastically discussed at the time. Now, seven months later, people are asking for it.
Faculty and students alike have asked that the resources they bring to the table be used for the good of the college — what more can a college ask for than intelligent committed people wanting to serve, not as compliant followers, but as co-equal partners?
Closing remarks by board members at the meeting included sincere praise, gratitude and good wishes to Bob Ackerman and Pat Albright who are both retiring from the board.
My wish is that division between the leadership and other stakeholders at Lane is bridged — we’ll know we’ve arrived when we see leadership everywhere.
An audio recording of the June 10 Board of Education meeting can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LaOL5Ny_GfM
The LCCEA report on faculty evaluations of the college president, vice presidents, administration and Board of Education can be found at: http://www.lcctorch.com/?p=2617