California’s Community Colleges Have Lost Their Way
President Barack Obama once declared this country’s community colleges to be an invaluable resource. “Whether you’re the first in your family to go to college, or coming back to school after many years away,” he said, “community colleges find a place for you. And you can get a great education.” At the time, I agreed with him. I was, years ago, an English major at the City College of San Francisco, and I can personally attest to the quality of education that I received there.
But the most valuable aspect of my college and subsequent university experience wasn’t any one class or subject in particular. It was the nonsectarian exposure to a wide range of often conflicting ideas and perspectives. Certainly, I would sometimes encounter a professor or a group of students with fairly strong opinions on any number of topics. But only rarely did I genuinely feel as if a class was deliberately designed to compel me to think in a certain manner. For the most part, I felt free to explore my own ideas and interests.
And therein lies the true promise, the genuine excitement, and the ultimate hope of a liberal education. Students can, of course, acquire a valuable skill set or career training from their time at school, but they can also explore new intellectual vistas and discover previously unimagined possibilities. And these benefits are just as possible at community colleges as at our more elite institutions.
There are, however, at least a few key components that must be kept in place for any educational institution to function in this constructive manner. Administrators need to maintain a climate of academic freedom; teachers need to present their students with a variety of viewpoints on any given topic; and students need to analyze the material they are presented with to formulate their own conclusions. Under such circumstances, academic communities will hopefully be empowered to fearlessly engage in the relentless pursuit of the highest truths.
"Open-minded education is threatened with extinction in California Community Colleges."
But today, the kind of open-minded education I describe above is threatened with extinction in California Community Colleges. The problems are exemplified by recent revisions in the California Code of Regulations. In those regulations, Title 5 (Education), Division 6 (California Community Colleges), has been updated with language declaring that diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) should now be integrated with “performance evaluations of employees and faculty tenure reviews.” District governing boards must therefore “set clear expectations regarding employee performance related to DEIA principles,” employees need to “demonstrate their understanding of DEIA and anti-racist competencies,” and teachers must “employ teaching, learning, and professional practices that reflect DEIA and anti-racist principles.” And the clear indication, unfortunately, is that California Community Colleges are requiring ideological conformity rather than promoting academic freedom.
Different readers of this column will no doubt have divergent, perhaps wildly divergent, views on DEIA and anti-racism; nevertheless, one thing that I hope many, if not most, of us can oppose is the imposition of any one ideology upon our community colleges. Our schools can no longer openly debate an issue when they are forced to ally themselves with only one side of the argument. And no matter what the basic principles of DEIA may be, administrators, teachers, and students should all be free to openly evaluate and critique them.
All ideologies, after all, will have their own mix of insight and ignorance, depth and deception, revelation and rigidity. They may all offer at least some value, but none will ever be perfect. That being the case, it would indeed be a mistake to overlook whatever constructive insights anti-racism may offer. A much worse mistake, however, is to accept the anti-racist doctrine as the sole arbiter of truth. And the worst mistake of all is for a governing body to then impose that anti-racist faith upon academic institutions that, at least in theory, are supposed to value open inquiry. So, when the Board of Governors of California Community Colleges implements these new regulations, which effectively terminate in-depth analysis of their anti-racist beliefs, I have to wonder what exactly they’re so afraid of.
My own involvement with this situation leaves me feeling more than a bit at odds with my ostensible allies. I am a lifelong Democrat. I supported President Obama, and I currently support President Biden. I recently completed a graduate program at a CSU school and obtained an MA in English literature. And, in an ideal world, I would like to teach in the same community college system that was once of great benefit in my own growth and development.
But, in truth, I do not know how best to respond when the educational institutions I feel inspired to join appear to shift their mission from the promotion of egalitarian pedagogy to the persecution of prohibited wrongthink. In idealistic terms, I can view the situation as one where I need to join the fight for free expression on the front lines, but, in more practical terms, I have to wonder what sort of situation I will face if and when I question anti-racist tenets.
I have no doubt many other potential or current administrators and teachers must be weighing the same considerations. That being the case, I fear the new regulations in question could trigger a downward spiral. As those with a moderate or liberal disposition no longer feel welcome to enter or remain in California’s community colleges, the only ones stepping in to fill those jobs are likely to be people with a propensity for the preferred ideology and a desire to see it applied.
"Intellectual diversity could wither if not vanish and the only thing distinguishing our community colleges from orthodox religious institutions might be the lack of an officially recognized deity."
Eventually, intellectual diversity could wither if not vanish and the only thing distinguishing our community colleges from orthodox religious institutions might be the lack of an officially recognized deity. In terms of their strict imposition of an ideological catechism, however, our ostensibly secular community colleges could become nearly indistinguishable from their religious counterparts. And what kinds of students would continue to attend such schools?
I don’t want to see any of this happen. The very least I can do, therefore, is to speak out. But countering extremism, whether it arises from the right or the left ends of our sociopolitical spectrum, can be very difficult. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of several professors impacted by the new regulations, and that development is a positive step in the right direction. A nonpartisan intervention is an obvious necessity. But even more than a victory in court, we need a shift in our culture. We need colleges and universities to once again value the principles of an open society. And to help bring that about, I hope others will feel inspired to speak up, to insist upon our freedom of expression, and to constructively widen the bounds of discourse against those who seek to narrow them.
Your generosity supports our non-partisan efforts to advance the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.