School of Second Chances

The story of the College of Marin resembles the folk tale about the blind men and the elephant, which goes like this: A group of blind men encounter an elephant. Each man touches a different part of the large animal. The man who touches the leg proclaims it to be a pillar. The tail-toucher thinks he feels a rope. The trunk is a waterspout. The tusk is a spear. And so on. The men argue over what they have felt until a wise man comes along and settles the dispute by telling them: You are each correct. An elephant is all these things. Your error was assuming the part you touched was the whole animal.

Like the elephant, the College of Marin could be many things – depending on which part you touch.
Is it a stepping-stone for young people who don’t have the money, the grades or the maturity to begin their college life at a four-year school?

Is it a trade school, a place to learn the pragmatics of landscaping, nursing or repairing catalytic converters?
Is it a second chance for adults who passed up college when they were younger, but have the desire and drive to learn now?

Is it a gray-haired campus that draws aging boomers who want to enrich their later years with lessons in Spanish, literature or ceramics?

Is it a recovering institution on the road back from a reputation sullied by intramural infighting and declining enrollment?

The answer to each of those questions: Yes. The 81-year-old community college, one of 109 similar schools in California, has an identity as diverse as the students who go there. But behind this seemingly schizophrenic facade is one fundamental purpose: “to be the heart of the community where no matter what your background, no matter what level of education or training you have, you can find something here.”

Those are the words of Fran White, who was hired as the college’s $189,000-a-year president three years ago. She faced four immediate challenges: oversee a renovation of the school’s aging campuses in Kentfield and Novato, make peace with a discordant faculty that slapped her longtime predecessor with a no-confidence vote, stanch a steady enrollment decline and safeguard the college’s accreditation.

“The college, unfortunately, when I got here had a very negative image in the community,” says White. “The institution had an image of discord, of poor management, of low enrollment, of faculty and administrative strife. All that rolled into one big ball of negative image.”

The conventional wisdom, says White, was that the public’s dim view of the college would doom approval of a bond that could pay to revitalize the campuses. “People didn’t believe in the bond,” she says. “The first thing I was told was, ‘Fran, don’t take it personally, but you’re not going to win.’”

A building boom in the offing

In November 2004, though, enough voters agreed with White to give her and the college’s elected trustees $249.5 million in rebuilding money. Originally, under a so-called “dream plan,” the bond money was to have been spent on razing most of the Kentfield campus buildings—whose style ranges from Spanish mission to Soviet bunker—and replacing them with new structures and constructing a 36,000-square-foot building at the Indian Valley campus in Novato.

But the dream plan was about $130 million too expensive. The current, revised proposal emphasizes modernization over reconstruction. Still, the work ahead is substantial. Five major projects are planned for Kentfield and two for Indian Valley.

The Kentfield makeover will include an updated physical education complex, a refurbished performing arts building, a new fine and visual arts building, a new gateway building at College Avenue and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to house administrative services and classrooms, and a new 77,000-square-foot science and math building that will also contain the campus’s mechanical facilities. Work will begin, starting with the phys ed complex, in early 2008 and continue in stages for at least four years, says V-Anne Chernock, director of modernization for the college.

Recruiters from Cal State East Bay talk to students at College of Marin

At Indian Valley, the bond money will redo the complex containing the auto-technology program—one of the College of Marin’s most popular segments—and pay for a new building that will house medical program labs and student services. Those projects get underway in mid-2008, Chernock says.

Six months after White arrived, in January 2005, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) warned the College of Marin that its accreditation was at risk. The association cited several reasons, among them lack of three processes considered routine at other community colleges: a cohesive planning process, a program review system to determine the effectiveness of classes and a legally mandated governance structure that involved the faculty in decision-making.

White describes herself as a “hardworking, practice-what-you-preach” administrator who believes in accountability, the value of the community colleges (she attended Merritt College in Oakland on her way to a doctorate) and, for the College of Marin, the need for change.

“Martin Luther King used to say there are two kinds of people,” she says. “There’s the thermometer people. They go into a room, take the temperature and adjust to the room. And then there’s the thermostat people. They going into a room and change the temperature. I’m a thermostat.”

By February of this year, College of Marin had met four of WASC’s criteria and, says Cathy Summa-Wolfe, communications director for the college, expects to resolve the remaining one—improved planning—by fall.
Some of the changes, particularly plans to review the effectiveness of academic programs, met stiff resistance from factions of the faculty. White says critics are missing the point of program review.

“The purpose is to improve what we’re offering and the way we’re offering it so that it’s better for students,” White says. “There is a group that thinks this is just the beginning of the end. It puts people on the spot. It sort of like being told you need to lose some weight and it’s time to go to your Weight Watchers meeting. You’re just on the spot. You’re either going to get on the scale and look good or you’re going to get on the scale and get a lecture. Now, that’s simplistic. But I think people are fearful. They haven’t done it. They don’t understand it. They don’t want it. And they’re scared.”


Fran White, president of the College of Marin


A rift in the ranks

Dissension among faculty members about the policy changes—and about White’s management style—is palpable. The January newsletter published by United Professors of Marin, the union that represents teachers, librarians and counselors, published an article entitled “Connecting the Dots” that labeled as “collaborators” those faculty members who support the administration and compared them to the “French citizens who were sympathizers and supports of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime” and to “the informers who cooperated” with Communist-hunting congressional investigators during the Red Scare in the 1950s.

“So there is nothing new about people who are willing to renounce and abandon their colleagues for ‘30 pieces of silver,’” said the newsletter. “Why, we even have such collaborators here at the College of Marin … and some of them are even serving as our faculty representatives.”

Such vitriol might stem, in part, from the loss anti-administration faculty members suffered in last year’s Academic Senate elections. The new president, longtime social sciences teacher Yolanda Bellisimo, says she ran for the post because the college “needed better trust and better communication” among what she calls its four “tribes”—the administration, the faculty, the staff and the students.

“My concern,” she says, “was that if we were going to get off (the accreditation) warning and move the college forward, there were a lot of agreements that needed to be made across groups on campus.”

Bellisimo favors implementation of program review because it “is the way the college community—as a group—can take control of planning and budget” but acknowledges the trepidation of some colleagues that it could be abused. “It you’re going to gather some information about your program and find out it has weakness, that can that be used against you,” she says. “To me, that’s a legitimate concern. So, I think it’s really important to protect programs and to protect faculty from a misuse of data.”

Fran White has brought a “refreshing change” to the administration, says Bellisimo. “Before, the communication was not particularly honest. There was a habit of administrators saying what was expedient and then doing whatever they wanted to. Now we’re in an environment where the students, the faculty and the staff are participating in decision-making.

“This year, more than any year I’ve been here, I’ve seen the change. People are more open to doing things that they were afraid to try before.”

That view, as you might expect, isn’t shared by those Bellisimo opposed in the Academic Senate. “There’s a lot of divisiveness right now on this campus among the faculty with regard to the view of the administration,” says history and political science teacher Hank Fearnley. “We have got a very autocratic administration that is trying to undermine the traditional rights we have always enjoyed as members of an institution of higher education. You can see that in their behavior and in their efforts to radically change our contract.”

The current three-year contract between the College of Marin and its faculty expires this year. In its opening negotiating move, the administration has put on the bargaining table 18 of the contract’s 26 provisions, ranging from traditional issues like salary to more sensitive matters like workload, class size and reduction in force terms. The gambit angered union leaders.

“I believe that this is the most number of articles an administration has ever thought to (discuss) as long as I’ve been here,” says math teacher Ira Lansing, who’s been at the college since 1975 and is president of the United Professors of Marin. “It looks like they’re trying to rewrite the entire contract.”

Charlie Wormhoudt, managing editor of the campus newspaper

Lansing sees the administration’s contract aggressiveness as part of larger disregard for the union. “Historically, most administrations recognize that under the collective bargaining process … you can’t have everything,” he says. “Our current administration does not seem to want to engage in the collective bargaining process. Part of their current attitude and response whenever there’s been an issue is ‘so, sue us, file a grievance, take us to court.’”

Summa-Wolfe, the college spokesperson, says the administration needs more flexibility in order to better meet the accreditation requirements. “Accreditation is a very, very important issue now for the College of Marin,” she says. “The college has been out of compliance with the accrediting agency for more than 12 years and this has hurt the college and needs to be addressed.”

The students’ view of College of Marin

Below the radar of all this faculty-administration wrangling is the College of Marin’s principal reason for existence—the students.

The drip, drip, drip of enrollment decline heard at the college for years has, for now at least, stopped. Since the spring 2000 semester, when nearly 9,000 students attended the school, the student head count has fallen about 6 percent a year. Last fall, for the first time in that period, enrollment was up, albeit only 1 percent. This semester, about 6,600 students are enrolled at the college, about the same as in the fall.

College of Marin students represent a disparate demographic. About one in five will eventually transfer to a four-year school. Another one in five are there for career training. About one in five are full time. One in four already have a college degree. Six in 10 are women. One in seven is older than 55. Eight in 10 receive some financial aid. And in a county that is 83 percent white, 54 percent of the students are black, Hispanic or Asian.

In conversations, students express little interest in policy battles or building plans. Most are at the college to learn something and move on.

Ben Ludke, for example, graduated from Drake High School two years ago with a grade point average not ready for prime time. He headed to Tahoe, where he jockeyed skis and boots at Sugar Bowl for $7.50 an hour. It didn’t him take long to realize it was a dead-end job. “Every single person I talked to over 30 said go to college,” he says.

Now Ludke, 19, is in his third semester at the College of Marin, studying political science with the intent of moving on to a four-year school. He didn’t care—or know—much about the college’s renovation plans. “I don’t see anything wrong with the school,” he says. “I don’t like the architecture. It’s ugly but it works for me. I’m here for class.”

Ludke represents the typical commuter student. He lives with his parents in San Anselmo and drives the 20 minutes to school. “I don’t really stay here to study,” he says. “People don’t really hang around here.”
Indeed, a visit to either College of Marin campus can be a lonely experience. The walkways, the quad, even entire buildings can be empty, even on a weekday. A midafternoon stroll through Olney Hall, the building overlooking College Avenue in Kentfield, found all of its six classrooms vacant.

“Empty is a good word,” says Hoa-Long Tam, president of the Associated Students of College of Marin when asked describe the ambience of the campus. “Over the years the atmosphere has changed. There used to be students on the lawn—and now there aren’t.”

Tam, who is only 16, would like to see the students regain control of the Student Services building, which now houses the cafeteria and a number of administrative offices, and use the space for clubs and other activities.

“It used to be run by students and we would like to see a return to that function,” he says. “It would make great strides toward making this more of a community college rather than a commuter college.”

As time progresses and the College of Marin starts spending its quarter-billion in taxpayer dollars and faculty and administrators arm-wrestle over rules, they would do well to keep in mind students like Todd McLeary.
A former construction worker from rural Missouri who skipped college as a young man because he “was out chasing the dog,” McLeary is starting life anew at age 41. He lives in Marin City and is studying psychology in preparation for transferring to Dominican University next year to pursue a degree in psychiatric nursing.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” he says of his time at the College of Marin. “I expected to find a suburban, ‘this-is-our-campus’ attitude here. After all, this is Marin County. The way people look at us outside of Marin City, one would think, hey, if they’re doing it, they’re going to do it on the college campus as well. But, I found it to be quite the opposite. I found it to be open, inviting and informative. It has done a lot for me. I’ve learned a lot about myself—that I still can learn, that I’m capable of more than I believed I was.”

Now that’s an accomplishment no one can disagree with.