A Scorching Study of Chopra’s Troubled Tenure at Southwestern College

By February 9, 2010

The nonprofit news site voiceofsandiego.org had an illuminating piece yesterday about the crisis of confidence gripping Southwestern College (SWC) in California, where the suspension of four professors for taking part in a peaceful protest has exacerbated a community already tightly wound by fiscal straits. SWC students Sean Campbell and Lyndsay Winkley, of the Southwestern Sun, also give the best portrait I’ve yet read of the leadership of SWC Superintendent/President Raj K. Chopra, whose blunt style has alienated the college’s faculty and staff and resulted in, among other things, no-confidence votes from three of the college’s main faculty and staff bodies and a campaign to recall three of his supporters on SWC’s governing board, not to mention the recent news that SWC was placed on probation by its accrediting body.

As Campbell and Winkley write, the incident that seems to have pushed SWC over the edge is SWC’s suspension of four professors (one was quickly reinstated, and the others remained banned from campus for two weeks) for joining a student protest that dared to leave SWC’s unconstitutional free speech arealiterally, a patio.

Tensions hit an all-time high the night that the human resources director and campus police officer showed up on [English professor Andrew] Rempt’s door.

They’d been sent by Chopra to deliver a notice to the four faculty members that they were being placed on paid administrative leave. The educators were accused of inciting students at a rally to leave the college’s free-speech zone and march on Chopra’s office. They were also investigated on criminal charges of disobeying and confronting campus police.

Facing pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation [for] Individual Rights in Education, along with national media attention, the district ended the investigation. The professors were reinstated, one after two days, the other three after 14 days. The incident was the final straw for many Southwestern faculty members, including Veronica Burton, who said it inspired her to support the recall.

“Anybody can be attacked if you don’t agree (with) what’s going on here,” Burton said.

The article has lots of interesting tidbits about the Chopra era at SWC (such as the article’s report that once, “nearly 250 faculty members emptied the auditorium during a 15-minute Chopra speech”), and I won’t spoil them all here. The conclusion, however, bears repeating in as many venues as possiblea stark reminder of just where Chopra’s priorities seem to lie even as he promises a new day for shared governance and a positive atmosphere:

But at an open forum, a faculty member asked why she should believe that he is committed to improving campus climate. An awkward silence came over the room as Chopra waved his hand dismissively and refused to answer.

Thanks to Campbell and Winkley for this piece of A-plus reporting. Read it all here.

Schools: Southwestern College Cases: Southwestern College: Professors Banned from Campus after Students Stray Beyond ‘Free Speech Patio’