Mesa chief admits student government shut down; Administrators cite campaign violation

By March 18, 2004

Constance Carroll, president of Mesa College and a finalist for the San Diego Community College District chancellorship, has acknowledged shutting down the student government at her college for more than a month.

The 25,000 students at Mesa were unrepresented from mid-December until early March, including winter break.

Students were left without representatives at campus committee meetings for one month in the spring semester and locked out of the Associated Students office, and had no access to their $208,000 budget.

College administrators defended their actions this week, saying that elections were stopped because of campaign violations, and that the student government was dissolved because discipline problems and personality conflicts among student leaders prompted officer resignations and concerns for student safety.

Carroll, who said her administration followed protocol, is a finalist for the district chancellorship along with Miramar College President Pat Keir.

The monthlong absence of student government was unavoidable, Carroll said. Once student elections held in December were nullified, the administration needed to wait to hold new elections until students settled into spring semester classes and students ran new campaigns.

"It was a simple glitch in timing," Carroll said. "It was not improper or nefarious." Carroll did not directly preside over the student government issues, but she was updated weekly. She characterized the school’s handling of the affairs as fair.

But some student rights advocates called the actions undemocratic and heavy-handed.

"Dissolving the student government in its entirety is one of the most extraordinary steps I’ve ever heard (of) a university taking," said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

"It sends a very chilling message to students, that they have no power, limited rights and a limited voice," Lukianoff said.

"We were incredibly angry," said Elise McPherson, a former student senator who was elected Mesa College’s student body president March 5.

The problems started in December, when the Mesa College administration shut down a student election midday, after more than 300 votes had been cast.

Students said they were never given a reason for the abrupt decision. Mesa administrator Rich Rose said it was prompted by several campaign violations.

Candidates were campaigning too close to the voting booth, and some voters were harassed, said Rose, Mesa’s vice president for student affairs.

With only two weeks left in the semester, including finals week, the elections were postponed until the spring semester.

After winter break, in late January, students were sent letters informing them that all officers — including those whose terms had not expired — would be stripped of their authority and another election would be held.

The letter did not give a reason, but Rose said this week the government was shut down because remaining student officers didn’t constitute a quorum, and that personality conflicts among student leaders had led to heated verbal attacks and vandalism in the Associated Students office.

"We decided it was better to shut it down and start anew in the spring," Rose said.

Some students were infuriated by the decision.

"I was angry and upset," said Marvin Costa, who was serving a one-year term as a member of the student judicial review board.

Costa, a third-year student studying English, opted out of student government altogether. After losing his office, which including running student elections, Costa joined a campus honor society.

"It’s left a bitter taste in my mouth," Costa said. "I wanted to give to my school. I was volunteering time and effort. I wasn’t getting paid. But all our projects were dropped and the elections were shut down."

Costa said one student approached district trustee Peter Zschiesche, but was directed back to the administration. Zschiesche said Tuesday that the student talked with him only about personal discipline complaints, which typically aren’t board business.

Complicating the issue was the discipline of at least five student leaders for violations of the student code. Among other things, the former student president, Jeremy Ruben, acknowledged drinking alcohol at a leadership retreat. He also was accused of acting in a threatening manner toward college employees — something he denies.

Eventually, Ruben hired a law firm and threatened to sue the college. Administrators dropped the charges, he said, but he agreed to resign from his president’s position.

Though the issue has not been discussed among college trustees, board President Marty Block said it warrants an inquiry. He added, however, "In the great scope of things presidents handle, while this is current, it’s really not one of the most important things Constance has done in her tenure."

The selection of the new chancellor is expected in early April.

The district, the second largest in the state, with 100,000 students, includes Mesa, Miramar and City colleges.