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Faculty Survey Gives Southwestern College President an 'F'

The hits just keep coming for Southwestern College (SWC) President Raj K. Chopra. First, SWC was placed on probation by its accreditors, who cited among other things a "culture of fear and intimidation" on the Chula Vista, California, campus. Now the results of a Faculty Senate Survey give even more weight to the accreditors' report, showing a devastating lack of confidence in Chopra by the SWC faculty and giving him failing grades across the board.

As Adam wrote here previously, the climate has been deteriorating for some time. The Evaluation Report of the accrediting body is blunt in its assessment:

The problem appears to go back quite a long way but is at a particularly bad point right now. Recommendation 2 states:

In 1996 and 2003, the college was given similar recommendations regarding issues of trust and creating an environment of mutual respect. Faculty, staff, and students reported to the visiting team [in 2009] that they operate in a "culture of fear and intimidation" and "lack of trust." ... Employees stated that they were fearful for their jobs and that an atmosphere of distrust permeated the college. This negative climate was attributed to the Superintendent/President's action to terminate some staff members following a vote of no confidence by both the faculty and classified unions. ... The long-standing nature of the recommendation, dating back over ten years, suggests that the negative climate is not the doing of the Superintendent/President [who was hired in 2007], but the current administration has not succeeded in addressing the recommendation. (pp. 8-9)

In addition, under the "Human Resources" standard, the team notes:

A significant finding, based upon numerous interviews, is that there is no evidence the faculty and staff feel the college subscribes to, advocates, or demonstrates integrity in the treatment of its administration, faculty, and staff. (p. 28)

Finally, under "Decision-making Roles and Processes," the team states:

Through conversations with all employee groups, it has been reported that the oppressive climate on campus has not improved in ensuing years [since 2003]. Several faculty members commented to the team that they feared reprisal for their words and actions. Examples of this allegation were supplied by faculty via conversations and at the well-attended forums held during the visit [October 5-8, 2009]. Several faculty members cited an environment in which nontenured faculty, middle-level managers, and classified staff feared for their jobs if they spoke freely about an issue that they perceived to be a problem or if they complained about particular issues. ... The perception by some administrators is that eleven or twelve individuals are causing the strife between the college and the administration. ... The obvious adversarial climate that exists on campus is destructive and disruptive to student learning. (pp. 33-34)

Of note is that this dreary assessment from the faculty was given before SWC suspended four of its professors for their presence at a peaceful student protest and claimed they had "incited" the students to leave SWC's "free speech patio"—a laughable charge, given the fact that the maintenance of such a free speech quarantine is likely unconstitutional.

Though this incident is in the rear-view mirror now, it's obvious that it is still very much on the minds of SWC's faculty, as evidenced by the results of a survey taken by the Academic Senate of nearly 160 faculty members. The 44-page report makes for stunning reading: words such as "fear," "threats," "intimidation," and "retaliation" abound with jarring regularity. Countless faculty—including some who have taught at SWC for decades—say that they have never seen morale so low. One talks of looking for other employment, even though he has tenure at SWC, saying "I would rather start from scratch than deal with the current state of Southwestern College."

Many surveyed faculty say that Chopra demonstrates disinterest, if not contempt, for shared governance and the input of the faculty. One refers to Chopra as "carcinogenic" and the word "toxic" also makes several appearances. More than one faculty member longs for the good old days of Chopra's predecessor—who was convicted in federal court of using school funds for political activities. And one compares the SWC campus unfavorably to his experiences teaching in China and Myanmar, neither of which are bastions of free speech. Almost as widely lamented as the collapse in morale and Chopra's autocratic style is the fact that there is no grade lower to give in the survey than an "F."

For several, the faculty suspensions seem to have been the last straw. Take the words of this respondent:

Chopra allows his administrators to harass faculty which encourages conflict. Four faculty members were recently suspended by Chopra, one of whom wasn't involved in any way with the events in question. The other three were threatened with criminal coverage and maligned by administrators via campus email. Only after national coverage revealed these egregious actions were the faculty members allowed to return to their classes.

Here's another:

He presided over the expulsion of four faculty members solely on the basis of their support of a student demonstration that was mild by all rational standards. When this behavior was exposed in the national media, it was condemned by numerous educational organizations and challenged as illegal by FIRE [...]

One adds that "because of the way he treated four of my colleagues last semester I have a hard time believing he is good at anything." Another says that "[f]abricating criminal charges and initiating such investigations i[s] a trademark of 3rd world countries."

The statistical breakdown of the survey is equally sobering. In nearly every question in every category—from leadership and professional expertise to relations with faculty and commitment to instruction—President Chopra was given an "F" by a majority of respondents, and often a significant majority at that. To give but a few examples:

  • To the question, "To what extent does the Superintendent/president inspire faculty to do its professional best?", 64.2% gave Chopra an F.
  • To the question, "To what extent does the Superintendent/president demonstrate effectiveness and diplomacy in working with others and in maintaining productive relationships?", 81.8% gave Chopra an F.
  • To the question, "To what extent has the Superintendent/president fostered a governance structure that promotes collaborative, consensus driven decision making?", 86.4% gave Chopra an F.
  • To the question, "To what extent is the Superintendent/president an open individual who listens carefully, is respective to others, welcomes new ideas, keeps his/her office door open?", 82.9% gave Chopra an F.

As to the faculty's broader impressions of Chopra's leadership and the climate he has engendered, these two responses are particularly devastating:

  • To the question, "Overall, how would you rate your confidence in the leadership ability of the Superintendent/president?", 76.7% gave Chopra an F.
  • To the question, "To what extent has the Superintendent/president been able to create a high level of morale at Southwestern College?", 89% gave Chopra an F.

Of course, the survey reflects faculty views on a wide range of topics, not just free speech. And even with the full First Amendment protections to which the SWC community is entitled, the college still has tough decisions ahead. That said, Chopra has heaped disrepute on SWC at a time when the college can ill afford it, and has further alienated SWC's faculty, worsening tensions on campus that ample evidence shows have been there for several years. The ease with which Chopra could have benefited from the protest makes it all the more unfortunate that he has made such a hash of it. While he may not be able to make tens of millions of dollars appear out of thin air, standing up for the First Amendment at this crucial moment would have inspired confidence in his leadership as he tackled SWC's challenges. Here's one faculty member's take on how Chopra could have turned the protest into a positive:

If the S/P wanted to "rally support" from students when they were protesting class cuts, he could have stepped outside his office and simply spoken to them. "I applaud the fact that you are concerned about class cuts and that you are becoming personally involved with your education. Your protest is a good thing. but you're protesting in the wrong place. You need to direct your concerns to the State Legislature, and to help you do so, I'll use every cent in my $10,000 discretionary expense account to send you to Sacramento. Just tell me how many busses [sic] you want, when you want them, and they'll be there." That's easy enough, isn't it? And he would have been a hero.

Instead it's an opportunity lost for Chopra. It will take that much more work to pull up his grades with the faculty, if he is able to do so at all.

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