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Hostile Climate?

June 6, 2005

Anonymous e-mail messages circulate alleging that one minority group is being favored over another. A popular dean loses her job -- only to regain it after protests. A book selection for a collegewide reading program is called offensive. Employees from several groups say that they are victims of discrimination.

That's just some of the developments in recent months in the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, where employees and local groups alike have been demanding an investigation of whether the district has a "hostile environment" for its minority workers. The college's board agreed to conduct one this week and -- after additional pushing from minority leaders -- said that the investigation would be led by an outsider, not a district employee as had been planned.

The agreement to start an investigation won praise, but minority employees and activists say that relations between college leaders and minority educators are severely strained.

Separate incidents galvanized black and Latino employees at the system's two colleges: San Jose City College and Evergreen Valley College.

Most recently, the acting chancellor of the district -- Sylvia Rodriguez Andrew -- quit last month, citing the atmosphere typified by an anonymous e-mail that has been circulating among faculty members and administrators at the system's colleges. The e-mail message made repeated reference to Andrew's Mexican-American background and said that she and board members were trying to shift as many jobs as possible to people who shared their ethnicity.

"All the high-paying jobs held by blacks are being filled by Mexican-Americans.... Affirmative action usually means people of color replacing whites. There it means getting rid of all blacks," the e-mail said.

Sofia Mendoza,  a leader of a La Raza Roundtable committee that has been doing its own study of the district, said the e-mail was "very racist" and "full of lies" and that it was designed to undermine Andrew and to promote divisions between Latino and black people.

Mendoza said that when her organization began to talk to other employees at the district, they heard numerous reports from Latino employees of being treated rudely, of being passed over for promotions, and of being left out of key decisions.

Evergreen Valley also offended Latino groups by picking The Tortilla Curtain, a novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle, this year for a program in which all students were encouraged to read the same book and to participate in discussions. The novel -- something of an update of themes in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat -- is the story of two couples in Southern California, a wealthy white couple and a poor couple who are illegal immigrants from Mexico.

The Tortilla Curtain received generally positive reviews when it was published in 1995, and it was praised in part for confronting white Americans with the consequences of immigration policies that make it impossible for many decent people to find decent lives in the United States. Mendoza said that the novel was "full of terrible stereotypical stuff" and that students were encouraged to read it even after many started to complain about being offended.

Also this year, personnel incidents at Evergreen Valley were infuriating black leaders. A few years ago, the college had numerous high-ranking black officials. By this year, there was only one black person at the level of dean, Adrienne Akinsete, dean of instructional technology and learning resources. The college announced a reorganization of senior administrative positions and when the chairs were shuffled, all of Akinsete's duties had been assigned to others and she was told that she was out of a job -- even thought two other deanships with overlapping duties were vacant.

"This was discrimination," Akinsete said. "Taking the last African-American administrator for no valid reason is very insensitive to the community."

Many black students and local activists agreed and attended board meetings and other forums to protest the reorganization, prompting the district board to order Akinsete's reinstatement.

She said that she is pleased that the board has voted to bring in an outside investigator to look at racial tensions, and said that it was especially important that the inquiry be conducted by an outsider. She scoffed at the original plans of the board to have senior administrators handle the inquiry. "What happened to me was by the upper management," she said.

Michael Hill, interim chancellor of the community college district, said that he understood the need for an outside investigation. Asked if the district has a racial problem, Hill said that he didn't want to say whether there has been any illegal discrimination. But he said that it was clear that many minority employees and residents are angry at the system and that those feelings need to be taken seriously.

"If they feel that way, it's a serious issue and we have to figure out why and address it," Hill said.

He said that he was not sure how long it would take to hire an outside investigator and for that person to complete a report. But Hill said that the board was committed "to taking appropriate action" once the report was done.

Hill will soon be going back to his regular job as vice chancellor for administration. The district announced on Friday that it had appointed Rosa Perez, president of Cañada College, another two-year institution in California, as its next chancellor.

 

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