Questions Over Diversity on L.A. Community College Board

Some faculty members at Los Angeles community colleges question the lack of black leaders on the district's board and among their presidents.

July 17, 2018
 

The latest appointment to the Los Angeles Community College District's Board of Trustees has some faculty members upset and questioning whether black leaders are being denied top spots in the district.

Protesters attended the board's meeting last week to voice their frustration about the appointment of a Latino man, who was selected over three African-American women candidates, to fill a vacant board seat and leaving the governing body without any black trustees. The protesters also criticized the lack of black leadership across the district's nine two-year colleges.

Sandra Lee, a psychology professor at Los Angeles Southwest College, who also interviewed candidates for the board as part of the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, said the protesters didn't just decry the failure of the board to support black representation, but also the selection process that led to a nonblack president being appointed at Southwest College last Wednesday.

"Not only did Southwest not get a black president, but we have no black presidents at any of the nine colleges," she said. "That hurts black faculty, it hurts the district and I don't think anyone is enhanced by that lack of representation."

The board ultimately chose David Vela, who formerly served on the Montebello Unified School District board in East Los Angeles, to serve as a trustee. The board and Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez also confirmed Seher Awan as president of Southwest College and named Melinda Nish interim deputy chancellor. Neither is African-American.

Awan has more than 12 years of community college experience and was most recently the vice president of administrative services at San Diego City College. Nish was most recently the interim associate superintendent and vice president of academic affairs at Allan Hancock College, a two-year institution in northern Santa Barbara County.

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Rodriguez said he was aware of the criticism from some professors about the lack of black representation on the board and among the nine presidents.

"As chancellor, increasing diversity is always on my agenda," he said. "It is a clear and compelling need. The district has a long history of workforce diversity, but there is always room for improvement."

Rodriguez said he also has confidence in Awan leading the college and working for the district's students.

"She will well represent the needs and aspirations of all students with intelligence and tenacity knowing full well the demographic profile and interests of the students and community she serves," he said.

A representative from the district also referred to a statement from Awan about her commitment to serving diverse communities and being actively engaged in social justice.

"I have dedicated my career to making a difference, working at campuses that serve the most diverse populations," Awan said in a statement about her appointment. "As the daughter of immigrants and the first in my family to graduate from college, I can relate to the struggles of our students and I feel connected to this college and the community. I truly care about their personal and professional success."

Across the Los Angeles district's nearly 148,000 students, about 10 percent identify as African-American, nearly 59 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are white and 7.5 percent are Asian, according to state data. Among the district's nearly 1,500 full-time faculty members, about 10 percent are African-American, 18 percent are Hispanic and 40 percent are white. The district has 134 administrators, of which 9 percent are black, 31 percent are Hispanic and 18 percent are white.

Vela, who is also the board's first openly gay trustee, is replacing an African-American woman who was elected to the state Assembly. Now the board has four Latino men, one white woman, one white man and one Asian man. Vela did not respond to requests for comment.

"Diversity can mean a lot of things in a lot of different places to a lot of different people, but in Los Angeles, I can tell you when you look at that board and don't see a black face, that is not diversity," Lee said.

Ayesha Randall, a professor at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and an officer in the district's Black Faculty and Staff Association, said the organization's leaders aren't calling for Vela to step down, but they want clearer policy on diversity and representation on the board and in leadership positions to be outlined. Board members are typically elected. Vela will hold the seat through 2020.

Randall said she and other faculty members want the board to specifically define, or at the very least publicly discuss, how it is addressing diversity in board and presidential appointments.

Randall said black faculty members want to know how the final three candidates for the board were chosen.

"We're wondering what was the criteria and how was it weighed," she said. "Did they look for and want to have an African-American Board of Trustees member? If they create policy or something in writing that articulates what they're looking for and their vision of diversity, then it could be very easy."

Lee said the faculty union and community particularly favored Melina Abdullah, a professor and chair of pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, to sit on the board. Abdullah is also a community activist and one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Los Angeles.

Abdullah said she isn't seeking an elected position and just wanted to continue having a black representative on the board to serve the interests of that community.

Since Vela's appointment, Abdullah said that there have been claims by some members of the Latino community that Vela's appointment represents "Latino power," but she said this is a flawed and problematic notion because it excludes visible black representation.

"I believe in solidarity," Abdullah said, adding that African-Americans and Latinos are more empowered when they serve together and that she would feel the same if the tables were turned and there wasn't adequate Hispanic representation on the board. "On a seven-member board, there should be some [black] representation."

Lee said the issue isn't simply about the appearance of the board, but that the other nonblack board members have not shown an interest in listening, talking to or attending the events held by black students and faculty members around the colleges.

The larger concern is that the absence of an African-American on the board or serving as one of the nine campus presidents could be a trend, Randall said.

"It's not just about diversity and people of color, but we specifically want to know about African-Americans and how we recruit, how do we mentor and how do we help to elevate these people in different positions," she said.

Randall noted the low rates of academic success among students of color who attend the colleges and are at risk of failing and dropping out: "For them to not see an administrator that looks like them could affect their morale and attitude, and we feel it's important for them to see folks who look like them."

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