Turmoil at Another Progressive College

Supporters of New College of California say a complete change in administration could save it.
August 1, 2007

Another progressive college is in a crisis. After the Western Association of Schools and Colleges placed the college on probation in July, some at New College of California, founded in 1971 and “committed to education in support of a just, sacred, and sustainable world,” are undertaking the process of upturning the entire leadership – with supporters seeing the shake-up as their best opportunity to save the San Francisco college.

“The administration at New College and specifically the president have been needing to go for a very long time,” said Richard Heinberg, who teaches in the Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community Program.

“Potentially, this action by WASC is a very good thing as long as we can survive the process of transition. The difficulty is that the publicity is going to make it difficult to recruit students in the meantime and since we have no endowment, we really are living for tuition. If enrollments fall significantly, that could endanger the college right there.”

New College of California, which, according to its president, depends on tuition for 95 percent of its budget, finds itself at this crossroads as the closure of Antioch College’s main undergraduate institution focuses attention on the particular vulnerability of progressive colleges, which tend to feature small enrollments, individualized instruction and a commitment to producing alumni engaged in socially responsible, if not fiscally rewarding, careers. With a historic focus on non-traditional education, New College’s graduate and undergraduate program offerings today include women’s spirituality, teacher education, activism and social change, and experimental performance.

The college has repeatedly tangled with its accreditor in the past, with this month's action coming a year, its president said, after it was removed from warning. A July 5 letter from the Western Association to the college’s president of seven years, Martin J. Hamilton, documents an ongoing financial crisis about as old as the college itself and a “pervasive failure” in proper recordkeeping. WASC also notes concerns about academic integrity at the college, including a “routine” reliance upon independent study that operates outside of published criteria or oversight. The accrediting body indicates that it found "substantial evidence of violations" of its first standard, that an institution "function with integrity." (The letter is available on the San Francisco Bay Guardian's blog).

“The commission found that underlying the matters explored in the special investigation is a lack of effective leadership and required governance structures,” the letter reads, describing a lack of faculty oversight and a governance system “rife with unilateral assertions of authority by the president and others. Persons that should be empowered to oversee the integrity of matters within their domains, including such matters [as] student tuition payment, international student status reporting and admission processing, have been undermined by persons in higher-level positions who have usurped their authority.”

“The basic criticisms that they made to us, which are that our administration needs a drastic overhaul…we agree with that view,” said Adam Cornford, a 21-year faculty veteran who teaches poetics and one of two elected faculty representatives to a transition team approved by the Board of Trustees. Both a newly forming Core Faculty Council and Adjunct Faculty Council have endorsed a change in leadership, including at the trustee level.

“The commission would not be satisfied with simply an expansion of the board, nor with the current president staying on for any significant length of time. The bulk of the old board, which they said had been extremely negligent, and also the president, should step down at once, and we should begin to search for an interim president,” Cornford said. He added a new interim vice president for academics also should be named and empowered to hire a new registrar, financial aid director and admissions director.

“There’s probably going to be a clean sweep of the administration and all but four or five members of the board. That’s what we’re expecting and that’s what we support," said Cornford.

“The board is really trying to take more control of the whole situation, and it’s very tense and upsetting to everybody because the college has been a 'came from the 60s,' community-based organization," President Hamilton said Tuesday. “That’s part of what the criticism is really about, that we didn’t build the proper systems that would allow more regularized activity to support and [provide] oversight of different functions.”

“A lot of it is a lack of money. We just don’t have reserve funds. We’ve never had reserve funds. It’s really been built one year at a time.” The 1,000-student college has about a $16 million operating budget.

Hamilton, who has been at the college for 30 years, since arriving at age 26, intends to step down within the year pending the appointment of an interim leader. The board has already named an interim chief financial officer: Up until now, Hamilton has essentially assumed both the presidential and CFO duties. The board also moved to double its size at a recent meeting, form a presidential search committee and acknowledge and work with the new Faculty Council.

“The college is going to change, and it’s going to change dramatically. My role is already changing very quickly,” Hamilton said. “Historically this community has kept the college going.”

What’s at stake, he said, is “how to preserve the best elements that make New College so beautiful and at the same time share the responsibilities more. Certainly, there was way too much responsibility on my shoulders."

“I’ve virtually controlled the college for many years and have tried to do the best I can.”

Yet, it's precisely that cloud of long-term, near-unilateral control that student and faculty leaders say is what most needs lifting. "The people who are most prominent in governance of the school have been around for a long time and have a very clear sense of what the school should be and it’s been difficult for faculty particularly, but people who are not members of the inner circle [more generally] to get other points of view into it," said Harry Britt, a faculty member in the interdisciplinary studies program.

"The same people who presided over all these problems happening, we don’t think they can solve it,” added Jeremy Zimmer, a master's student in the activism and social change program and one of the organizers of an “Interim Independent Student Council” forming in response to the WASC action.

“Many of us, despite being severely underpaid, and working in difficult conditions, have stayed here because we believe in the mission of the college,” said Cornford. “We have an enormous amount of human capital to draw on as soon as we can get the kind of leadership and support that we need.”

“It is a unique institution and we should solve these problems… There are people standing by to help the college, financially and otherwise -- to join the board, to help us raise funds and donate funds -- as soon as they have confidence in the leadership and the trusteeship.”


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