Cash for Courses

City College of San Francisco's plan to court donors to sponsor canceled classes seemed a classic sign of the times, with even skeptics seeing no hope elsewhere. But since the idea surfaced, the plan has evolved.
August 17, 2009

To Don Q. Griffin, it was just an idea. But to many commentators, it endangered academic freedom.

Near the end of June, in the midst of one of the worst budget crises in California history, the City College of San Francisco chancellor told The San Francisco Chronicle that any private donor who gave $6,000 to the institution would have the canceled course of his or her choice revived and named after them.

The critics, including trustees who learned of the chancellor’s idea only after reading about it in the newspaper, wailed. While donors have endowed chairs and entire divisions of colleges for years, this was different, critics said. What would happen, they asked, if — for example — the college offered a health course sponsored by a big alcohol or tobacco company?

After Milton Marks, president of the board of trustees, emphatically told The San Francisco Chronicle that “public education is not for sale” in a retort to the idea, Griffin changed his tune about naming rights. Now, months after tabling the naming idea altogether, Griffin has approached the trustees with a set of guidelines he believes will save courses but maintain the highest integrity in doing so, keeping donors from stipulating usage of their dollars and influencing course content.

“Obviously that wasn’t a premeditated conversation,” Griffin said. “We’re just looking for a source for dollars. I wanted to talk about the state of community colleges in California. We’re going to cut 800 sections this fall and spring. I was thinking if we could get sponsors to save those sections. The naming concept, that’s where I got off course. The story kind of took off from there.”

Aside from stipulating that all donations “should be accepted without the promise of naming rights,” Griffin’s updated guidelines for his save-a-course program include a number of so-called “safeguards.” For example, though the chancellor will have the final say as to whether to accept a sponsorship, he “may convene a small group of faculty, students, administrators and classified staff to help him judge the propriety of a proposed sponsor.”

Having outside voices involved in the process has assuaged many of the fears of faculty critics. Though, given that the chancellor has the ultimate say on sponsors, some doubts linger.

“Am I completely confident that the chancellor will always do the right thing?” asked Hal Huntsman, president of the college’s Academic Senate. “Of course not. But, I’m not worried enough about it. First of all, I trust our chancellor to make good decisions. I don’t think he’ll make them in a vacuum, because it would be disastrous for him politically. Because of the way faculty and the board have responded to this, if he goes out on a limb it could be trouble for him. Still, most people that are looking at how we’re handling this think this is as good as we’re going to do.”

There is, however, some divide regarding who Huntsman and Griffin consider ideal donors to “save” these canceled courses. Huntsman, for instance, said he “would be wary of taking money from any company or corporation,” adding that he would be “much more comfortable with private individuals giving money.” This, he argued, would keep at bay those groups who may have agendas or values antithetical to those of the college. By contrast, Griffin said he would be comfortable taking money from any donor, corporate or not, as long as it passed his muster.

“Still, I expect most of the donations to save courses to come from individuals,” said Griffin, noting that all of the donations that the college has been given thus far have come from private citizens. “But that doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in getting corporate donors. We do that all the time.”

Also among Griffin’s guidelines: all money donated to specific departments will be spent according to the wishes of the chancellor and officials from that department. Though this implicitly rules out Griffin’s prior notion that donors could save specific courses, it does mean that donors can specify certain areas of the instruction to be sponsored over others. The option remains, however, to give donations without any strings attached. Though more guarded than Griffin’s initial idea, the remaining ability to make stipulations still bothers some trustees.

“Rather than have people saying, ‘I want a science class,’ I’d rather it be put into a larger pool of faculty so that they can apply it where it’s needed most,” said Marks, arguing that another department may be able to make a better case for the funds. “The connection of having donors say, ‘This is the [department] I want,’ is something that continues to bother me.”

If a faculty member has any sort of issue with teaching a sponsored course, for whatever reason, then Griffin’s guidelines stipulate that they have the option of choosing not to teach that course. Griffin explained that an abstaining faculty member would have to maintain the same course load, teaching another non-sponsored course instead. Including this escape hatch for faculty explicitly in the guidelines is not an indication that the idea of sponsored courses is somehow “shady,” though, Griffin countered.

In fact, there are more than a few instructors at the college who say they would not have a problem teaching a sponsored course. Frederick R. Chavaria, chair of the administration of justice program, said he is already courting donations from the local police and fire departments, as well as the department of corrections, to “save” four of the courses he has cut this fall. He does, however, acknowledge that his department’s seemingly direct connection to these employers makes selling them on the idea of making a donation an easier task than that some of his liberal arts colleagues might face.

“About 85 percent of the cops and firemen in California go through the community college system,” Chavaria explained. “These police and fire departments are going to be asking, ‘What's in this for us?’ Well, for them, it’s keeping that pipeline open for qualified police and firemen. They’ll be able to see a real return on their investment sponsoring a course.”

Those of Chavaria's colleagues who still have reservations about such a sponsorship program admit the college may have no other option but to seek out private dollars. Even those faculty and board members who have long insisted that public institutions should be funded, primarily, by public dollars are considering compromising their views, given California’s dwindling support for its community colleges in recent years.

“I would be against doing this, and I think most faculty members would be against doing this if we didn’t have the dire financial need,” Hunstman said. “It leaves open the potential for inappropriate use of these funds or the inappropriate influence of these donors. I may have some moral problem with this, but our ability to serve students is also a moral obligation. There’s a moral calculus here that demands that we at least consider any means necessary.”

Marks echoed a similar sentiment, but insisted he will make it clear to Griffin and his colleagues on the board that this should be only considered a temporary solution to a long-term problem. He said he would support putting a “sunset” or “reauthorization” clause on the program, if approved, to ensure this status.

“I want to hold true to my values, but I also understand the reality of the situation and that there needs to be other sources of revenue,” Marks said. “If we continue to do stuff like this, and it’s too successful, then maybe the public sector will say, ‘Well, we don’t have to fund this anymore.’ I’m willing to accept this as a temporary measure, and I’m not yet sure what temporary means, to solve a larger, systematic problem.”

As for the national attention the chancellor’s off-the-cuff idea has gotten the college, he did not complain.

“Hopefully, it’ll raise the issue that our public institutions, not just City College, are and have been chronically underfunded,” Marks said.

The Board of Trustees will review a further refined proposal for Griffin’s save-a-course sponsorship program at one of its upcoming meetings.


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