02/12/2013 05:49 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

At California Community Colleges, 10+1>11

Ask faculty members in an academic senate what is the most important legislation in California community college history, and they will answer with no hesitation: AB 1725, enacted by the legislature and signed by Governor George Deukmejian in 1988. In their eyes, the bill gave them the right to establish policies on a list of "10+1" college issues. The list is so broad -- it includes everything from planning and budget processes to student success -- that it can touch nearly everything a college does.

In reality, the only authority AB 1725 actually conferred on academic senates was related to faculty hiring. The ten broad zones of authority (the eleventh is other) were dreamed up later by faculty group lobbyists and then adopted by the system Board of Governors in 1990. The community college academic senates thus were given vast, unprecedented powers that the legislature never intended them to have, formal authority beyond that of any other academic senate in the country.

The faculty lobbyists performed this impressive feat by somehow morphing a few key words. AB 1725 encouraged colleges to generally defer to academic senates on "curriculum and academic standards." In the process of negotiating language to be presented to the Board of Governors, the encouragement became a requirement, and the territory shifted from the classroom (course content and grading) to a much broader umbrella, "academic and professional matters." The lobbyists crammed the resulting space with 10+1.

When the ink on the Board regulations was barely dry, the leader of the state Senate quietly asked the legislature's attorney, Are these new regulations legal? The answer was an unequivocal no. The legal opinion explains that the regulations go too far because:

"[T]he Education Code speaks in terms of the academic senate merely 'making recommendations' and not in terms of changing the role of the academic senate to the degree of equalizing its role with that of the governing board."

Disturbingly, while the confidential, nonbinding analysis was shared with the state Chancellor's office, no repairs were made to the regulations.

It did not take long after the adoption of the regulations for dual authority to cause problems. In 1995 the attorney for the Board of Governors, rather than seeing the collaboration and shared responsibility he had hoped would result from the new governance structure, was instead seeing balkanization, turf wars, and finger-pointing. The trends, he feared, "eventually could overwhelm and defeat the purpose of the structure itself."

Eventually. More than a third of community colleges in California have violated accreditation standards in recent years, a rate six times higher than in any other region of the country. Examples include College of the Redwoods, where "stakeholders either do not accept or do not follow (or possibly understand) their defined roles and responsibilities;" Lassen College, which was in a state of crisis because of a power struggle that pitted every constituent group against each other; and of course the winner of the dysfunction prize, San Francisco, where "it is often unclear how or by whom decisions have been made."

The game of dueling decision-makers is causing too much dysfunction. Worse, though, it is preventing progress in improving student access and success. One of the most important recommendations of the community college system's Student Success Task Force is the statewide development of an online advising and guidance system. But faculty leaders have already begun marking the territory as off limits. This could be a fight that could occur at every one of the system's 112 colleges, on each item in the task force's report.

Enhancing the role of the statewide Board of Governors was one of the cornerstones of AB 1725 in 1988. Tragically, the Board undermined its own role two years later when it was hoodwinked into mandating bureaucratic processes that prevent campus consideration and implementation of the Board's own recommendations.