Sunday, October 25, 2009

Curious suspensions

Creative writing instructor Andrew Rempt (Nelvin C. Cepeda / Union-Tribune)

Some of you have asked... Nope, I was not aware of the disturbing recent events at Southwestern College, about 100 miles to our south. So it's time to get up to speed.

At the administrative (and trustee?) level, Southwestern (SC) has been a troubled college for some time. You can read about some of that below. (Yes, felonies, accred troubles, former SOCCCD employees, and administrative rat bastardry are all part of the saga.)

SC faculty and classified have long expressed dissatisfaction with the Superintendent/President, Raj Chopra, who has been accused of familiar heavy-handedness and worse. (He's been described as a "dictator.")

A few years ago, the Southwestern Community College District board was spanked (by the Accreds) for micromanagement.

At one point (not so long ago), all of SC's VPs were gone for one reason or another (fired, etc.).

Naturally, these days, like many other community college districts, the SCCD is confronting severe budget cuts. Many in the district, including students, are very unhappy with how the situation is being handled by Chopra, et al.

Less than a year ago, Chopra received an 8% raise, and this outraged many.

Last Thursday, there was a protest involving mostly students on campus. Not long after the protest, four (or more) faculty--they seem to have participated in the protest--were informed that they were suspended.

At least some of these faculty are, or have been, in leadership positions. Our own "100 Miles Down the Road," formerly the president of the Southwestern College faculty union, was among them.

Based on reporting since last Friday, it is not entirely clear whether the suspensions are related to the protests. But the timing certainly is odd.

Here’s the San Diego Union-Tribune article from Friday:

Southwestern College instructors suspended following rally
CHULA VISTA — At least four Southwestern College instructors have been suspended following a recent campus rally to protest plans to eliminate more than 400 course offerings and to demonstrate growing dissatisfaction with the administration.

A crowd of about 300 assembled on the Chula Vista campus Thursday to demonstrate against the cuts. The group of mostly students walked across campus and circled the president's office before breaking up.

It wasn't until 25 students showed up for their 9 a.m. creative writing class Friday that they realized instructors – including their own – had been suspended. When the students walked toward the president's office, they said campus police intervened and accused them of participating in an unlawful assembly.

College president Raj Chopra is on vacation. His executive assistant, Mary Ganio, released a statement saying Southwestern is investigating a personnel matter that is unrelated to Thursday's protest.

The College “will not comment at this time about the substance of the investigation or any particular employee,” Ganio stated.

The memo went on to say: “I can share that the investigation is unrelated to the student rally. The College shares our students' concerns about reductions in State funding for the College. The College respects, values and is committed to freedom of expression.”

Creative writing instructor Andrew Rempt is among the faculty members who have been suspended with pay following the incident. He said the campus human relations chief and a police officer showed up at his home Thursday night to give him notice of a paid suspension.

The popular instructor declined to discuss details of the suspension letter, but said he didn't see how it couldn't be related to the rally.

Naturally, people often fall prey to post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking--i.e., erroneously reasoning that since A happened prior to B, A must have caused B. On the other hand, the best explanation for these events might be that, among other things, administration seeks to send a message to faculty: dissent at your own peril. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Reporter Maureen Magee provided a somewhat updated version of the story yesterday:

4 faculty at college suspended after rally
...The latest in a string of controversies is Southwestern governing board's recent decision to cut 429 course selections for the spring semester. The cuts represent an estimated 25 percent of all offerings.
But tensions have been brewing at Southwestern long before the course eliminations were proposed. Faculty and students have criticized Chopra for having a heavy-handed management style and for excluding instructors and department chairs from important decisions.

“There has been a climate of fear here for some time,” said Andrew MacNeill, acting president of the faculty union. “I think this is about intimidation.”

Resolutions of no confidence have been passed by several groups, including the faculty senate and the union representing non-teaching employees.

Many are still angry over a 7.9 percent pay raise the governing board gave Chopra in November, MacNeill said.….

That's Supe Chopra at right

AUGUST 2008:

We’ve reported events at Southwestern before, e.g., a year or so ago (The seriously wacky world of California community colleges, August 18, 2008):

…On Friday, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported (3 college trustees boycott over Sandoval agenda item) that three trustees of the Southwestern cc district “boycotted” a board meeting last Wednesday to prevent its being held—in order to prevent discussion of an item to extend a Southwestern College vice president’s job for a month or two.

It’s a tangled tale. Greg Sandoval, the VP, resigned not long ago after someone claimed he’d sexually harassed them. Then he tried to unresign, but the district’s Supe, Raj Chopra, wouldn’t have it. Then, when Chopra left town, Southwestern board president Dave Agosto hastily snuck a new item onto the board’s agenda for August’s meeting. The item was for an action that would have extended Sandoval’s administrative employment to January. Why? ‘Cause, that way, Sandoval would be old enough, while still employed, to receive lifetime medical benefits!

So three of the trustees put the kibosh on the meeting, thus deep-sixing Agosto’s agenda gambit. Maybe that was the right thing to do. Dunno.

The Trib quotes Chopra as saying, “In my 35 years as an administrator, I have not seen ... an agenda item changed the way (this) did.”
This Southwestern story doesn’t end here. In fact, it starts to get seriously convoluted at this point, ‘cause Sandoval is on the board of another district that does business with Southwestern, and it turns out that it was somebody on that other board, who benefited from the relationship, who urged Agosto to….

Well, you know....

From the Southwestern student newspaper (the Sun)

JUNE 2008:
Two months earlier: “Vice Presidents (June 9, 2008):

In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed:
Two administrators at Southwestern College [Greg Sandoval, vice president for student affairs, and Arthur Lopez, director of financial aid] ... have quit their jobs after being accused of sexual harassment, while denying wrongdoing, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported. With one of the resignations, all of the college’s vice presidents have quit or been fired in the last year.
MAY 2008:
And a month before that: “The governing board tended to interfere too much”

From yesterday’s San Diego Union-Tribune: Grand jury expected to urge community college ethics panel:
The [San Diego] county grand jury is expected to release a report tomorrow that will recommend an ethics committee establish and enforce an ethics code for local community colleges.
The 17-page report is largely anecdotal and rarely mentions a specific person or even a specific college, except in three instances:

• MiraCosta College accepted the resignation of its president last year in exchange for a severance package of nearly $1.6 million, exceeding the 18 months' salary permitted by state law.
• The employment contract of the chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District was changed without board approval in 2006. The chancellor deleted a clause that limited his severance pay to 12 months in the event of his dismissal. The clause was later re-inserted. [See Serafin Zasueta.]
• The organization that accredited Southwestern College four years ago noted that the governing board tended to interfere too much in day-to-day operations. Since then, the college has had two interim and two permanent presidents and three of its four vice president positions need to be filled.....
MAY 2006:
And two years before that: Serafin Zasueta (May 3, 2006):

Some at IVC will remember Serafin Zasueta, a Vice President of Instruction at IVC ten or fifteen years ago. I barely remember the guy, but I asked around, and I could find few who had anything good to say about the fellow. ... Most seemed to think that he was a rat bastard.

Said one colleague: "He's as rotten as Mathur, only a little smarter."

Well, smart or no, the fellow has gotten himself into serious trouble.

Back in the early years of the new millennium, Zasueta was the President of Southwestern College, in Chula Vista. But, soon enough, faculty complained that he left them out of decision-making.

Imagine that!

They took a dim view, too, of Zasueta’s use of district vehicles and his purchase of $1 million in life insurance with district money.

With the help of the CTA, faculty backed and secured the election of a trustee candidate who, upon joining the board, tipped the balance against Zasueta. After a board "no confidence" vote, Zasueta was placed on “administrative leave pending investigation of a personnel matter” (CCA Advocate, March/April, 2003).
Well, not long after, Zasueta was indicted together with a political consultant named Larry Remer:
A high-profile political consultant illegally conspired to spend public funds on a commercial promoting a community college bond campaign five years ago and then tried to cover it up, a prosecutor told jurors yesterday.

“This is a case about abusing power and violating public trust,” prosecutor John Rice said….

Defense lawyer Michael Pancer [said] that there was nothing illegal about the way consultant Larry Remer went about getting a bill for $5,890.47 paid following the successful campaign for an $89 million bond…Pancer didn't dispute that college funds were used to pay the bill, but he said it was legal because the school wasn't paying for the production of the commercial, but rather to purchase outtakes for education and marketing.

It is illegal to use taxpayer money to advocate positions in political campaigns.

Remer and former Southwestern College President Serafin Zasueta were indicted on conspiracy, theft, and wire and mail fraud charges in 2004.

Both have pleaded not guilty. The trial of Zasueta, who was fired in 2003, is scheduled to begin April 24…Zasueta claims he didn't know anything about how the bill was paid and that Remer defrauded him and the college, according to court documents.

The case centers around a bill for a television commercial for Proposition AA, which passed with 69 percent support in November 2000.

The commercial was produced by an Alexandria, Va., firm and shot on Southwestern's campus. It shows several students talking about how the money from the bond would be used.

A month after the election, the Virginia company, Murphy Putnam Media Inc., sent a bill for editing and production of the ad to Friends of Southwest College, a campaign committee set up by Remer.

However, the committee had spent all its money.

At that point, the prosecutor said, Remer and Zasueta had a choice to make. They could have raised more money. They could have told the company the bill was late and couldn't be paid. Or Remer could have paid the company out of his own pocket.

“But there was a fourth option,” Rice told jurors. “An illegal option.” And that was to use school funds, the prosecutor said.

“They couldn't use public funds, but they did,” he said.

Rice said that after Zasueta decided to disguise the payment as the purchase of outtakes, Remer asked the company to send the college a bill for “dubs and commercial footage.”

The bill was paid out of the school's theater budget.

In the fall of 2002, Carla Kirkwood, a theater professor, reviewed her department's budget, found the payment to the Virginia company and alerted a trustee.

That prompted an inquiry, during which Remer sent Zasueta a memorandum stating different uses the college would have for the video outtakes.

That, Rice said, was part of a cover-up…. (“Legality of funds’ use contested,” San Diego Union Tribune, 3/29)
Here, then, is the last chapter of this story. Yesterday’s LA Times (“Consultant Admits to Misuse of Funds”) reported as follows:
In a plea bargain, a political consultant Monday pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor criminal count stemming from alleged misuse of public money in exchange for six felony counts being dropped.

Larry Remer, 55, agreed to pay restitution to Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista and a fine of $5,000, and to perform 100 hours of community service.

Serafin Zasueta, 63, the former college president, pleaded guilty to the same count and accepted the same conditions.

…On April 7, a jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of convicting Remer of six counts stemming from $5,890.47 spent by the college for outtakes from a TV commercial favoring an $89-million bond issue for improvements at the college on the 2000 ballot.

Zasueta was awaiting trial.....



United States Attorney Carol C. Lam announced today the guilty pleas of Lawrence “Larry” D. Remer, a San Diego political consultant, and Serafin A. Zasueta, former President and Superintendent of Southwestern College. Both defendants pled guilty before United States District Judge John A. Houston to an Information charging them with illegally using public funds from the Southwestern Community College District to pay for political activity in relation to the Proposition AA Bond measure which was on the November 2000 ballot. Proposition AA was a bond measure seeking $89 million in bonds for Southwestern College


United States Attorney Carol C. Lam today announced that Lawrence “Larry” D. Remer, a San Diego political consultant, and Serafin A. Zasueta, former President and Superintendent of Southwestern College were sentenced today in federal court in San Diego by United States District Court Judge John A. Houston to serve three years probation for violating18, United States Code, Section 600, Promise of Benefit for Political Activity, a misdemeanor. As part of his guilty plea, each defendant agreed to pay full restitution to Southwestern Community College in the amount of $2,945.24, pay a fine of $5,000, and perform 100 hours of community service.

. . . . .

● You might be interested in visiting the website of the SOUTHWESTERN COLLEGE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION.

According to the website, the union's leadership appears to be (or was):
Phil Lopez, President [?] (a Dissent the Blog reader)
Jordan Mills, Vice President
Shannon Gracey, Secretary
David Brown, Treasurer
Carol Stuardo, Part-time Representative
Rob Unger, Grievance Chair
● A blog covering Southwestern College issues:

Save Our Southwestern College: A collective effort by concerned faculty, staff, students, and members of the Southwestern College community.

● Evidently, about two years ago, a group of faculty sought to challenge the SCEA (Southwestern College's faculty union): Challenge. Don't know what that's about.

● Naturally, one wonders what the Southwestern Community College District (SCCD) board of trustees is like. Go to SCCD board.
President, Jean Roesch, Ed.D. - Seat 1 (since 2000)
Yolanda Salcido - Seat 4 (since 2002)
Nick Aguilar - Seat 3 (since 2008)
Jorge Dominguez, Ph.D. - Seat 5 (since 2006)
Terri Valladolid - Seat 2 (since 1998)


Anonymous said...

A-ha!!! The blue is much better--easier on the eyes, with much of the elegance/beauty of the black background.

Is the lovely red leaf/flower photo from Sierra hiking days? It's wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Here's Southwestern College's version of Dissent the Blog:

Seems that the Chopra took his 3 week vacation AFTER he signed the order to suspend.


(I prefer the blue format over the stark black - it is easier on the eyes.)

Anonymous said...

I think one of the suspended profs is our own 100 Miles Down the Road!!!!

Roy Bauer said...

12:09, I took that photo this morning.

Anonymous said...

Scary stuff.

And that classy move Chopra made - sign the orders and then scram - he learned that in Admin 101!

Anonymous said...

Annon 1:02--

Yep. I am 100 miles down the road, and I am Phil Lopez.

--100 miles

Anonymous said...

Wow, maybe we can form a support group with them. They've got it bad.

Where do these incompetent admin types come from?

Anonymous said...

We get ours at a discount from Nova and Argosy.

Anonymous said...

Good lord, 100 miles/Phil; I am very sorry to hear the general story, and yours in particular.

What would you recommend that colleagues at other institutions do to support you?

Bad times, bad times. Atrocious actions.


Anonymous said...

Very nice and intrestingss story.

The return of the curious "Shooting Star" saga

     Back in 2012, I wrote a series of posts about the mysterious sinking, in 1974, of the yacht "Shooting Star," which took th...