A growing rift has opened between the PCC administration and black faculty, staff and students over recent decisions to remove black faculty from long-held positions.
John Wood, former director of the Learning Assistant Center, addressed the Board of Trustees (BOT) in September to voice his displeasure at the hiring decision for the new associate dean of Learning Resources.
Wood’s statement admonished the board for its decision not to hire Akova Scott who held the interim position for two years, but instead hired an out-of-state candidate.
“I’m curious as to why you have selected someone with his qualifications over an outstanding member of our own cultural and campus community. The fact that he’s a white male and Ms. Scott is an African-American woman is not insignificant,” Wood said. “Knowing that she meets every qualification, produces exceptional work and has proven repeatedly her dedication to our college and our students, one might question the motives behind your decision.”
Dr. Ross Selvidge, president of the BOT told the Courier, “We’re prohibited by law from discussing personnel decisions other than to announce what the decision is after we made it,” he said. “We were very comfortable with the decision that we made, we looked at the qualifications and we try with the info that we have to make the best possible decision.”
Just weeks before Wood’s public comment, Dr. Christopher West attended the Board of Trustees meeting in Arcadia on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 to make a statement regarding the nonrenewal of facilities director Dr. Rueben Smith’s contract.
West explained to the board how he felt they could and should have handled the situation regarding Smith’s employment, explaining that everyone could then walk away with dignity, but that the board failed to do so.
“You put yourself into a situation with an employee who was respectful, extraordinarily strong, giving and gifted,” West said.
West further relayed a story to the board that while at an African-American mixer, he wanted to introduce a black student to Smith due to his role as the faculty advisor of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). He then remembered that he couldn’t do that due to Smith no longer being employed with the college.
“ … as an African-American tenured faculty here it makes me wonder, after nine years of work at this institution, 16-hour days with no apology, maybe this isn’t my institution.”
Smith, the former Executive Director for Facilities Services, oversaw the Measure P bond program, maintenance, operations and custodial. After five years in that position, he was told that his contract was not being renewed, for reasons Smith does not know.
“Why? I can’t tell you. The administration and Board of Trustees wanted to go in a different direction. I never received a bad evaluation, every evaluation I received at PCC was stellar so I really don’t know what happened,” Smith said. “I’d just returned from a two week vacation and two days later and I was basically told that there was no confidence in me to do the job.”
Smith stated that his direct supervisor, Vice President of Business and Administrative Services Richard Storti, was the person who delivered the news to him. Smith said that while Storti would not say whether he had confidence in him, he said that the Board of Trustees had no confidence in him to do the job.
The Courier reached out to Storti for comment but received no response.
After Smith resigned, he found out that no one had reached out to the students in the National Society of Black Engineers to inform them that they no longer had a faculty advisor. Former student and creator of the NSBE program Kevin Scroggins confirmed this to the Courier.
“All I know is we got a text from Mr. Smith informing us that he was gone. It might have been about two to three weeks after,” Scroggins said.
Black at PCC by the numbers
According to PCC’s Equal Employment Opportunity Plan (EEOP), between 2013 and 2016, black full-time faculty remained stagnant at 9 percent while part-time faculty also stayed put at 7 percent. African-Americans in educational administrator positions fell from 24 percent to 19 percent and in classified service maintenance, they fell from 25 percent to 16 percent.
While African-Americans in classified manager positions rose from 14 to 18 percent and classified technical jobs rose from 11 to 15 percent, classified clerical positions also stayed the same at 16 percent. As for the student population, those numbers fell from five percent in 2013 to four percent in 2016.
In addition to his speech to the Board of Trustees, Wood also sent a letter to the Pasadena Weekly titled “Pasadena City College Failing Our Black Community,” which was published on their website.
“While 10 percent of the Pasadena Area Community College District is African American, the percentage of black students at PCC has steadily declined and is currently at 4 percent of the student body,” Wood wrote.
“While other major ethnic groups have all seen an increase in the number of new students enrolling at the college, new black enrollment continues to drop. It is currently at only 3 percent of all new enrollees. For those who are enrolled, success and retention rates at the college show that African Americans remain the lowest among all ethnic groups.”
Where is the Black leadership?
In addition to Scott not being hired for the Learning Resources position and Smith’s resignation, Dr. Lisa Norman also resigned her position as the Vice President of Human Resources in October. Norman currently works in the same position as VP of Human Resources for Palomar College in San Marcos. According to Scott, all of these changes happened within 60 days. While Norman departed PCC in October, her name is still listed on PCC’s website as VP of Human Resources.
“This is one of those opportunities where you ask the question, if you’re an African-American who is wanting to advance on the campus, is there an opportunity?” West said. “We could say the same thing about Dr. Paul Price. He’s elevated to a position, he becomes an interim and yet he doesn’t get the job.”
The Courier reached out to Price for further clarification but he declined to comment.
West said that Norman was the highest ranking African-American on campus and she chose to leave to work in the same position at a smaller institution, while Smith was one of the highest ranking African-American male employees on campus who is also gone.
Wood also questioned the lack of Black leadership in his letter to Pasadena Weekly.
His letter argued that there is currently one African-American vice president at the college, referring to Dr. Robert Bell, who was reassigned from his position on the main campus to an assignment away from the main campus at the Community Education Center (CEC).
“Two black managers have been forced out of their positions just this past month. A black female employee who acted as interim assistant dean for two years was recently turned down for the permanent position in favor of a Caucasian male. African-American staff and faculty numbers have also diminished,” Wood wrote.
Arkova Scott was reasonably upset about the decision not to hire her for the permanent position in the learning resources center. Although she accepted the outcome, she admitted to not understanding the reasoning behind the decision.
“I feel that they did not take into consideration that this was a new position and how much I did to develop that new vision. There’s never been a dean of learning resources in the history of this institution. So I just really don’t think that all factors were considered when the decision was made,” Scott said.
Scott stated that not only was she not hired for the position but that no one reached out to her or gave her a reason why she did not get the job. She further stated that the response to her queries was unempathetic and that the person she normally would have gone to talk to about it, Norman, was already gone.
While Scott is still classified adjunct faculty and is able to teach, she said she is no longer in the same area in which she was hired. She said she’d been moved to the writing center in the English division.
“They took her out of her position and put her in the English division and and when she got there, there was no desk, no phone and they gave her instructions on how to run a vacuum,” Wood said. “So it almost seems like they were out to get her, to me.”
Wood placed partial blame for the decision not to hire Scott on Vurdien stating that he’d made the decision with the VP Terry Giugni “ who is a friend of his” and felt that they had too much power.
“I think the BOT is to be held responsible for this. That’s two presidents that cost taxpayers money and damaged the school. And the third one they picked is this Dr. Vurdien. He’s been here for two years and at the end of two he announced his retirement at the end of next June. To me he came here to pad his pension and to get out. He never was a man of the community,” Wood said.
Vurdien responded to Wood’s claim in an email to the Courier stating, “My record at Pasadena City College speaks for itself.”
Scott explained that most of all she’s disheartened. After 16 years at PCC she feels that there is no loyalty. She stated that it feels like a corporation now and that the emphasis on community has been lost.
Where’s the outreach?
PCC’s website states that the president’s office has an African-American Advisory Committee that is scheduled to meet once a month. On that list is Bell, West and BOT member Dr. Berlinda Brown; also listed is Women’s Basketball coach Joseph Peron.
When the Courier reached out to Peron in an email to ask about his experience on the committee he responded, “That list needs to be updated, I haven’t been apart of the Presidents African-American Advisory Committee in over 3 years.”
President-Superintendent Rajen Vurdien pushed back on those claims in an email to the Courier.
“The college provides significant support to all members of our community regardless of race or ethnicity. The President’s African American Advisory Committee meets on a regular basis and provides valuable input to me and college administration,” he said.
“The campus wide focus on Diversity and Equity Training has been an important forum for administration to understand and engage questions of race and ethnicity. The information on the President’s African-American Advisory Committee website is correct.”
Quickly after the Courier received Vurdien’s statement, Peron reached out again by email stating, “I found out that I am still apart of PAAAC and that although I have not been attending the meeting the past 2 years because of my teaching schedule I have an open invitation at anytime to attend the meetings. Thanks for prompting me to look into that so I can continue my involvement with PAAAC.”
The student impact
Mylahn Mallory, a second-year PCC student, said that she almost did not return to PCC for the second year and that she didn’t feel black students had enough help.
“Ujima is a source and Blackademia is a source but at the same time, it’s like they need more help outside of the program because those programs can only do so much. Kids don’t have any type of inspiration,” she said. “Honestly, I wasn’t gonna come back this year. I wasn’t. I just know because of what I wanna do I had to come back.”
Tia Johnson, a first year PCC student, echoed Mallory’s sentiments while stating that she wasn’t surprised that the black student rate has dropped. Johnson stated that besides the Ujima program that black students should have more outreach and caucuses where they can feel safe. As the only black person in some of her classes, she said she rarely sees anyone else who looks like her.
“The black demographic has gone down and I was not necessarily surprised,” said Johnson. “That’s not saying that African-Americans aren’t coming to school but I feel like people go where they feel the most comfortable and they feel like they can relate.”
Scroggins said that the reason he started the NSBE was because there was no community support on campus for Black students in STEM majors. He stated that even trying to find a black faculty advisor was tough because they didn’t have many full-time black faculty to choose from.
“Even if we’d look for other professors there weren’t too many professors of color, or they wouldn’t even be able to relate or understand where we were coming from being underrepresented in STEM,” Scroggins said.
Smith told the Courier that the NSBE attended hackathons and national conferences where the club competed and outperformed students at top universities, but that when he attempted to publicize this to the school, no one wanted to hear about it.
“My time as academic advisor for NSBE was actually a very, very great opportunity for not only students to see we’re reaching out and trying to close the gap but no one ever asked for a report on how that group was doing,” Smith said.
He stated that he offered this information to Storti. He suggested bringing the students to the BOT meeting to allow them to address the board about their experiences and to thank them for approving their funding, but that he was given lip service and it was never put on the agenda.
He also said that students would complain about pathway programs they weren’t welcome at and challenges with classes due to being the only black student enrolled.
What’s the solution?
Despite the current circumstances, Smith said that there is a way for the campus to improve in its treatment and relationships with the African-American community, but also gave a warning.
“The district has recognized that there is an equity gap and closing the achievement gap on paper, they said that that’s a priority, but I never witnessed any actions of that to happen. I think sincerity in coming with a listening ear and communicating directly with those impacted,” he said. “If you’re not sincere and proclaim to do things, it’s empty promises and people will transfer out and walk away.”
Scott mentioned that the one bright spot in her experience was Vice President of Student Services Dr. Cynthia Olivo. Scott stated that Olivo was the one person who reached out to her after she was passed over for the position, and sat with her in her office, allowing her to emote and talk.
“The one administrator that fights to have minorities on her staff is Dr. Olivo. If you look at all the deans on campus you can see the representation compared to student services. Olivo is an advocate who has a representative group of minorities that are represented,” Smith said.
“Our management does not reflect our student population but she does a really good job with trying to balance that out. Academic Affairs, not so much.”
Scott also said that the school needed to start hiring minorities in academic positions. She questioned whether the administration felt that the black community was not smart enough, due to there being many qualified people in the campus community that never seem to get hired. She further stated that she didn’t think that was being considered in the hiring process.
Wood lamented about what he felt was the way things used to be on PCCs campus. He attributed the drop off in African-American enrollment to the perceived lack of support for the black community and said that it worried him because he knows that the black community needs community college as an avenue for improving their lives and educations.
Mallory simply said that she hoped students would have a better support system going forward.
“I think they need a support system for them to feel like they’re welcome here and they can get the help they need,” she said.
Eric Haynes contributed to this story.
Read our follow up EDITORIAL to this story.