Power Play

By Bruce Robinson

MICKI GRAHAM is heading for a courtroom instead of a classroom this fall, and she’s taking Santa Rosa Junior College with her. A popular biology professor at the JC for the past two years, Graham was abruptly dismissed last spring, over the vehement objections of her departmental colleagues, who were joined in their protests by many other faculty and students.

In addition to depriving the college of a talented and well-liked instructor, supporters say, her case has also raised troubling questions about gender equity on campus, the administration’s alleged inclination to manipulate personnel procedures, and the college’s commitment to maintaining academic standards.

“We were all in support of her staying,” says colleague Chris Christopher, incoming chairman of the Life Sciences Department. “Nobody ever wanted her dismissed.”

In a lawsuit filed Aug. 13 with the state Public Employees Relations Board, Graham accuses the SRJC administration of fraud, sex discrimination, defamation, inflicting emotional distress, negligence, and violations of the state labor code. She also has filed a separate civil action in Sonoma County Superior Court, seeking $2.5 million in damages and lost wages.

The legal charges, as well as a wave of activism that swept the campus last spring in support of Graham, stem from a supposedly botched tenure review in which Graham appears to have been caught up in the cross-currents of some tangled academic politics that had polarized participants long before she came to the institution. Her case galvanized an upwelling of support from faculty, staff, and students angered by the expensive expansion of the instructional administration under SRJC President Robert Agrella, and the apparent concurrent rise in the number of complaints and legal actions by aggrieved members of the college community.

“With the exception of Proposition 187 [the 1994 anti-immigration initiative], the students have not rallied around anything as much as this,” says Jennifer Branham, the new associated student body president, who sat as the student representative to the SRJC board of trustees during the last school year. “It wasn’t just another protest. They were compelled to come out and show their support for her.”

WHEN GRAHAM was hired in 1994, after completing her Ph.D. in environmental ecology at the University of California, she was chosen to fill the first tenure-track opening in the SRJC Life Sciences Department in more than 20 years. “She’s a really inspiring teacher,” says Brian O’Brien, a 22-year veteran of the same department who was part of the hiring committee that selected Graham and also chaired her Tenure Review Committee. “Our department hadn’t had the opportunity to hire a full-time position since I came. We wanted to have a woman who would be inspiring to women and a role model. She did just exactly what we hoped she would do.

“You could see the women gathering around her after class and hear the remarks they would make.”

Adds Charles Apel, a re-entry biology student who was Graham’s student assistant in three courses last year and has since transferred to UC Santa Cruz: “She’s a brilliant biologist and an exciting teacher. She’s really hot, really contemporary, really connected with her students. Everyone really loved her.”

Over her first two years, Graham received strongly positive evaluations from both students and other faculty observers. “Something like 85 percent of her student rankings and evaluations were of the highest order, outstanding or above average,” O’Brien reports. “All her numbers add up to A’s or a B; she doesn’t even get a C, [yet] she gets a failing grade [from the administration]. It defies logic, that’s for sure.

“If you did this to a student, you’d be fired.”

O’Brien was Graham’s strongest advocate in the four-member Tenure Review Committee, but he insists that the others–life sciences professors Steve Barnhart and Bob Rubin, and Rosemary Darden, the college’s assistant dean for science and applied technology–all agreed that Graham should be retained for the second two-year probationary period before she would become eligible for tenure.

“We never discussed terminating this woman. The agreement in all our meetings was that she be rehired,” O’Brien says. “The discussion was how strongly we indicated she needed improvements.”

The standard forms used in such reviews give the committee the choice of “suggesting” or “requiring” improvements of rehired tenure-track faculty. O’Brien says the committee split over that decision. “The dean was holding out for the requirement that she [Graham] have some improvements,” he says.

Dean Darden also insisted on including in the committee’s deliberations the complaints of five students who had taken a summer biology class from Graham, despite the fact that the summer class was not supposed to be a part of the tenure evaluation process. “There was never an evaluation of that class. No one ever came to observe, nor were student evaluations solicited, yet those few students that complained about their grades were used in such a way as to completely overshadow the many, many other students and student evaluations which were extraordinarily positive,” Graham objects.

She believes that the substance of those complaints was not the real issue. “For reasons that had nothing to do with those students or their complaints, they turned out to be a convenient vehicle,” she says grimly. “There were administrators, or at least an administrator, who really picked up on that and then used them to completely smear me professionally.”

Angered by the inclusion of the disputed complaints, O’Brien split from the other three committee members and submitted his own minority report, strongly recommending that Graham be rehired. The majority report contained the same overall recommendation, he claims. But in the final draft prepared by Darden, a sentence was inserted near the end of the seven-page document stating, “We recommend that [Graham] be rehired for one year.” That seemingly innocuous statement is what accomplished Graham’s dismissal, which was announced last March.

“The deal here is very clear. Rosemary [Darden] knows that the one-year option is not an option,” O’Brien fumes. “She knows the contract and she knew this would throw some kind of a jammer into the works.”

And it did. Academic Vice President Ed Buckley rejected the recommendation, and in the absence of consensus among the divided Tenure Review Committee, concluded that Graham should be dismissed, a decision that was affirmed by SRJC President Robert Agrella. “I believe the committee clearly understood the implications of the situation and chose to leave the final recommendation in the hands of the academic vice president,” Agrella later wrote to Richard Rose, president of the SRJC Academic Senate.

“Did the administration ‘overturn’ the Tenure Review Committee’s recommendation?” Agrella asks rhetorically in the same letter. “The answer to this is no.”

But the intentions of the committee clearly were reversed.

“Every member on my tenure review committee except the administrator has personally assured me they never intended nor understood my dismissal to be a consequence of their summary review,” Graham wrote to Agrella. “I am concerned that they were misled. I am concerned that an administrator who deals with tenure constantly would not know that what was being suggested would not be acceptable.”

Graham added that she believes that “an investigation will reveal that the district office had already been informed of my impending dismissal” before Buckley’s decision was revealed.

The cloud over the proceedings darkened further at the May board of trustees meeting. The Academic Senate and the All Faculty Association, the campus instructors’ union, believed they had worked out a compromise agreement with Agrella, which he would take to the trustees for ratification at the meeting. The compromise would have had Graham reinstated, but subject to more frequent evaluations over the next two years, to be done by a new Tenure Review Committee.

Yet, when the meeting was held, the board emerged from its closed personnel session with the curt announcement that nothing had changed. “President Agrella represented to the union that I would be reinstated” in accordance with the proposed compromise, Graham contends, “but when it actually came to the day to do that, he didn’t do that at all. He broke his word to them.”

Based on her subsequent conversations with trustees, Graham charges that “Dr. Agrella didn’t mention the union compromise and never indicated to the board that he had made an agreement with the union.”

Because personnel issues are, by law, allowed to be discussed out of public view, there is no record to indicate if Agrella even mentioned the suggested settlement to the board. And that shield of confidentiality is another sore point.

Graham objects that all of the key decisions regarding her future were made at meetings from which she, her allies, and the public were all excluded. “I’m not interested in holding confidentiality about these issues pertaining to me because it definitely is not in my best interest,” she says bluntly. “Confidentiality and secrecy only work for those people who are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”

“A lot of people are hiding behind this thing on confidentiality,” echoes Sandy Lowe, a member of the Faculty for Tenure Equity Committee from the philosophy and religious studies department. “But it’s there to protect the person who’s on review, not somebody else.”

SO WHY was Micki Graham fired? The administration is not talking. President Agrella refused to meet with this reporter, Dean Darden did not return repeated phone calls, and Buckley declined to comment and referred all queries to the college’s attorney, who in turn referred them to Graham’s lawyer.

Meanwhile, the campus is rife with speculation.

“You can assume either malevolent intervention or breakdown of the process, or both,” says Johanna James, a computer science instructor at SRJC and a member of the FTE Committee, which was formed in response to Graham’s firing. “But then it gets back to the question of why this was going on [in the first place]. Why was the administration so entrenched and adamant about defending that position?”

James sees Graham as “a bright, independent woman” who was “operating in a hostile environment with a couple of her colleagues, due to gender issues, lifestyle issues,” and whose strong feelings about environmental issues and animal rights may have irked other faculty members.

Possibly more significant was Graham’s presence as an open, if not activist, lesbian in a predominantly male department. “Micki violates some of the traditional notions of how a woman should look and act,” James contends. “She was not being held to the same standard a male colleague would be. If a man had been running around in slacks and a shirt, that would never have been an issue.”

Even so, “they knew all this when she was hired,” says Sue Carrell, the gender equity coordinator at SRJC the past two years. From Carrell’s perspective, old and hard-set attitudes are a big part of the problem. “I very much get the sense that it’s still a white-male bastion,” she adds, offering figures that show that 54 percent of the part-time and 59 percent of the full-time SRJC faculty are men, even though women typically make up a 58-60 percent majority of the student body.

“A specific complaint by a few students is quite typical and usually goes no farther than the department chair,” adds Marty Bennett, a social sciences professor and co-founder of the FTE Committee. In Graham’s case, “that complaint found its way to the assistant dean and into [Graham’s] personnel file. Would that have happened to a male?”

Carrell also believes that Graham was held to a higher standard than male tenure candidates have been, but she realizes “the only way you can prove it is if you go back through the files of all the men who went through the same process and had more grounds to be booted out but were still rehired and eventually got tenure.”

Of course, she adds, “those records are all sealed. The only way you can get into them is by filing a lawsuit.”

Graham believes–and her lawsuit contends–that she was punished for filing a grievance over the way the tenure review was conducted, an action she took back in February. “It was not until after that that there was any discussion of the remote possibility that I would not be retained,” she contends. “Maybe they would have fired me anyway, but it’s curious that no one ever said a thing about it until after the grievance was filed.”

The grievance process is still slowly moving forward, with a hearing before an arbitrator as the next step. Asked when it might be scheduled, Bob Henry, the attorney representing the college in the proceedings, says he is “hoping for the month of October,” but acknowledges that the arbitrator has not yet been selected.

Under the college’s contract with the All Faculty Association, such arbitration hearings are not binding, but Graham says the Academic Senate has asked that the board of trustees and President Agrella follow the results of the arbitrator, and not push this into the courts. “And I hope that’s what they do,” she says. “It’s not in anyone’s best interest to force lawsuits in a situation like this. It’s an incredible waste of public money to adopt that strategy.”

But that has been the district’s strategy in other disputes. Although the details are buried in budget line items not included in the generalized budget summaries that are published each year, the campus grapevine has been buzzing with stories of administrators unhappily “retreating” to teaching positions or seeking other forms of redress. Henry Bell, the former associate dean of the SRJC campus in Petaluma, reportedly boasted of the six-figure settlement he received when he left the district for undisclosed reasons.

THE EXPANSION of the SRJC administration in the six years since Robert Agrella took the helm has also been costly, and is deeply resented by some faculty members. In a letter widely circulated on campus last May, one professor complained that “the addition of a new layer of mini-deans” not only was implemented “to isolate Dr. Agrella from the concerns of the faculty,” but was “imposed against the wishes of the faculty and at a time when there were insufficient funds for instructional needs.”

Although exact figures are not available, the annual salaries and benefits paid to six assistant deans and their support staff are believed to represent more than half a million dollars in the administration’s annual budget.

But the cost alone is not what upsets the faculty members who must deal with the new assistant deans. “It’s not a broadening, but a deepening of the administration,” objects Johanna James. “You’re one more person removed from process and input.”

Marty Bennett agrees: “It’s another layer you have to go through between the faculty and the administration. The actual decision-making about what goes on in the classroom is being taken away from the faculty.”

Worse, the people who are filling those positions tend to be bureaucrats, some of whom have little experience or understanding of academics. “We’ve gone from a system where the administrators rose from the ranks of the teachers and were familiar with the problems of the classroom, who had a discipline themselves and understood what it was to build a body of knowledge in a subject, who understood what it was not just to teach, but to be connected to your students,” Graham observes, “to a system of managers, many of whom have seen little or no time in a classroom and perhaps are not trained in an academic discipline.”

As a result, she theorizes, these administrators tend to “see the college as a service institution. The students or their parents pay the fees and the institution’s job is to provide them with a passing grade and ultimately a degree, so they can go out and get a job. So any kind of [student] performance becomes acceptable performance. [The administrators] really don’t have any idea what it is, for example, to be a mathematician and have the understanding that you can’t just pass students along.”

Math is not an idle example. Another controversy among SRJC faculty as school resumes this fall involves a bitter dispute between the math and applied technology departments over the latter’s creation of a course that math professor Jim Spencer says effectively bypassed the math department’s prerequisite requirements, but allowed students to acquire key transferable general education credits needed to graduate from a four-year California state college.

“Students who didn’t meet the prerequisites in our department or who failed a prerequisite would be able to go over there and take the course,” Spencer says. “They’ve even taken students who have failed basic arithmetic, but are able to pass this transferable four-year requirement course.”

When protests to the curriculum committee, the Academic Senate, and the administration all were shrugged off, math faculty members wrote a letter detailing their concerns directly to the California state University Chancellor’s Office, which subsequently dropped the disputed applied technology course from its list of transferable credits.

A furor ensued in the SRJC Academic Senate, which passed a resolution last May censuring the math department for its “unprecedented action of going beyond approved district policies” and charged that the “math department’s action challenges the district’s integrity and reputation.”

A series of sanctions are pending, including a ban on new math courses and the exclusion of math professors from membership in any curriculum committees for three years.

Now, Spencer says, the dispute is likely to become an issue for the accreditation committee that is due to make its twice-a-decade report on SRJC during the coming school year.

And the math course is not an isolated incident, faculty members charge. “It goes to the whole question of lowering standards,” says Brian O’Brien. “We have had a number of alternate courses offered at the JC. They offer a class in the nursing department now, something that nobody does anywhere else, basic microbiology for nurses, a substitute class that was much easier than the one that I teach” in the Life Sciences Department.

O’Brien charges that Assistant Dean Rosemary Darden, who also oversees the math department, “played a big role in a very tricky scheme to get this approved by the curriculum committee and resist our efforts to get it reconsidered.” He speculates that the fallout from that battle, in which Darden prevailed, may have poisoned the workings of Micki Graham’s Tenure Review Committee.

After months of reflection, Graham has come to the conclusion that she was only a minor player in the drama of her dismissal. That decision, she now feels, “was a combination of an individual administrator who has some kind of vendetta for reasons that are not clear and a system that does not support academic freedom nor an educator’s right to advocate strong positions.

“I’m also basically subject to a system in which management wants absolute control, in the way management in industry has control, which is something professors are not going to take very kindly to,” she adds.

But as in all other aspects of her case, even these conclusions are open to second-guessing. “I wish it was clear,” sighs Sandy Lowe. “There’s something in it that really stinks bad, but I’m not sure where the stench is coming from.”

From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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