Bureaucracy-Mired Colleges

Community colleges, an avenue to economic self-sufficiency for millions of Americans, got a well-deserved boost last week when the U.S. Senate passed a bill to count two years of community college or vocational education as work under federal welfare law. That decision was based on the assumption that the colleges teach students skills that will provide a good living and remove them from the welfare rolls. In California that remains a very big assumption.

Many community college districts are hamstrung by inefficient bureaucracies that fail to keep courses up to date with the needs of the job market. And nowhere has the problem been more apparent than in the Los Angeles Community College District, where to get a new course approved a faculty member has to spend nine months jumping through the academic hoops: gaining approval from the department chair, a college curriculum committee, the college academic senate, district curriculum committee, district executive committee and office of educational programs.

Last week, the district’s newly elected president, Elizabeth Garfield, was poised to jettison the bureaucracy with a sweeping plan to grant more direct autonomy to the presidents of individual campuses. Garfield planned, for example, to reward successful colleges by funding them based on current student enrollment. Current funding is based more on the previous year’s allocation than on performance. She would let campus presidents decide which, if any, functions they want the central district office to perform, replacing the current system of central authority.

At the eleventh hour, California Community College Chancellor Thomas Nussbaum intervened, barring Garfield from implementing the reforms until they had been formally approved by the district’s academic senate, a process that, in addition to undermining Garfield’s attempt to streamline the district’s bureaucracy, will delay reform until at least late August and may threaten the current consensus for change.


Nussbaum says he is merely enforcing the state’s “shared governance” law, which requires that community college decision-making be shared by college staff, faculty and students. But Garfield had given staff and faculty key roles on the study group that worked out the reforms last month. The reforms also mirror faculty labor union recommendations.

Most higher education leaders agree that the shared governance law is largely responsible for the bureaucratic logjams that afflict community colleges. Nussbaum himself has said his governing board will begin rethinking the structure in September.

But it’s not the spirit of the shared governance that’s wrong. No one disputes that community colleges need the enthusiastic participation of both faculty and staff to succeed. The problem lies in forcing Garfield and other district leaders to rigidly adhere to the letter of a flawed law. There’s nothing more stifling to reform than bureaucrats who are unwilling to open the doors to change.