Friday, October 23, 2009

Southwestern College Students Protest Class Cuts (And What the Administration Did Afterward)

On Thursday, October 22, students at Southwestern College in Chula Vista chose to protest against the unilateral actions of the school president and its Board. The protest was civil and held in the fifty yard-by-fifty yard zone that the school calls its "Free Speech Area."

It should also be noted that the Free Speech Area is hidden away between several buildings and is invisible to any road, parking lot, or driveway that surrounds the campus. To a member of the voting public - such as myself - who showed up to watch the students, it was difficult to find. I, like others, had to park and wander the campus until we found it.

For the last Board meeting, President Chopra refused to move the venue from the tiny room it usually used to the auditorium it regularly uses when it expects a big crowd. He knew that students, professors, members of the public, and the press were coming to express their displeasure at his budget-slashing plans, so more than one hundred people – like me – stood outside and listened to the meeting on little speakers, while police guarded the doors. So it comes as no surprise that he is using locational tactics to try to suppress his opposition again.

The students had one hour to express their disgust and displeasure, and to try to rally support among their peers. They used it. And, at the end, they decided to march across campus to the president's office to be heard. Campus police intervened, and after a reminder that they had no rights at all on the campus, the students decided to do this again, and they dispersed.

President Raj Chopra's reaction? He suspended four professors, including the head of the faculty union, a man who has stood against him time and again, while always standing up for his fellow instructors. I suspect he was suspended last night more for that than for anything the students did yesterday.

A Very Brief History

The Administration's Story -- Faced with California's looming fiscal crisis, President Chopra formed a committee of faculty and administration to decide on budget-saving measures. Eventually it became clear that the only way to maintain operations was to cut classes. That would keep any instructor from being laid off, and wouldn't effect the students much at all.

The Truth -- The President formed a committee. Ostensibly scheduled by the admin, it never met until the very day of the most recent board meeting (one week ago). Absolutely nothing was decided, except for the admin representatives to let the faculty reps know what was going down. Many cost-saving measures were floated: cutting the maximum number of students in classes, instructors taking pay cuts, instructors taking unpaid furlough days, laying off unnecessary administrators, cutting athletics, and utilizing the school's "reserve funds."

Southwestern College has several million dollars in its reserve fund - also known as its "rainy-day fund." Over the past few years, the reserve fund has increased to 7% of its holdings. In other words, the school has made a profit the past few years. The State of California says that all colleges should have a reserve, but the amount they recommend is "not more than 5%."

That two percent overage in the rainy-day surplus equals about two million dollars. The budget shortage? An estimated $1.3 to $1.7 million. The overage in the surplus could sate the budget issues for the time, but the Board doesn't want to give up on that banked profit.

Furthermore, during the last Board meeting, the one member who puts students, faculty, and the South Bay area first - Nick Aguilar - put a motion on the table. It was not to stop the slashing of classes, but simply to consider some of these other options. The Board refused to even consider anything but slashing classes (which means laying off instructors). When it was pointed out that they actually would lose about fifty percent of their adjunct (non-full time) professors, one member - Maria Valledolid - responded, 'those are adjuncts, so it's not layoffs.'

President Chopra's proposal for budget-cutting involves slashing about 25% of all classes that SWC offers. Thousands of students attend school, and most of them realize that their schedule will be affected. Professors will be laid off. Classes will not be offered. Some students will not be able to graduate! But that fat 7% profit hidden away remains safe. This is what led them to protest.

Unilateral actions are never popular, and almost never warranted. These anti-faculty and anti-student decisions by Dr. Chopra are symptomatic of a weak leader and a rubber-stamping board.

Raj Chopra is a coward; he was off the campus for all this. He sent police to the four professors' home with letters informing them that they had been suspended (and how much did that cost taxpayers, Raj?). He insists that students hide their protests where the public can't see them. He hides the actions of himself and his Board in the tiniest room possible.

Sure, the students will suffer. Sure, the faculty will suffer. Sure, the reputation of the school will be irreparably damaged. Sure, the city of Chula Vista, and the South Bay area will suffer. But, hey! We'll have that profit banked, and that's apparently all that matters.

For more information on this, go to the Save Our Southwestern College blog at If you’re in Chula Vista/South Bay/San Diego, please follow @saveourswc for more updates.

It also appears that this is finally getting some attention from the local paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune (which is solidly in Raj’s pocket):

(Photo credits - me with the cell phone)

Edited to add the last two paragraphs, and to tweak the bit on the location of the last Board meeting.

UPDATE: It appears that the Union-Tribune has decided to take a slightly more even-handed look at this situation. This story, updated early this morning, finally begins to dig into the issues:


  1. Anything I can do to help. I'm pretty well in the loop. I'll do what I can.

    Question: if the three professors still suspended opt to sue the school - and win, which they will - how much MORE will SWC pay out on a yearly basis for legal fees, retainers, and judgment payouts?

    Maybe they should have tried slashing stupidity from the budget first...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I posted the San Diego Union story (the more even handed version) to New Faculty Majority (Adjunct Coalition) group and Adj-l Contingent Academic Labor list ~ immediate response on adj-l with academic labor activist Marc Bosquet wanting to know who to get in touch with. Just emailed link to this blog post to adj-l listserv

  4. Thanks, Vanessa. Let me urge the folks who've been suspended to please do get in touch ASAP--I blog for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and am on the AAUP governing Council. My email is pmbousquet (at) gmail (dot) com. You can see what I do at and
    Solidarity, M

  5. I'm glad to have giving you a landing pad, Vanessa. Outstanding! It's clear it's ALREADY had an impact.

    And welcome, Marc. It's good to see these professors' plight is getting out there. On behalf of the public (which is all I am) - Thank You!

  6. Sorry, Vanessa....that should have read, "YOU have ALREADY had an impact."

    I wasn't trying to take credit for your work. Sheesh, Nick. *headdesk*

  7. no problem ~ I know to go by what you mean, which shines through... and there I'd been wondering what shining example of cacademia to tweet for NFM today

  8. Because I've been suspended, I don't have access to my office or my school email account, so my numbers aren't exact, but they're close:

    SWC has $13.5 M in reserves. $2M is "restricted reserves," so the District can't spend that money on saving classes. That leaves about $11.5 million.

    This reserve fund equals 11.6% of the budgeted expenditures for the 09-10 fiscal year. The Chancellor's Office recommends 5% as a "prudent minimum."

    --P. Lopez

  9. Thanks, Phil!

    Keep in mind, since I'm neither faculty or staff, I had to use what numbers had been bandied about by people with vastly different agendas.

    With the reserves being about 11.5 M, instead of the 10% I'd heard, this should mean that the administration would be in an even BETTER position to utilize this surplus money to offset the budget issues.

    One question I have is this: is the 5% reserve recommendation the "prudent minimum" as you've stated? I would have sworn I heard both Nick Alioto and boardmember Yolanda Salcedo refer to it as the "prudent maximum."

    Thanks for the comment, mucho thanks for the information. I'm also sorry to hear how you, Andrew, and Dinorah were treated - a shameful comment, on a shameful regime.

  10. It's the minimum. Community college districts can keep as much in reserve as they want--which raises another interesting point.

    Since these reserves are taxpayer dollars, they should be spent. When my money goes to CalTrans, for example, I expect it will be used to retrofit bridges, build new roads, and all the rest. I don't think it should be sitting in some kind of slush fund so whoever's running CalTrans feels comfortable.

    I think that community college governing boards and chief financial officers probably think they're doing a good job when they increase reserves. But schools aren't businesses. We don't need to make a profit every year.

    Last year--which was supposed to be a very bad budget year--SWC actually made a profit of $2.1 M.

    --P. Lopez

  11. By the way, my home email address is plopez75 (at) cox (dot) net if anyone out there wants to communicate with me in private.

    --P. Lopez

  12. I think it's also worth pointing out that the state seems to agree that accumulating fat reserves is not the mission of the community college.

    I don't have exact figures on this, but my understanding is that cutbacks in state cc funding are roughly equal to the amount colleges are currently holding in reserve. Coincidence?

  13. Phil, thanks for the clarification. I'll put an edit on the blog later (honestly!). Editing blog entries with photos causes me all kinds of grief.

    As far as your point about profit, it's an excellent one. There are certain businesses and establishments we ABSOLUTELY want to make a profit. That's the basis for the free-market economy.

    HOWEVER, certain places should NOT have profit as their focus. A school - regardless if it's a state-run college or university, a high school, or PS 101, should have NOTHING MORE than the student's ed as its primary focus.

    Chopra and the Board have abrogated their responsibility to the students - which includes their family, the community - to hold onto a fat profit that actually benefits no one.

    No one except a Board who can try to run for re-election with the tagline of, "We've Made Money!"

    And you've brought up an excellent question, Save Our SWC. Could the state have wanted schools to use their reserves instead of slashing classes? That would make the Assembly's actions seem a bit more sane, in hindsight.

  14. This is all very, very sick to me that the president of our college is the person most in the way of our students' education. This is an education that they're paying for with their taxex and with their hard earned money! For some students money is so scarse that they don't even have money for books but they're in there, trying to improve their lives and their future. Yet, here's someone whose ego is so huge that NOTHING is so important as he--not the students, not the teachers, not education.
    Well then, he and I have a problem because curiously, it's all about the students for me. When they go in this Monday morning and they don't see the person to whom they've entrusted their learning and and all that goes along with it, they will feel cheated; their education will have been interrupted. I don't know how you feel, but I think "Napoleon" and his goons are who need to be slapped with a §646.2.

  15. It's surprising to note that today’s colleges limit free speech to a “free speech area” of the campus. If we had done that in the sixties, we’d still be in Vietnam.
    Imagine a map of the United States. That’s your free speech area.

  16. Anonymous...

    I think you're right about his ego. Even I remember his flatly-told lie, "We've not let go a SINGLE employee," when FIVE admins had just been fired. That was long before I got involved, but it's clear he thinks a little charm and a lot of smarm will keep him going. It's his ego.

    I know there are some good teachers at SWC - I don't think even Chopra could argue against that. :-) But I don't care HOW good they are; going in on Monday to take over someone's class is impossible to do right. These 400-500 students will have had their entire SEMESTER disturbed by the wantonly stupid and malicious acts of the Chopra Empire. Yet, they were terrified about the student-led march that disturbed a few classes for 30-40 seconds?

    I'm glad it's all about the students for you. It's not for Chopra, and clearly will never be.

  17. Thomas...

    If I'm not mistaken, that's the way it's SUPPOSED to work. However, SWC's freakishly-micro-managing Board seems to think that the admin's need for a "free speech area" is more important than the Constitution.

    Raj Chopra isn't the only one with an over-inflated sense of imporance.

  18. He's on vacation? He's on vacation?
    How predictable!
    Well I think his professional destiny is as predicable as his M.O. Doomed!

  19. Inside Higher Education covers Southwestern College with a link to this story.

  20. Raj Chopra is afraid; that much is clear. When his students decided to hold a pro-student, pro-class, pro-faculty rally, he made sure he was gone. Now that the backlash has started - and the press has finally decided to weigh in...of course he's run again.

    I'm guessing he will try to hide and ride this out, and try to let the Board handle the spotlight.

  21. Thanks for that link, Anonymous!

  22. who exactly arethe four that were suspended and how long is the suspension?

  23. This really sucks, I was semester away from reaching my long and awaited graduation, but after all this nonsense I doubt it will happen. By the way, what ever happened to freedom of speech? OUR DEDICATED PROFESSORS ARE WANTED BACK IN OUR CLASSROOMS!!

  24. Haylee,

    The four professors originally suspended were Phil Lopez, Dinorah Guadani-Costa, Andrew Rempt, and Janet Mazzarella. However, they very quickly rescinded Professor Mazzarella's suspension. Why? That's one of the big questions.

    From what I've heard - and keep in mind, I'm not a faculty member - the suspension is until the administration has completed their "Investigation."

    How they'll do that with Dr. Chopra being on vacation for 3 weeks is anyone's guess...

  25. Good coverage on Channel 10 tonight. Here's the link:

    P. Lopez

  26. Thanks, Phil. I saw it. ABC is absolutely not buying Chopra & the administration's line. There was a tidy bit of history in that broadcast.

  27. CHE: Professors Suspended After a Protest Might Also Face Criminal Charges

  28. The student-focused group, Student Activism, has taken this to heart. They are doing as much on Twitter to keep this in the spotlight as I am, and have a couple of really well done blog posts on it.

    Check 'em out!



  29. Come on. What is a "50 by 50 free speech area?"
    You either have free speech or you don't. To say you can only speak freely in a corner of the campus is preposterous. If we have free speech in the United States, then free speech exists wherever I stand.

  30. Thomas,

    It's just a sick, sick joke by the college admin to try to keep their students in place. It's long been an cherished ideal of some folks in this country that students have less rights.

    I disagree. They should be able to use any of the same Bill of Rights we use. Clearly, the chiefs at SWC think differently.

    Personally, I think the fact that the 'free speech area' is hidden between buildings and ABSOLUTELY invisible to the streets and parking lots outside is even funnier: "You can have your rally here, but we don't want anyone knowing about it."

    Bah humbug.

  31. Talk of criminal charges against the Southwestern College Three is preposterous but not surprising if you think about it. After perverting and misapplying the law designed to protect students and faculty by using it to falsely accuse faculty and intimidate students, Chopra has only two choices. He can either admit fault or try to build a fabricated case to support the lies he's already told in order save his own hide from the truth. No laws were broken by the SWC Three.

  32. I wonder if the Board realizes how bad he's making them look? Now they can choose to either stand with him (and rubber-stamp his perversion of justice), or they take a long, hard look at him - and make the decision to cut him cold.

    Seems an easy choice to me.

  33. Southwestern College has cut 25% of its classes for the upcoming Spring semester. President Raj Chopra has accepted and kept a raise that amounts to 15000. a year. Neither classified staff nor faculty have been offered so much as cost of living. Many adjunct professors have lost their positions....And now President Chopra is paying substitutes to teach the classes the suspended professors are not being allowed to teach. The college is also paying for attorney's fees and associated cost for Miller Brown and Dannis Law firm to try and support the baseless "criminal" charges the college is threatening the professors with. Needless to say, this is money that could have been spent on providing classes for students.

  34. Agreed, Thomas. Chopra is not just an administrator - and not just one of those stereotypical bad ones.

    He is an appalling bad administrator, focused on the bottom line - his own. I honestly believe that he KNOWS he could do any number of things differently, but that he WANTS to cut the classes. In doing so, he punishes the students and faculty that continue to point out exactly how lousy he is at this job.

    It's petty, it's pathetic, and if the Board was serious about THEIR jobs, they'd can his butt in a moment.

  35. I've added a new post that combines as many of the media and press links as I've got into one:

    Check out those links! The spotlight is on this situation, and right now, NO ONE is supportive of Chopra's position.

    Don't forget the rally today (Thursday)! More information here:

  36. When accused of violating the segregation laws in the American South of the 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior said that any law that downgraded human personality was unjust and an “unjust law is no law at all.” The three suspended Southwestern College teachers did not violate any laws or statutes of the state of California or of the federal government. If Chopra and his current stand-in Alioto want to claim that leaving the hidden corner of the college campus laughably and ironically designated as a “free speech area,” and walking across the campus requesting and being refused to be allowed to speak to the college president is a violation of college policy then that policy downgrades human personality and is no policy at all. If we have freedom of speech in the United States, then we have freedom of speech in the hidden corner of the college campus, on its paths and walkways, on the street in front of the college and even standing in front of the president’s office in front of a line of policemen.

  37. I'm in complete agreement with you, Thomas. And since you said it so well, I've got nothing else to say. Well done.

  38. Would it be possible for me to use some of these images in a video news story about this event?

    Please let me know,


  39. You may use any images from this blog (including images *of* the blog) for your story. Consider that blanket permission. If you wish to use text, let me know. As a writer, I'd prefer to give permission as you need it.

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