When I sat down with Armine in the president’s office, I was nervous. I had never spoken with a trustee in my 25 years at Glendale and had never operated one of these new digital recorders. However, Armine was well prepared with pages of single-spaced notes. Clearly, she took this interview seriously, a sign of her commitment to good terms with staff and faculty, and perhaps also a sign that such communication was long overdue.
First, we should congratulate Armine on two recent “Woman of the Year” awards, one from the Commission on the Status of Women in Glendale and another from U.S. Representative Adam Schiff’s Congressional Office. Armine was quick to point out that this recognition is “all Glendale College when I get up there… the few minutes I have all […] dedicated to Glendale College.” She views these awards as an opportunity to showcase not only her service, but also to highlight all that GCC has to offer. For example, Armine is proud that “I was instrumental in getting Garfield on the map,” thus the possible funding crisis for offerings at Garfield have Armine “extremely fearful.” Her recommended solutions include more grants and collaboration with the K-12 school system.
Armine’s responses to my questions were careful on most matters, pointing out both sides of each issue. Nonetheless, on a few topics she took positions that may surprise readers. On distance learning, for example, she would like GCC to take a “global approach,” pursuing out-of- state and foreign students to “go where the money is.” When I pointed out that this would put us into competition with the Stanford and MITs of the world, she suggested that we do so on a “pilot” basis: “If we don’t do it, how are we going to know? We need to try it.”
When Armine used the current “student success” buzzword, suggesting that it should be our “guiding light,” she distinguished her goals from the State of California’s statistical mandates. Based on her experience in the classroom, including 15 years as a junior and high school arts instructor, Armine defined student success in terms of faculty-student interaction. In her view, we need to know “if that relationship is working.”
When I asked Armine what GCC might do differently, she suggested that we visit and learn from other community colleges, finding out what they do, in particular with regard to evaluating program effectiveness, maintaining staff development, obtaining outside funding and achieving their fundraising goals. Such efforts would require resources, including staff and faculty time away from campus, scouting what others are doing.
Anyone who attended Board meetings this last year recognizes the challenges Armine faced as Board president trying keep order during sometimes tumultuous meetings. She called it her “hardest” year on the Board, in which she felt bombarded from all sides, including colleagues, who thought she had not been strong enough in maintaining meeting decorum. On the positive side, Armine thinks that the Board is stronger now so that “animosities will be channeled differently.” Also, she appreciates improved relationships with the Guild and CSEA that are “closer together than ever,” attributable in part by the ability of Board members to put behind them hard feelings about past election battles in which they were not supported. And, Armine wanted to point out that the GCC Board is unusual in sharing its dais with the Guild and CSEA.
Armine gives much credit to Jim Riggs; whereas past administrators had a “destructive role in this process, Dr. Riggs has had a “constructive role.” In the past, “when I came on board, policies were a secret.” she says she “didn’t trust information she was getting,” but now she does, especially with regard to negotiating teams. Nonetheless, Armine feels constrained by the Brown Act: her inability to contact other Board members means that because they don’t interact and “she doesn’t know what the other one is thinking, so I hold back my thoughts because I don’t know if I’ll get support or not.” She takes credit for Board retreats that she feels makes Board policy more transparent because of the opportunity to meet with one another and Guild and CSEA representatives. “Issues have been cleared up before they get to the Board and that’s made our job easier.”
When asked what the Board needs to do, Armine stressed the need to set a vision. We’ve been “too careful.” On issues such as textbooks and distance learning, these are not with the “purview of the board, but the board needs to set a vision. We have successful programs that need to be multiplied and that will come from a vision from the Board. How it is implemented and how implements it is from the bottom up.”
In response to the College’s financial situation, Armine recommended “program evaluation and program effectiveness needs to go on all the time, not just when we’re facing a budget crunch. On a cyclical basis, programs need to be reviewed and their effectiveness established… we need to face the sacred cows.” She wants suggestions to come from “divisions” identifying what can be cut. “It isn’t something we can do alone as the Board; it has to come from the bottom up. We’re going to need help in cutting $3.8 million. How are we going to do that? It is not something that the Board or the superintendent can do alone.”
Two issues required understandably careful responses from Armine. Redistricting, now facing litigation was off the table for discussion. On selection of the new president, proceeding as this article goes to press, Armine stressed that the president needed to balance attention to local needs with representing the college with external groups. We can’t have a president who is “gone every Friday,” while still recognizing the need to work with organizations on the State and national level.
I thank Armine for her openness and willingness to share her perspective based on twelve years of Board service. And, we congratulate her for being “woman of the year”—twice!
Anita was cheerful and upbeat when we met this week. She spoke with pride about her family, including one daughter about to graduate from USC and another recently graduated. But perhaps Anita’s good mood also was the result of the recently cancelled election that would have required time away from her many responsibilities, including work as AT&T’s Los Angeles Executive Director of External Affairs as well as her appointment last year by Mayor Villaraigosa to the City of Los Angeles Workforce Investment Board. Without an election campaign, Anita joked that she had no prepared stump speech, so she talked without notes and our conversation ranged over many topics.
Anita had just returned from Washington, DC where she lobbied with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, including the ‘dreamers,’ among other issues. Anita works closely with the Chamber of Commerce, serving as the team captain for its higher education advisory team. “It’s not your grandfather’s Chamber,” she explained. “We saw the 2010 Census and this is the future of LA and California.”
Like Trustee Armine Hacopian, Anita pointed to the new Garfield campus as a major accomplishment during her past term as trustee. She, too, recognized current threats to Garfield’s funding, and the possible need to require credit courses there. But Anita suggested, “First we need to complete the Garfield campus strategic plan... it has to include the flexibility of for-credit.”
Anita also is proud of the work she put into passing Proposition 30, working “behind the scenes, getting the support of friends, colleagues and from other business organizations. They took positions they normally wouldn’t take in favor of Prop 30.” Although now, Anita points out, we need to make certain that expected allocations are indeed forthcoming from Prop 30 funds by keeping pressure on the governor and his staff. Anita says she can do this best through education, for example by serving on the board at the Pat Brown Institute where discussion panels influence policymakers.
Anita brought up the need to have stronger collaboration with other nearby community colleges, in particular trustee-to-trustee consultation. Anita serves as representative to the San Gabriel Foothill Association of Community Colleges, an organization that has successfully lobbied political representatives about community college needs. However, in addition, she would like to see regional community colleges work together to create new programs while still being respectful of independent governance models at each campus.
A great frustration for Anita in her work as a trustee has been the presidential hiring processes. When asked why, Anita wrung her hands and pondered for a few moments: “That’s a hard question. One of our disappointments was we didn’t realize that we should have an interim after John Davitt. Then, we lost another president who I thought was working out beautifully.” Anita sees the presidential hire as the Board’s “main focus right now’’ (This was early April.) But Anita finds the task difficult: “I am a not an insider... I don’t have all the different contacts.”
Anita joined Trustee Hacopian in praising Jim Riggs: “We’re lucky we found Jim, I think he’s doing a fantastic job.” Anita was especially pleased with Jim’s commitment to help with the transition to a new superintendent/president. That transition is key, “we need to work on a good transition plan ... and give [the new president] a chance.”
Anita “couldn’t agree more” with President Riggs’ assessment that the college has a structural deficit. “We’ve tried many solutions; we’ve cut everything we can cut in the current structure, so we have to make structural changes.” Asked for specifics, Anita didn’t dodge the issues: she was clear on what she believes needs to change: health benefits and pro-rata pay for intersessions. “When you have a benefit it’s hard to give it up…You take a look around and you see how everyone else is dealing with it. We need to have everyone contribute to the health care cost… I’ve never heard of pro-rata anywhere else… It is something we’re hoping to change.”
When asked what GCC might do differently, aside from these budget issues, Anita brought up online education: “We can’t let this go by the wayside.” Anita pointed out that GCC governance and faculty experts appear to favor a hybrid approach, that is courses offered online but with a face-to-face component. “I listen to the experts… I keep hearing the hybrid process works.” Nonetheless, she would like to see more funding for technology to support additional online courses, “allowing our students to make their day more effective and not come down to the college when they don’t have to. If we don’t make that a reality, they will go somewhere else. This is definitely worth a stream of money to make certain we have the technology infrastructure.”
On the issue of trustee-faculty relations, Anita pointed out, “I don’t interact with a lot of faculty. My commitment is to continue to continue and honor the governance process, listening to the experts. We need to make certain that we are transparent in our communications.” Asked what faculty can do, Anita wanted us to realize that trustees are on the outside and often don’t know all the ins and outs of campus affairs. “Respect the fact that there are no stupid questions. Be willing to explain what is the basics. Maybe I’m not understanding it correctly.”
On the issue of the state’s new emphasis on student “success,” Anita pointed out that we could achieve 100% success if we only educated a few, select, most able students while ignoring the larger community. However, she explained, “We have to adhere to the mission when we look at accountability.”
In her own life, Anita clearly adheres to her own mission, balancing family life, corporate responsibilities, community service, and now four more years on the Board of Trustees. How does she find time to do all this? Anita’s answer: “You find the time to read up on these issues.”
Dr. Vahe Peroomian, who has been a Glendale resident since 1978, a Board member for eight years, and at UCLA “for most of my adult life”, having done both his undergraduate and graduate studies there and since returning to UCLA in 1997, is conducting research as well as teaching. As I have mentioned, I am not a trained interviewer, but I could really see how useful it is to get background information like this. Vahe’s view of some GCC issues is influenced by his experience at UCLA. Specifically, in two areas, what he has seen at UCLA in the last 15 years is a scaling back of health benefits and a disconnection at UCLA between “soft money” employment (which is how he is employed when it comes to his research) and any permanent position. Vahe also has a contractor’s license although he is not active in that field now.
What is new for Vahe is that he has been contributing as an author to a Physics textbook, which he found was taking a lot of his time, but was “very rewarding.” I couldn’t help but think of our current Title V GAUSS grant because one of the sections of the text to which he had contributed was a contextualized application in bio-medicine, “the fluid dynamics of heart attacks” - just the type of application that Dr. Voden and others who are working on the grant hope to inject into our curriculum. As you can imagine, dear reader, it was easy to get distracted from the prepared questions of the interview when the subject of “spinning red blood cells” and “laminar flow” came up.
But we did come back. On the subject of what decision of the Board could he apply “hindsight” to if he could have a do over, Vahe did not shy away from saying, “the campus was not ready for a permanent Superintendent-President” after John Davitt and what was “needed” was a interim. Does he prefer either of the two models we have employed in hiring an interim, one where the interim person can be a candidate for the permanent position as in Dr. Lindsay’s case and the other where the interim cannot as in Dr. Riggs case? “Dawn had a lot of buy in”, so it was a “completely different entity” than the situation we had this time. If I could be presumptuous in reading between the lines, I think Vahe was perhaps looking ahead after Dr. Levy’s departure and felt we needed some continuity and healing. Dawn “did a lot of good in the three years she was President”.
When our interview took place, Dr. Viar had not yet been selected as the next Superintendent-President, so the question on what qualities he is looking for in that position hopefully match up to what we got. “A high bar was set with Dawn and Jim”, and further, he would like to see “a visionary who has ideas of their own, but is not married to them” and lastly, he is looking for someone “like Dawn, who is willing to be very involved with the community.” Vahe cited a presentation he and Dawn attended on the “state of the city” of Glendale that did not even include a mention of the college. With Dawn on the case, within a short time, the presentation included GCC as the centerpiece.
Vahe also felt relations with faculty could be strengthened by having more “informal” contact. I thought his perspective was interesting in that he wondered if there could be opportunities “to interact with faculty who have done something exceptional”, but that the interaction could be outside of Board meetings or formal presentations. In that way, “if we can get together outside” of meetings, there will be less of a perception that the Board is “seen as a body that is detached.” Regarding the question of how much hands on involvement (or as it is sometimes said, “micro-managing”) the Board should engage in, Vahe felt that problems in this area in the past occurred when the Board was “given a problem without a solution”. What he feels has been happening more recently is that the Board is presented with a problem, but along with the problem are some possible solutions which have been “vetted and gone through governance” so that the Board could decide among options that the campus community has had a chance to digest.
The most serious fiscal issue that we are facing is our “structural deficit”, according to my interviewee. “We have to cut just to break even,” the last few years. Whatever needs to be done, “must be across the board”, “must be fair and balanced” and “cannot just be layoffs” of staff. I asked all three of the folks I interviewed if they had read Marsden’s report, “Why Are We So Special?” All said they had. What I found interesting, which may just be human nature, is that each focused on one aspect, which in some cases I had not discerned in the report. The report showed, “we need a bigger reserve”, Vahe opined. Without getting into specifics, I can say Vahe and I had a healthy discussion on the need for real structural reform, that is, the need to look at programs. The word ‘downsized’ was not used but it was mentioned that “we have to look at who is that program serving – is it something that the community needs.”
My feeling in speaking with three of our Board members is that they are not hiding their heads in the sand on the difficulties facing the college. They have the stomach to make difficult decisions, but they want to have the knowledge and solid evidence presented to them (through the Superintendent-President) so that they can make wise decisions. Probably, Dr. Riggs will be helping Dr. Viar get up to speed on this.
Let me close by saying that I felt all three Trustees I interviewed were very glad of the opportunity, and not solely for the esteem of being interviewed in the Chaparral. “I do welcome hearing from faculty and meeting faculty,” Vahe said in parting. It was an invitation to know more about those he is serving. Hopefully, the five Trustee interviews in these pages will help us know more about those who are serving us.
Just in case, dear reader, you didn’t get a chance to read my profile in the last edition of the Chaparral with Trustee Ann Ransford (or had failed to memorize the important details of it), let me summarize the three points on which all three trustees I interviewed, Ann, Tony Tartaglia and Vahe Peroomian (whose interview is found below in this publication) all concurred:
1. Better relations between the Board of Trustees and the faculty would result if there was more informal exchange between the individual Trustees and individual or groups of faculty outside of Board meetings. On the same subject, all three also agreed relations were not at the lowest ebb between the Board and faculty right now compared to the recent past.
2. All three agreed that the Winter intersession will likely become a thing of the past relatively soon. Trustee Tartaglia was careful to point out, “I am not negotiating here,” because of course, as we all know, the calendar is a matter of negotiation. But either they said so or I inferred from the context, that all three personally felt we were better off (faculty, staff and students) with a shorter gap of time between the new year and the start of the Spring semester and a longer gap of time in the summer between the primary semesters.
3. Lastly, all three of my subjects felt, as a fiscal priority, that our so called ‘Cadillac’ plan health benefits (meaning the Blue Shield PPO) had to be scaled back.
Tony had some interesting takes on the subject of our health benefits. First of all he described our plan as a “defined benefits” plan. I had not associated that term with health benefits but instead with pension benefits. But the term makes sense, as Tony explained to me that, unlike a cafeteria type plan, which Tony advocated we investigate, the district accountant has no way of knowing in advance what form of coverage an individual full time employee will elect. The district is obliged to pay the full cost of that election. Tony felt pretty confident in saying that in the private sector employee annual benefit costs were about $8000 as opposed to estimates he had heard of $16,000 to $20,000 at GCC. “That doesn’t mean we should go to $8K,” Tony cautioned. But we need to “have a serious look” at our approach because, “A yellow light is blinking going to red.” On the subject of the Blue Shield rebate, he expounded, “This is nonsense. That just means you are overcharging me.” He referred to a direction to pursue, “I would be looking for a longer term strategy to reduce the cost of health care. But let me say (again), I am speaking as individual. I am not negotiating here.”
A little about Tony’s background. He has worked for Southern California Gas Company for many years, starting out in energy sales, (which makes sense if you know him) and has a Mechanical Engineering degree. Tony tries to bring a business sense and perspective to his decision making as a Trustee. Tony also has an MBA and had an opportunity to shift to a public affairs district manager position with the Gas company, which, from his description, seems to make him, if not a PPI (power possessing individual), certainly a POSI (person of some importance) in the company. Tony is also an entrepreneur, has a property management company, and owns and manages apartments locally.
On the subject of what decision would he most like to do over, Tony took some time to consider. He chose to answer the question by referring back to the hiring of Dr. Davitt’s replacement, when he was not yet on the Board. After such a long tenure, he felt the “college needed some breathing time” and an Interim Superintendent as we are doing now made more sense. I asked about whether the same thinking applied in hiring Dr. Levy’s replacement to have restricted the interim from applying for the permanent position. “Absolutely,” he replied. “I was the champion of Dawn Lindsay. I do not regret that decision. But in retrospect, the interim should not” be a candidate.
When this article is disseminated, presumably the Board will have selected a new President. Notwithstanding this, it might still be interesting to hear what Tony said when I asked him what qualities he was looking for in the new President. He gave a very expansive answer. We need someone “more seasoned. We could quickly go into decline from outside influences on us.” In elaborating, he was suggesting that there were challenges from the Van de Camp campus and the remodeled LA Valley campus. But more than that, “We have a demoralized group from ten years of budget cutting mode.” “We can’t afford to go in the wrong direction. I hope this is understood from a positive direction.”
We moved on to talk about Dr. Riggs’ initiative to make systemic changes to reflect what the institution can reasonably hope to be in the present reality of State funding. First of all, Tony feels that this kind of self-analysis is healthy. But further, “I’m not the educator. I hire a Superintendent and I expect the superintendent to have a management structure to work within the governance process to make sure you have the resources you need.” Much more was said on this subject, but in the interest of time (mine and yours), let me try to summarize. Tony feels the Board’s approach should be to trust what recommendations are coming to the Board through the Superintendent and make policy decisions and direct the district’s negotiators based on that, consistent with the master plan. Even if it involves difficult decisions such as cutting classified staff from twelve to eleven months and eleven to ten months. Or, for example, Tony’s comment on the question of whether Garfield should have a credit component was as follows: “Garfield was built to be a multi-functional campus and to evolve into credit use. If it is not… then I need to know why as a Trustee, because then I see an asset under-used.”
An aside here, I must comment that I had the impression that Tony had the capacity to shift his views if he could see clear evidence. “Show me,” he said.
As I was interviewing Tony for this profile in the Math division conference room, Liz Russell, who had just been elected Division Chair, came through. I mentioned her election to Tony and naturally he congratulated her. Liz asked (a very good sign for a new chair to seek input) if I thought she should send out an email reaching out to the whole division. Tony, never the shy one, suggested, as he said, from “the schmooze guy” (a little Yiddish goes a long way), that she should. “Perception is reality. If I don’t hear from you, I am going to think whatever I think you think, versus what you really think.” I don’t think Tony was trying to make any deep philosophical point here. I mean, I don’t think he sees himself as Immanuel Kant or anything. My take on what he believes is to get advice from those who should know, take a stand, and then lay your cards on the table. Then you are not dealing in suppositions – a kind of direct, uncluttered style. The old KISS (keep it simple, Solomon) approach.
Then, perception and reality match up.
Editors’ Note: The first interview with trustee Ann Ransford is published in April 2013 issue of Chaparral. The remaining four interviews published here conclude the five-part series of Board of Trustee interviews conducted by Mark Maier and Peter Stathis.
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