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By: Ikaweba Bunting and Wheeler North
California Community Colleges are open-access institutions serving all who apply. Consequently, the student population differs from that of a traditional four-year college or university. The result is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and economically stratified student body that necessitates an institutional culture and campus climate that is democratic, inclusive, transparent, reassuring and welcoming.
Throughout the state and country, communities of culturally diverse and marginalized people are experiencing fear, uncertainty, intimidation, violence, and exclusion. In part, this relates to extreme political divisions, economic hardships and inequities, xenophobic ethnocentric sentiments of lost power, and cultural and religious bigotry. This creates a caustic and bellicose socio-political climate within the national body politic that bleeds into the campus community. Incidents of xenophobia, racism, and sexism in all of their forms have increased in the wake of the 2016 national election. Awareness that these social, political, economic, ideological and cultural conditions constitute the overall matrix of our community colleges is necessary to fully appreciate the quintessence of “campus climate.”
Attempting to fulfill educational potential within an environment that is violent, hostile, and unwelcoming is stressful, demoralizing and unsafe. Students carry these concerns, emotions and experiences with them onto campus and into the classroom.
A growing national and international culture of intolerance is significantly undermining the ability of colleges to provide academic experiences in an open, inclusive environment. The degree to which students are coming to California Community Colleges from highly threatening and life-negating conditions is increasing dramatically. Retrenchment of racist and chauvinistic ideologies and practices within the dominant culture renders college employees significantly underprepared to recognize and appropriately deconstruct these barriers. The academy must challenge all students on many levels to produce the appropriate academic goals. However, in no way should any aspect of the college experience lead to students being so threatened, culturally excluded or challenged such that their quest for realizing their full humanity is subverted or inhibited.
The local origins of community colleges reinforce the dynamic interplay of diverse political, cultural, ideological, and economic realities between institution and community. Factors of race, gender, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical disability and immigration status are central to any strategy on campus climate that ensures safety, well-being and success for students.
The foundational strength of the community college is access to higher education for those who otherwise would lack the opportunity. Effective education is one of the most viable means to building a democratic society where equality of opportunity becomes the cornerstone of the national narrative. A realistic possibility for a person to fulfill their aspirations makes the concepts of a democracy and social justice desirable. However, an historical array of social, economic, political customs and practices diminishes the degree to which that possibility becomes likely for marginalized and diverse groups.
The Assembly’s Select Committee on Campus Climate chaired by Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) has conducted hearings across the state on ways to improve current dynamics. Last year, the Select Committee focused its efforts on such topics as freedom of expression, sexual violence, and homelessness. Additionally last session, the Legislature approved AB 1653 [(Weber) of 2016] and AB 340 [(Weber) of 2015], each requiring the California Community Colleges, California State University, and (requesting of the) University of California to report on their respective segment’s campus climate. While Governor Brown expressed support for the goal, he vetoed both measures for redundancy with existing practice.
Despite the veto of these particular bills, the Legislature is increasing its focus on student hunger, homelessness, mental health, and other equity issues. Ensuring platforms for democracy, free speech, and equality are much harder to achieve on campus, let alone anywhere, in this era of political bifurcation and alienation. It is appropriate to say on this point that the equity dialogue must begin with the notion that we are all biased and can never be fully cured; we can only seek to improve.
Faculty need to view this challenge as not separate, but central, to our mission as educators. Newly hired faculty should help in this endeavor as their leadership will set the tone for the next generation.
Ikaweba Bunting teaches social studies at El Camino College and Wheeler North teaches aviation at San Diego Miramar College.
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