The two finalists for the upcoming opening for president and superintendent at Santa Barbara City College had the chance to share their vision with the campus community Thursday afternoon.
Dr. Utpal Goswami, current president of Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods in Kansas City, MO, and Dr. Kenneth Lawson, vice president for instruction at Skagit Valley College in Washington state, each addressed the crowd at the college’s Garvin Theatre, facing questions on the current campus climate, how to balance the college’s current budget crisis, and what they would do to transform the character of the campus.
The college has dealt with racial allegations dating back to November 2018 and, though many of the claims were later found to be unsubstantiated through an external review, minority students and staff have still urged the college administration to do more to ease the tension on campus.
Dr. Goswami and Dr. Lawson, who held their forums an hour apart from each other, took a similar initial stances on the issue. Both said they have yet to have an opportunity to fully delve into the specifics of the issues on campus and the finalists pointed to forming discussion groups to find common ground.
Dr. Goswami suggested the campus had “slipped into a behavioral pattern for a period of time” and that the college should do more to empower students and staff to act on issues if needed.
“Maybe we haven’t enabled people to speak up or enabled people to have those tough conversations,” Dr. Goswami said. “Maybe we’ve lost the art of dialogue. We’ve become very good at debating.”
Dr. Lawson flatly stated that SBCC should not tolerate racism.
“There’s a whole fabric of the college that needs to be addressed,” he said.
Dr. Lawson said that in order for the students to feel as if they belong at City College that the staff and faculty should match the diversity of its students, which drew applause from the crowd. He also expressed an interest in forming an equity social justice requirement that would provide students with the ability to function in a diverse society while starting to change the college culture, as well as a bias incident response team that would be able to respond quickly and effectively to allow students to focus on their learning.
A member of the audience asked each of the finalists how they would respond to groups like Fair Education, which the person posing the question said was “blatantly against our college’s mission of equity and inclusion.
Dr. Goswami said the college cannot become “an instrument” of what is happening in society that may take attention away from the students.
“This college exists for our students,” he said, adding that he was in Missouri while the Ferguson shooting played out.
MCC’s student survey on equity, diversity and inclusion showed 95 percent approval and students there did not express any issues when it came to discrimination, he said.
“We have to work off our emotions and do what is right,” Dr. Goswami said. “We don’t want the institution to become a pawn for anybody. We determine our own values.”
Dr. Lawson said these types of issues were a challenge for any institution of higher education.
“We stand for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas and tend to be protective of First Amendment rights and we want people to speak their minds freely,” Dr. Lawson said. “At the same time, we have a clear educational mission that is really paramount. So, the way that I would like to see that issue approached is to ensure that you have really strong policies around how you would need to sometimes restrict speech — in terms of the time, place, manner of speech — in order to make sure your educational mission is protected.”
Questions were also raised on the college’s budget outlook. According to the adopted budget for the 2019-20 academic year, SBCC is facing a total deficit of more than $4.7 million.
Dr. Goswami shared his experience in fundraising for other institutions. He said he has helped develop more than 20 different fundraising programs which, in total, have raised between $18 and $20 million. He has served for various foundations for nearly 20 years and said he is used to approaching other for donations and landing the funding. In his current role in Missouri, Dr. Goswami said he is proposing expanding the college district boundaries in efforts to raise more money for the school — though he later clarified that he did not intend on doing the same in Santa Barbara.
Dr. Lawson acknowledged the public funding for community colleges is on the decline. He was recently part of a $3 million campaign, in which his role was to build relationships. He also expressed an interest in obtaining grant funding for future projects.
“Every community college is grappling with budget issues and managing it in a steady way,” he said. “I won’t deny that those budget pressures are felt everywhere.”
Dr. Goswami grew up in India in a town with no electricity, carrying a slate and piece of chalk to school each day. For him to be a finalist for the City College job, he said, was a testament to how powerful education can be. He taught higher education for about 20 years until a mentor encouraged him to use his economic background to climb the administrative ladder.
When asked how he would create change on campus, Dr. Goswami stressed the importance of building trust and earning respect.
“One of the things that I’ll suggest, we have a robust governance structure, but it should also give us the luxury of having think-tank type of conversations,” he said. “A college setting is where you try and solve and anticipate future issues and have those conversations – not knowing if they will lead us anywhere but that it helps develop a sense of partnership.
“Even though there are lots of different ideas, you have more in common than you think,” he added.
Dr. Lawson, whose grandparents are buried at the Santa Barbara Cemetery, said he grew up “privileged” to have a family that expected him to obtain higher education.
“I got pushed to go to college and there was never a doubt,” he said. “I completely recognize that privilege and to me, part of what attracts me to Santa Barbara too is I want frankly want to do right about my grandpa and honor the fact that I have all these privileges and use those privileges. Being white, male, heterosexual – I get to check all the privilege boxes and do good in the world with those privileges.”
Dr. Lawson also shared that he has mixed race children, and that his son experiences race issues while his daughter has a learning disability that has taught him a lot about “the dimensions and power of privilege.”
The finalists were also probed on their approach to environmental stability.
Dr. Lawson said he used to be involved with the group “Earth First!” and supports having curriculum and college facilities that reflect “a sense of urgency” to protect the environment.
Dr. Goswami said the college has “an obligation” not to leave a long-term footprint. He’s been involved with prior projects dealing with solar power and water conservation, and said he would continue to enable those types of projects to continue.
The finalists will hold final interviews today with the SBCC Board of Trustees during a closed session meeting. Either Dr. Goswami or Dr. Lawson will replace Dr. Helen Benjamin, who was appointed in April as a temporary replacement for Dr. Anthony Beebe. Dr. Beebe retired earlier this year citing health issues.
For more information about the finalists, visit presidentssearch.sbcc.edu.