Very quietly, a revolution has begun at College of the Canyons. The Board of Trustees has a new majority.
For years the boards rubber-stamped what the administration wanted to do, which served the college well for a long time. But within recent boards, cracks showed. Certain members would ask questions and be publicly ridiculed for it. They would request agenda items and be rebuffed because the college chancellor and board president set the agenda, and past presidents decided three votes were needed to place the matter on one.
Those two board members were the minority. But thanks to a stronger faculty union and increased faculty involvement, plus just enough community awareness, the minority is now a 3-2 majority with the re-election of Edel Alonso and the election of 20-year-old Sebastian Cazares (the third member, Joan MacGregor, didn’t stand for election). Now, Alonso and MacGregor occupy the top two board positions. Alonso is president and MacGregor retained her vice president spot.
What it means remains to be seen. In the short run, the board will question financial matters more and demand greater accountability of the administration and Chancellor Dianne Van Hook.
“The tail is wagging the dog,” said Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, a former head of the COC Faculty Association and current head of the College of the Canyons Faculty Association’s political action committee. “The board is the dog. The chancellor is the tail.”
Privately, some faculty and union members hope the board will drive out Van Hook. Publicly, they say they only want greater transparency and inclusion.
In a statement, Van Hook said the board members serve to make a difference and are committed to working together to benefit the school.
“I look forward to working with each of the board members, and the board as a team, in leading our college’s efforts to develop the plans and strategies that will enable us to provide the resources, access, engagement and training designed to remove barriers to opportunity and ultimately help people move forward towards their goals while supporting the economic growth of our region,” Van Hook’s statement concluded.
But make no mistake. The days of the administration running unchecked are over, at least for the next two years.
“There is no democracy on the board,” Brill-Wynkoop said. “The board is not being public servants. They’re just up there saying, ‘Aye, aye, aye.’ … We’re hoping the board will set their agenda and write their policy.”
A Rising Union
The faculty union had a plan: flip the board. While it succeeded by backing Alonso and Cazares, the COCFA and its accompanying PAC have been building to this moment for many years.
The union long wished for its officers to have more time to do union things: advocate, work on grievances and related hearings, and serve its members. The college only gave faculty members three hours per semester.
Then Nicole Faudree, now the COCFA president and a former lawyer, and then-COCFA President Vincent Devlahovich won a three-year grant that gave them an additional 15 hours a semester.
“We had 18 hours to play with and assist the faculty,” Faudree said. “It was the difference between being proactive and reactive.”
When the grant ended, the extra time became a regular bargaining point in negotiations. Today, the union has 30 hours to play with, which Faudree said is divided among grievance officers, negotiators, the PAC chair, the communications chair, the secretary and the union president.
Having more time for union duties gave people time to increase the COCFA’s social media presence, too, Faudree said, which helped members reach out to and advocate for the faculty.
As the union became more powerful, it turned its attention to what it saw as a lack of administrative openness. It started to ask for information. Faudree and Brill-Wynkoop said they don’t consider Van Hook the most transparent officer, so they and others filed numerous public requests for such things as contracts the board made with consultants (who often were former administrators); Van Hook’s contracts, bonuses and credit card statements; the dates the board would evaluate itself and Van Hook (which didn’t happen every year as board policies dictate); and how the college spent its CARES Act funds.
The union also sought and received some of the so-called Van Hook “purple notes.” These were private memos Van Hook would write on purple paper after the board meeting agenda came out, detailing issues she saw. Faudree said once the public requests started, the purple notes stopped (Van Hook’s statement addressed neither this nor the perceived lack of accountability).
“We still don’t have the highest level of college transparency,” Faudree said. “We’re at the point where there needs to be more inclusion.”
The union decided that the way to increase inclusion and transparency was to get new people elected to the board. In 2016, it backed one of its own: Alonso, a former faculty member, department chair and faculty senate president. Faudree called her candidacy “nothing short of phenomenal.”
Alonso’s upset win over Bruce Fortine made the union realize more was possible. “When you have something worth fighting for, and you have a success, let’s keep going,” Faudree said.
In 2018, they helped MacGregor win re-election but failed to find a candidate to challenge Michael Berger. For 2020, they created a Flip the Board campaign to re-elect Alonso, get Cazares elected in Steve Zimmer’s vacant seat, and unseat Jenkins with Jerry Danielsen, who had unsuccessfully tried in 2016 and narrowly failed this time.
What will the union do with its new majority? There are people within its membership that have one goal: send Van Hook packing.
Faudree and Brill-Wynkoop know that faction exists but insist it’s neither their goal nor their job to make that happen. The real goal is more transparency and inclusion. If the board does its job, those goals will be met, they said.
“Sometimes, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. It’s too early to tell,” Faudree said. “It can be frustrating to want to be included (and not be). The faculty wants to be included. It doesn’t have to be the union.”
New President, New Objectives
Alonso has long sought more transparency and accountability. After her 2016 election, patterns emerged: She would receive a report, ask questions about it and not always receive answers. Or she would request an agenda item and be snubbed because the majority decided it not deserving.
Her one ally on the board, MacGregor, also sought more information, only to be often stonewalled or even publicly dressed down during board meetings.
The tradition has been to have the board V.P. step into the president’s role the following year. MacGregor, a three-time president, had other ideas.
“I wanted Edel to serve in that role,” she said. “I called her and asked if she wanted to be president. I had nominated her before for offices may times and (the board) would always turn her down,” although Alonso was elected clerk in 2020.
Alonso confirmed MacGregor had called and said she told her that it would seem natural for MacGregor to be president again. Alonso would be willing to nominate her.
Instead, MacGregor nominated Alonso at the Dec. 16 meeting, according to the meeting video. Alonso quickly accepted.
“I am very excited about me as president,” she said in January. “They weren’t too happy about that.”
In fact, Berger followed by nominating MacGregor, who declined. Jenkins expressed concern that Alonso hadn’t been on the board long enough.
Still, Alonso was unanimously chosen. Then she nominated MacGregor for vice president. Again, the board unanimously approved.
Perhaps fittingly, Alonso’s first two acts as president was to suggest a meeting to discuss the methods by which the board evaluated itself and Van Hook, and to announce her intention to discuss a wide range of board policies and procedures.
After her 2016 election, she noticed a board policy required annual self-evaluations, but she found seven years between 2004 and 2020 when evaluations did not happen. Board evaluations are one of many factors in determining a college’s accreditation. The next accreditation cycle is in 2022, and Alonso is concerned.
“The board has not been consistent in evaluating itself and the chancellor,” she said. “I’d like us to follow our procedures and look at the method.”
That board-evaluation meeting was Jan. 27. Alonso said the board will be changing some evaluation aspects: It will contract with an outside consultant and it will change the method based on several criteria, including state law, the accrediting commission’s requirements, state community college mandates and the board’s own policies.
The meeting to decide how Van Hook would be evaluated will be later this month, Alonso said. The board evaluation will occur in April, she added.
But the board’s procedures go way beyond evaluations. For example, the agenda minutes say a board president appoints a liaison to the COC Foundation, yet when Alonso appointed MacGregor, there ended up being discussion and a vote, making it seem more like a nomination.
Another example: Traditionally, a majority of members need to approve an item to be placed on the meeting agenda, yet nowhere in the relevant Board Policy 2340 does it say that. What it does say is the CEO (Van Hook), in consultation with the president, sets the agenda.
Alonso met with Van Hook before the Jan. 20 meeting. She said it went well.
“We are going to have a very cordial relationship. We both know each other well,” Alonso said. “I expressed an interest in doing things differently. She was receptive to my suggestions.”
At the Jan. 20 meeting, the board agenda listed five board policies and three others related to human resources to be reviewed. At the Jan. 27 meeting, Alonso said, the board reviewed more policies and created a chart that will list which have been reviewed, which are in progress and which remain.
Alonso added she wants all board members to freely suggest agenda items. She said only MacGregor has done so.
“The board has been functioning a certain way a long time,” she said. “We need to set regular procedures and processes. They need to be followed.”
The New, Young Kid on the Block
Faudree credited Brill-Wynkoop with searching high and low to find “other Edels,” meaning people who would ask questions, consider all viewpoints and do right by the students.
What better person than a former student? Last year, Cazares was a 19-year-old COC Associated Student Government president. Now, he’s a COC graduate, by far the youngest person ever to be elected locally, and a UCLA student majoring in American politics with a minor in Chicano Studies.
Cazares said he’s had a calling to serve since he was 15 at Saugus High. At COC, he not only was student body president, he also served as the non-voting student representative to the board, where he saw how the board didn’t always address the students’ needs.
He’s also seen how the student body has diversified — the school’s 2018 fact book puts the Hispanic population at 50% — but the board was all white.
“Now, the students have a binding vote and an influence,” he said. “There’s going to be a new way of operating.”
That means, in part, to hold people accountable — including Van Hook.
“I’m not taking orders from anybody,” he said. “If I disagree with the chancellor, I’ll make it clear. If certain trustees are doing things that don’t make sense, or if they’re taking orders (from elsewhere), I’m not going to take that.”
At the same time, he rejects the notion that he’s the union’s or the faculty’s puppet, there to do their bidding. While he recognizes, “People want a piece of me,” after he was elected, he said, he never had anyone come up and, in effect, say, “You owe me now.”
“I’m trying to be the anti-politician, not in somebody’s pocket,” he said. “I will continue to be an objective voice. … Nobody has asked a specific thing of me. They say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’”
Alonso and MacGregor endorsed his candidacy; Berger and Jenkins did not. Alonso said his election excited her because she believes he will be receptive to her wanting to explore the evaluation processes.
Berger and Jenkins believe Cazares will be his own man.
Jenkins said she sat in on Van Hook’s traditional meeting with new trustees, in which she tells them about her expectations.
“He appears willing to listen,” Jenkins said. “I found him very open. I don’t think he’s going to be beholden.”