Lee Hilliard might be retiring, but he isn’t going quietly. He never does. In fact, he prides himself on doing the unexpected, questioning and calling out things he deems unfair.
Even if it appears he is incorrect on the facts, he shrugs and says, “I can’t prove it. I may sound disgruntled, but I don’t care what people think of me. When I see wrong, I’m going to take steps to do something.”
His latest — and last — missive as an employee of College of the Canyons: his belief that the school is more interested in “retaliating against faculty than providing students the opportunity to complete their coursework,” he wrote in an email to his students.
“He is passionate about his students and his program,” faculty union head Nicole Faudree said. “He is very kind to people he likes and, likewise, is very vindictive to people he thinks has wronged him.”
The college and the school board president declined comment. Union heads believe Hilliard has faced retaliation but said there are more factors at play.
“He hasn’t had the easiest time lately,” faculty union grievance officer Wendy Brill-Wynkoop said. “It’s always difficult to point to one specific thing. But if (the school) would talk, they would say they question his curriculum, if his curriculum was the right curriculum, and if his changes were the right changes. He was blocked, challenged a lot, more than other people.”
Hilliard is undeterred.
“They did, in fact, harass me,” he declared. “Most people won’t do what I’m doing because they’re afraid of losing their jobs.”
Hilliard long planned to retire at age 70, so he will retire this month as the chair of the Telecommunications and Electronic Systems Technologies (TEST) department. He specializes in computer networking and teaches classes that help students get industry-certified through the Cisco Networking Academy (Hilliard had to go through a certification process to teach the courses; most of his students are working adults).
For some time, his classes were taught under “Computer Networks,” but because the industry was changing to include more devices that aren’t considered computers, such as smartphones, cars and houses, a name change was needed. Hilliard suggested “Network Technology,” or NETECH, and according to a curriculum committee meeting on Sept. 10, he got that approved.
The classes have to be taken in a certain order. But the school didn’t schedule the final course for this spring. Hilliard knew this back in October and emailed his students.
“Since I sent that email every effort, I have made to the program has been obstructed,” Hilliard wrote. “It has taken two and a half years for our curriculum to go through the process. … Even after approval it is still not being scheduled.
“As taxpayers you are footing the bill for administration to prevent faculty from providing the educational opportunities and services that your tax dollars are funding. I’m sorry you have been negatively impacted.”
Hilliard said the lack of scheduling has been very difficult for the veterans in his class, since some of their benefits depend on their completing their education plan. He estimated he has between six and eight veterans in his class of ’18.
Beside claiming retaliation in that email, he encouraged the students to sign up and take the course elsewhere. Many chose Pierce College, but at the last minute, the instructor retired and there wasn’t time to find anyone else (Hilliard said he could’ve taught it had he known of the vacancy).
The students needed that final class to complete the pathway so they could take the certification exam and graduate. It wasn’t offered. Hilliard was never told why.
“I asked why we’re not running the new classes. I said my students need (NETECH) 153,” Hilliard said. “They tell me I can run X courses. No matter what I did, there’s not enough sections.”
Brill-Wynkoop offered a possible explanation for Hilliard’s difficulties: A group of other community colleges, including Antelope Valley, Allan Hancock and Santa Barbara, suggested including cyber security as part of the curriculum. Hilliard said he thinks students should learn networking basics first and that cyber security should be graduate level.
“The schools you mentioned with cyber security programs are teaching ethical hacking, how to access network devices,” Hilliard wrote in an email to The Proclaimer. “The ethics are the responsibility of the individual doing the hacking. They are teaching their students how to access smartphones. Do they think all their students will use those skills ethically? I declined to go in that direction without students learning networking skills first.”
Hilliard, Faudree and Brill-Wynkoop said a faculty member has control over the curriculum, and administration has control over assigning which classes will be taught. Since Hilliard sat on the school’s curriculum committee for a time, Faudree said she doesn’t completely understand why Hilliard has had problems.
But problems he’s had, and he attributes them to retaliation for questioning various practices and filing complaints and grievances against the school.
In November 2016, he alleged conditions “created a working environment that can only be described as intolerable and this warrants filing this formal complaint.” This stemmed from replacing a full-time instructional lab technician with two part-timers who needed training, so Hilliard resigned from several committees to train them.
In 2019, he came before the curriculum committee to get approval for classes that fall but was told the administration thought he meant for the following fall. His attorney filed a grievance, and the classes were approved for spring 2020.
Back then, he said he knew he got his way but wasn’t sure what was going to happen going forward. Now, he knows.
Most of what he’s claiming stems from his belief that, since the college is a public institution, there should be complete transparency, and he finds it lacking. As examples – some of which have been refuted – he listed the following:
- Measure E was placed on the ballot in 2016 to cover a faculty raise. Measure E was a $230 million bond measure passed in 2016 that allowed the school to make a wide variety of upgrades and improvements. These included new science classrooms, a parking structure and various infrastructural improvements such as electrical wiring, plumbing, heating and better roads.
No monies could be used for salaries. Hilliard acknowledged, “Legally, that’s correct.” But he said he found Measure E being placed on the ballot right around the time of faculty increases “too coincidental.”
Faudree said she thinks it’s quid pro quo.
“Every time the (school) needs us, the faculty gets something they’ve asked for, like a raise,” she said. “Is it coincidental? Maybe. Is it to placate the faculty? Maybe.”
- The college deviated from its primary mission to educate by building a performing arts center.
Back in 2002, the voters approved the $80 million Measure C, of which $18.3 million went to building the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center. Hilliard claims it’s a money loser, but it’s impossible to tell because the college receives a lot of money in filming. How much the school receives is unknown; it was one of the questions the school did not respond to.
“COC’s core business is education, but the PAC is entertainment,” Hilliard said, “and running an entertainment venue is not part of the California Community College mission. … Is it making money or losing money? If it’s making money, where is the money? If it’s losing money, how are the losses covered?”
Hilliard said he recalled the city and college were originally going to cooperate, but the city dropped out. Phil Lantis, the city’s arts and events manager, emailed to say the city has no role in managing or operating the PAC.
“The agreement the city has with the College of the Canyons is financial support to ensure that community groups are able to secure dates at the facility and to have the college utilize their marketing materials to promote the community groups’ performances,” Lantis wrote.
- The school has a cash-flow problem. Hilliard pointed to two things: the wide difference in enrollment numbers and the faculty’s need to file a grievance to receive back pay. First, the school listed its enrollment as 33,481 for the 2019-20 academic year, but Hilliard offered documentation that showed the enrollment that the state uses to fund schools was only 15,909.
That funding number, called full-time equivalents, is a unit of measurement equivalent to one individual full-time student. It has remained mostly flat since 2008-09, school records show. In other words, many of the 33,481 students don’t take enough courses to be called “full-time,” but several of these part-time students can combine to make a full-time-equivalent student.
Then there is the grievance. According to a union update and Brill-Wynkoop, the faculty was due an extra $4.32 per hour taught during what’s called “overload” time, which includes teaching in summer or between the fall and spring semesters. The school told Brill-Wynkoop that the process to issue the checks was complex, and it promised by March 5 to give a payment date. When March 5 came and went with no word from the school’s director of payroll, the union filed a grievance.
“Why else would they not pay what was agreed to?” Hilliard asked. “Why do faculty members have to file a grievance to get paid? That should not be part of normal business operations, but it is.”
Brill-Wynkoop said payment has been made.
“He doesn’t come from academia, and he doesn’t say things in a calm way. He says things in a direct way,” Brill-Wynkoop said of Hilliard. “His personality clashed and made it harder for him to move forward.”
Regardless, Hilliard is out of there. He got married a year and a half ago to an Ecuadorian doctor who still lives in Ecuador. He’s planning to finish remodeling his house and will either sell or rent it before joining his wife in South America on June 17.
But just because he’s moving to a new continent doesn’t mean he’s done with Canyons. Thanks to social media, he can stay in touch with people here and keep tabs on what’s happening at the school. He promises that when he sees or learns of something amiss, he will trumpet it all over the internet.
“I didn’t put up with all that BS to give them a walk,” Hilliard said.
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