Hundreds of students, faculty and staff staged a walkout Friday at Green River College in Auburn, leaving their classrooms to march through campus and shouting for the college’s president to resign.
The protest was the latest action in a long-running dispute between faculty and administrators over how the community college is run.
The faculty has twice voted that they have no confidence in President Eileen Ely, most recently asking her to step down in May 2015. They also have voted that they have no confidence in the school’s board of trustees. The board, which is appointed by the governor, has said it supports Ely’s presidency.
Faculty and students say the college has misspent its budget by going on a construction spending spree, and it has cut programs in such a way as to silence union leaders.
They also said the college’s board of trustees stifled dissent Thursday by holding a board meeting in a room that was too small to accommodate all the people who wanted to attend.
Green River College says it must cut $4.5 million out of the college’s $40 million budget, the result of declining enrollment and state budget reductions. Spokeswoman Allison Friedly said no decisions have been made about which programs will be cut.
This year, the state’s community colleges will receive less than a one-half percent increase in state funds, and they must find ways to pay for agreed-upon salary increases, said Katie Rose, a spokeswoman for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Some colleges are also seeing declines in enrollment, she said, which will affect their bottom lines.
The SBCTC has not yet approved allocations to the colleges.
At Green River, the focus Friday was on a group of academic programs the college listed as part of a budget exercise meant to identify ways to enhance revenue, make programs more efficient and cut costs.
Friedly said the programs on the list were those that generated the least revenue and could be made more efficient. They did not necessarily represent programs that were going to be eliminated, she said, and the faculty was “misinformed” about the purpose of the list.
The programs were scored based on criteria that included the cost of providing the instruction and the applicability of the skills to needs in the workforce, she said.
But faculty and students said they believed the list would guide decisions about cuts, and that it included programs essential to low-income and first-generation students. Other programs, they said, appeared to have been placed on the list in error.
Student Victoria Pacho said some of the programs identified included counseling, writing, public speaking and trades — programs that often serve low-income, first-generation students. “They are cutting off the public they’re supposed to serve,” she said.
Geology was on the list, yet Kathryn Hoppe, who teaches geology, said the program’s enrollment has doubled in the last 10 years and makes a profit for the college. When faculty members pointed out errors on the list, she said, administrators said they did not plan to make a change.
“This is part of the frustration — they were citing data that was wrong,” she said.
Tim Scharks, who teaches geography, said faculty members fear the administration is targeting small programs taught by tenured professors who could be replaced with less-expensive adjunct faculty.
Earlier this month, the faculty union asked the Public Employee Relations Commission to intervene, saying the budget process has not yet been bargained with the faculty union and that nearly a dozen faculty members are likely to lose their jobs.
Many faculty members said they believed the school has put too much money into construction projects, with an eye to making the school more attractive to international students, but at the expense of local students.
“They’re on a remodeling spending spree,” said John Avery, who has been teaching English as a Second Language at Green River for 23 years.
Amanda Bentz, a student studying criminal justice at Green River, said the walkout was organized entirely by students. Bentz said instructors feel threatened by the administration and are fearful of losing their jobs. She said she has seen instructors break down in tears because of the pressure.
“It’s a very toxic environment,” said Loretta Gutierrez-Sacks, the vice president of AFSCME Local 304, which represents classified staff.
Last year, Green River laid off Mark Millbauer, the head of the auto body collision program, who was also head of the faculty union. Faculty members say they believe he was targeted as an intimidation tactic.