Volume 46 Number 2
Yet Merced College prof finds room for improvement
Editor’s Note: The following piece was written by Merced College philosophy professor Keith Law, who is also president of the Merced Faculty Association. It was published in the Merced Star in early November.
The California Community College system, and our very own Merced College in particular, is a utopia.
The common perception of community colleges is more practical. Most people see them as publicly funded institutions where Californians can go to learn a trade or pick up their first two years of college.
I have spent the better part of my adult life attending or working for community colleges. I began my college education in a community college, I taught as a part-time faculty member in various community colleges, and I have taught fulltime at Merced College for more than 20 years.
The courses that I teach at Merced College range from logic and ethics to humanities and comparative religions. I have also served on just about every committee and faculty organization possible.
While working in these various capacities I have befriended devoted faculty members from every discipline that is taught at Merced College. This is how I arrived at my belief that Merced College is a utopia.
The term “utopia” was invented by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book “Utopia,” which described a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. The literal translation from Greek is “not place.”
This is why the term has come to signify our dreams of an ideal community that has yet to be realized. The ideal community will probably never be, but the concept of utopia symbolizes our uniquely human ability to dream of a better world, and to strive to achieve that goal.
Merced College is, for the most part, provided by the good citizens of California.
Each month, every working Californian has a chunk of change taken from their paychecks to pay for our community colleges. To a lesser degree the system is funded by student tuition and federal dollars.
What we get for this investment is a place in Merced that any citizen can access to earn a degree or learn a trade.
But more than that, it is possible for a person living in Merced to learn from an expert about everything from how to shoe a horse and grow food, to how the universe was formed or how to write a poem.
A citizen of Merced can take an ancient Greek philosophy course one day, learn how to run a business the next, and then play water polo or a guitar the next. Many of our doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers get their start at Merced College.
I ask you, how many places on this planet can boast about such a wonderful resource for learning? I can’t imagine an institution that does more to serve our community.
Like any utopia, Merced College is not fully realized. We have a way to go before this great resource is fully serving all of our citizens.
One of the places where we need to improve is in the area of student resources, and particularly for those of our students who live in poverty and those who speak English as a second language (ESL).
These two categories make up a large percent of Merced’s population, thus they pose unique challenges for Merced College.
These unique challenges have caused Merced College’s success in terms of retention and transfer rates to be low relative to most of the other community colleges in the state. This does not have to be the case.
In order to serve these students better it may be useful to shake up the leadership of the college.
Tuesday, we had an opportunity to do just that in the voting booth by electing one new trustee.
At Merced College over the past few years, we have witnessed our library close down on the weekends and the firing of part-time faculty and support staff who directly served our most needy students.
The library is a necessary resource for students who do not have a computer or Internet service, or who simply need a quiet place to study.
At the same time, the trustees have allowed massive surpluses at the end of each year that are two and three times greater than the 5 percent reserve that is recommended by the chancellor of the system. Last year’s 22 percent reserve was more than $10 million.
On top of this, we have seen an increase in administrative hiring, and the boardroom and administrative offices were recently remodeled. We are currently building a parking structure with a charging station for all of the new golf carts that our administrators are driving around.
All of this suggests to me that we have misplaced priorities at the top.
I am all for a nice boardroom, and administrators may deserve nice offices and golf carts; however, not when we have more pressing needs for our students.
Way before we bought this stuff we should have built and staffed a state-of-the-art tutorial center for ESL students. We should have kept classes open, teachers hired, and we should not have fired student support staff.
Providing these services is more important than boasting about a 10 to 20 percent budget surplus at the end of each year.
None of these criticisms takes away from the fact that Merced College is a utopia. It is one of the most amazing institutions in the world.
I know instructors, staff members and administrators in every area on campus who work extra hard to provide the best possible education for our students.
However, as the term utopia signifies, there is always room for improvement.