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National Review
National Review
16 Dec 2023
Will Swaim

NextImg:California’s Troubled Community-College System Just Got Worse

{I} n February, when she was tapped to run California’s troubled community-college system, Sonya Christian had cheerleaders, foremost among them Governor Gavin Newsom.

“Dr. Christian is one of our nation’s most dynamic college leaders, with a demonstrated record of collaboration and results in the Central Valley,” Newsom said in a press release. “She understands what is needed to deliver on record levels of higher education investment to make real improvements to the lived reality of our students. I look forward to continuing to partner with Dr. Christian to ensure our community colleges are engines of equity and opportunity.”

That brief statement — including Newsom’s self-congratulatory nod to “record levels” of government spending on a system notorious for financial fraud — says more about Newsom than it does about Christian.

But that reference to Christian’s “demonstrated record of collaboration and results in the Central Valley”?

The governor surely meant that to sound laudatory. It’s not. Before she was promoted to oversee California’s 116 community colleges and their 1.8 million students, Christian was president of Bakersfield College from 2013 until 2021, when she was promoted to chancellor of Kern County’s three community colleges, including Bakersfield College. She used the job to advance progressive politics, sparking brawls over political speech, designated campus safe spaces, loyalty oaths, and school spending. By the Kern Community College District’s own reckoning, trust between faculty evaporated during Christian’s stint as chancellor, from a high of 59 percent in 2016 to 35 percent in 2022.

There’s good reason for the collapse of goodwill. Consider the case of Daymon Johnson, a Bakersfield College professor of history.

Johnson has filed suit to stop Christian from requiring that faculty prove their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their teaching and research. Christian’s list of “DEI competencies” demands that faculty “promote and incorporate DEI and anti-racist pedagogy,” “advocate and advance DEI anti-racist goals and initiatives,” and “participate in DEI groups, committees, or community activities that promote systemic and cultural change to close equity gaps and support minoritized groups.” Among the most terrifying of Christian’s many Orwellian guidelines is a requirement that professors engage “in a continuous cycle of self-assessment of one’s growth and commitment to DEI and acknowledgement of any internalized biases and racial superiority or inferiority.”

Christian’s list of “competencies” goes on like that. All of it, Johnson says, is a radical political project dressed up as education. He refused to comply. And when he sued, school officials immediately filed a motion to dismiss.

Meanwhile, the battle between campus progressives and Johnson broke out on Facebook. Andrew Bond, a Bakersfield College English professor, declared, “Maybe Trump’s comment about shhole countries was a statement of projection because honestly, the US is a f*ing piece of sh** nation. Go ahead and quote me, conservatives.”

Johnson obliged. Replying on Facebook, he wrote that Bond should perhaps “move to China” and “post about the Communist party and see how much mileage it gets him.”

That apparently terrified Bond. In an administrative complaint, he accused Johnson of bullying. Campus officials opened an investigation into Johnson’s actions.

In November, a U.S. magistrate judge found that Bakersfield College was wrong to have investigated Johnson in the Bond affair. He further recommended that the Eastern District of California Court toss the school’s motion to dismiss the professor’s lawsuit.

Responding to the magistrate judge’s findings, California Attorney General Rob Bonta argued that nothing in the chancellor’s DEI “competencies” — the requirement to participate in DEI groups and activities, to advocate and advance DEI goals, to “develop and implement a pedagogy and/or curriculum that promotes a race-conscious and intersectional lens,” and more — violates Johnson’s First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. Really, Bonta asserted, the school system’s DEI requirements aren’t requirements at all. They’re just interesting ideas — opinions, really, still taking shape — about what might make for a better campus experience; there’s no evidence that the school system means to impose these requirements on anyone, let alone Johnson.

Indeed, Bonta continued dramatically, it’s actually Johnson’s case against Christian that violates the First Amendment, and in advancing Johnson’s case in the Eastern District, the magistrate judge himself is trampling on the government’s speech rights — specifically, Christian’s expression of her DEI codes.

In his response to Bonta, Johnson’s attorney Alan Gura sounds incredulous. Calling Christian the state’s “Chief Ideological Officer,” Gura replied:

This argument is nonsensical. Whether Defendants [Christian and the California Community College system she leads] have yet to form or apply their own interpretation of what the DEIA Regulations require has no bearing on the fact that, as state actors, they now must apply the State’s DEIA Regulations to their future tenure reviews. And there is nothing incredible about the fact that Defendants have not yet interpreted and enforced the DEIA Regulations specifically against Johnson, who is currently self-censoring so as not to violate them, and who is not up for review for another three years.

Then there’s the case of Johnson’s Bakersfield College colleague, Matthew Garrett. Like Johnson, Garrett is a professor of history; like Johnson, Garrett has been attacked by Christian’s administration for his criticism of progressive campus initiatives.

School administrators allege that Garrett unreasonably defended as free speech the appearance on campus of bumper stickers with such phrases as “Smash Cultural Marxism,” “Feminism is Cancer,” and “Porn is Social Rot.” In laying out their case against Garrett, school administrators said the professor “disregarded the impact of this attack on the student and campus community.”

The school has also charged Garrett with criticizing the methodology of a University of Southern California Race and Equity Center poll on campus racism; claimed that he “attempted” to host a conservative speaker on campus in violation of campus Covid guidelines (though the school, during that time, hosted in-person events for progressive causes, a football banquet, a jazz festival, and a Day of the Dead celebration); and asserted that Garrett exhibited “unprofessional” conduct in criticizing campus safe spaces for black students, which he has called “segregation.”

During a December 2022 Kern Community College District hearing to determine Garrett’s fate, a stream of witnesses blamed the professor for statements he (and his attorney) says he never made.

“Really, I never said anything they accused me of saying,” Garrett says. “Mostly they accused me of looking racist. Seriously. One student said she could tell I’m racist just by looking at me. They were incredibly vague in the allegations.”

The testimony was so utterly one-sided that it seemed natural when Trustee John Corkins, a rancher, concluded that Garrett was one of the school’s “bad actors.” The board, Corkins said, needed to “cull” the faculty the way he does his own herd.

“We put a rope on some of ’em and take ’em to the slaughterhouse,” Corkins said.

Three months later, in March 2023, district officials produced a list of charges against Garrett. In April, they voted to suspend him without pay while they consider his termination. Garrett is suing the district to regain his job.

When I asked about her struggle with conservative professors at Bakersfield College, Christian’s press officer told me, “Court records and the district office would be sources to follow up with.”

This is the collaborative culture that Sonya Christian has promised to take statewide.

While Garrett is suspended, Christian has been promoted to run the entire community-college system. She may regret her success. The path ahead of her is steep: declining student enrollment; incoming students who, mass-produced by California’s teacher-union-run K–12 system, are woefully unprepared for college; and an ongoing fraud scandal in which the college system has lost more than half a billion dollars.

Addressing almost none of that, Christian has instead doubled down on the practices that brought her to Newsom’s attention. Explicitly adding Newsom’s 2022 community-college “roadmap” to her own progressive initiatives, she is now carnival-barking for “Vision 2030,” her double-plus-good plan that “serves as a vehicle to remedy structural and funding inequities that disproportionally affect students of color.”

Perhaps stung by Bakersfield College’s mediocre performance in preparing students for the University of California (BC ranks No. 78 out of 116 community colleges), she hopes to persuade state lawmakers to eliminate any admissions requirement but one: Under Vision 2030, UC schools may require only a California community-college associate’s degree. She further proposes requiring that the state’s high schoolers, beginning as freshmen, take courses at the flagging community colleges. She says she’ll market community college to millions of low-income Californians who have never expressed a desire to attend college. Vision 2030 is, in short, a shell game with people inside and yet another “plan” whose results would be measurable only well over the horizon.

None of this will help students now, and none of it addresses a more immediate threat to the system — the problem of massive, ongoing fraud. Like most other problems in the community colleges, this one also has roots in California’s progressive impulse.

The trouble began in 2019, when state lawmakers allowed the community colleges to pursue diversity, inclusion, and equity goals by removing “barriers” to admission — no longer requiring tuition, transcripts, Social Security number, or registration fees — and promising state and federal student-aid dollars for all who register. Registration is easy: Go to your local community-college website, sign up for classes, and the system automatically generates a .edu student email account. With that student email account, notes San Francisco Chronicle reporter Nanette Asimov, “anyone in possession of a stolen identity and a criminal mind” can immediately qualify for a federal Pell grant worth thousands of dollars. The result should surprise no one. California’s community colleges have “been hit with a wave of phantom applicants and students,” Marc Joffe reported for Reason.

When Asimov wrote her Chronicle story last summer, she searched for the bottom line: How much money has the system lost?

“In California, an estimated 1 in 5 community college applications are scams, amounting to hundreds of thousands of ‘ghost students’ . . . all with the goal of pilfering financial aid,” Asimov wrote. But “neither state nor federal officials would say how much money fraudsters have stolen.”

I contacted several identity-verification firms to find an answer. At one, an executive walked through the math: Start with the chancellor’s estimate (as reported by Asimov) that about “20 percent of California’s community college applications are scams: more than 460,000 of the 2.3 million requests to the state’s online application system since July alone.” Those, the executive told me, are attempted fraud — “why else are people using phony names and socials to sign up for classes at a community college?” That executive’s firm concluded that the fraud losses associated with those fake applications likely “average $1 million dollars every day.”

State community-college administrators could do what American businesses often do: purchase the services of any of the major credit companies — Experian, Equifax, Lexis-Nexis or (the company whose name has California written all over it) TransUnion — and perform relatively low-cost identity verification and authentication for each student application. That, the source said, would cost the community colleges $3 for each of the system’s 1 million annual applicants: $3 million to save about $360 million every year.

The chancellor’s office said these figures are “very wrong.” “For 2022,” it offered instead, “the reported loss by colleges was $794,421 for the year (less than 0.1% of aid distributed), and efforts are under way to reduce that.”

The chancellor’s office brushed off my suggestion that private-sector solutions would seem a logical step toward locking down the application system — perhaps because that would run afoul of the progressive mandate of universal admission and unlimited state aid.

The California community-college system will likely lose more money to scammers. Whatever else its students may learn, they will be required to become fluent in progressive ideology. Their conservative professors will be fired — or suspended without pay pending Soviet-style investigations — for “crimes” that Johnson, the Bakersfield College historian, calls “wrongthink.”

All of this may sound terrible to you. But really: What price is too high in the never-ending pursuit of social justice?