Seattle Central to drop “Community”

by Casey Jaywork | Editor-in-Chief

The Seattle Community Colleges (SCC) Board of Trustees (BoT) is considering whether to drop “Community” from the name of SCCC and other community colleges in the district. Advocates of the change say that “Community” is inaccurate and outdated, while opponents say that dropping “Community” from our name implies dropping it from our mission.

    According to a Nov. 25th email from SCCC administration to college faculty and staff, the proposed name-change has been under consideration since at least May 2013. That email contained a “voter’s pamphlet”–based partly on the district’s “marketing consultant report” by Pyramid Communications–listing arguments for and against the name-change. A Dec. 2nd email from Pres. Killpatrick’s office to SCCC and Seattle Vocational Institute (SVI) employees included an online survey, and said that the college will elicit the views of “students and employer partners” by the end of January 2014.

    Costs and Revenues

    Responding to a public records request made by the Circuit, SCC Associate Vice Chancellor Malcolm Groth wrote in an email that he is “not aware of any data points that we have used to indicate a revenue increase because of the name change.” A 2009 study of colleges that had recently rebranded (as universities) in West Virginia found that rebranding “neither promoted nor sustained institutional enrollment. In fact, enrollment growth slowed following a re-branding…”

    SCC Vice Chancellor of Finance and Technology Kurt Buttleman wrote in an email that the cost of a name change to the district would be “marginal,” since changes in signage, letterhead, etc. would be gradually phased in as old materials wore out.

    According to documents obtained by the Circuit, SCC consulted about image rebranding with the PR firm Pyramid Communications in 2012 for a projected $48,895, though we have not been able to confirm how much was actually paid to Pyramid. According to minutes from a SCC Foundation Board meeting last year, the data gathered by Pyramid would be used to “Guide the [BoT’s] decision” regarding the name-change. According to SCC Communications Director Patricia Paquette, so far there has been “no expenditure per se” by the district on the name change.

    The Opposition

    SCCC’s student government, the Associated Student Council (ASC), opposes the name change. In a unanimously-supported resolution, ASC Executive of Student Services Pedro Marquez wrote that the money it would cost to change the school’s name could be better used by repairing campus bathrooms or improving campus safety. His resolution also urges the Board to hear from the student body, the faculty union, and other Seattle Colleges student governments before making a final decision.

    Faiza Diriye, ASC Executive of Legislative Affairs, said in interview that she thinks that if the school wants to improve its reputation, it should concentrate on the substance of its education rather than the style of its moniker. She said she’s also concerned that the district has not yet released any data on the name-change’s projected costs or benefits. “I operate on facts. I have to see the data,” she said. “I haven’t seen any data.”

    Shortly after learning of the proposed name-change, the bulk of the ASC attended the Dec. 5th meeting of the BoT to voice their opposition. ASC’s Executive of Issues and Concerns Taleah Mitchell told the BoT, “If ‘Community’ is in the name of the school, that tells me that there’s gonna be a community atmosphere. That tells me it’s going to be affordable. And that tells me that the instruction is going to be better than at a brand-new school, because it has to be.”

    Student government wasn’t the only body in unified opposition to the name-change. During that meeting, the co-presidents of the SCCC faculty union, Kimberly McRae and Tracy Lai, said that their union had voted unanimously to endorse the ASC’s resolution in opposition to the name-change.

    Most of the faculty and staff this reporter spoke with were also opposed to the name change. SCCC philosophy professor Richard Curtis characterized the arguments in favor of the name-change as involving “global market position”–that is, those arguments basically say that “college” sounds more prestigious than “community college” and will therefore attract more students and help graduates applying for jobs. Tina Young, director of SCCC Multicultural Services, agrees, characterizing those arguments as saying that the name-change would make the college “more competitive in the educational market.”

    Curtis says he’s “not convinced that’s a relevant framework” for considering the proposed name-change. “I think that it’s the mission that’s at stake…I see [the name-change] as an abandonment of our core mission to serve the community that we live in,” Curtis said in interview.

    Deborah Higdon, who teaches psychology and IT at SCCC, called the name-change a “marketing ploy.”

    “The various and sundry arguments that have been put forward [in favor of the name-change]…[are] just specious,” she told the BoT. “Why is it now that we have to somehow see ourselves as less-than? We are not less-than. None of us see ourselves that way.”

    Both Young and Higdon suggested that the real motivation for the name change is to attract more international students, who pay about 2.5 times as much tuition as do WA students. International student enrollment has increased by about 50% in the past five years, while overall enrollment has dropped in the past four. According to the Institute of International Education, last year SCCC had the 12th highest number of international students of all US community colleges.

    “I think international students, like all students, bring a tremendous amount of value to our institution,” Young said. “What I am concerned about is when we’re not honest and straightforward that the marketing that we’re directing this effort toward is really the international student dollars.”

    Some faculty do support the name-change. English professor Charles Malody told the Circuit in an email that having “Community” in the college’s name “implies provincial, rube, local and not worldly, limited – the opposite of university.” He added, “[W]e need to move on to remain viable.” An all-district email also pointed out “community college” might lead people to ignore the fact that SCCC now offers two Bachelor of Applied Science degrees.

    Declining funding: a nation-wide trend

    Traditionally, community colleges have been an avenue for academically underprepared and low-income students to enter higher education. The current cost of attending SCCC is about a third of the cost at UW and a little more than a tenth of the cost at Seattle U. And unlike UW and SU, SCCC has open enrollment.

    Nationwide, college tuition across the US is about 4.5 times more expensive than it was in 1985. Catherine Rampell of the NY Times says that this increase can be explained by a gradual loss of government funding. “[T]he main cause of tuition growth has been huge state funding cuts,” Rampell wrote in a 2012 article. Higher education scholar Jon Travis concurs, pointing out that higher education only became widely available through increased government funding following the Second World War. For the past three decades, that funding has been dwindling. “American public higher education is in trouble,” he wrote last year. “Besieged by declining state and Federal support for more than 30 years, public colleges and universities are facing a ‘game-changing’ set of challenges that threaten to alter the very nature of the institutions.”

Photo courtesy of Economix, with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

    This trend holds in Washington. In the past decade, state community college tuition has more than doubled: the annual cost to a full-time, in-state student has increased from $1,982 in 2002-2003 to $4,000 today. The higher tuition comes at a price to students: nearly two-thirds of SCCC’s 2008-09 graduates said in an exit-survey that financial need was a “barrier…to completing your education that you had to overcome,” and 37% said it was a “major barrier.”

    No data was available for students who did not successfully graduate.

    A ‘proposal’?

    In emails, SCCC and district administrators have indicated that the name-change is currently only a proposal. In a 1/21/14 email to students, Pres. Killpatrick expressed interest in “your thoughts on a proposal to change the name of the [SCC].” He emphasized “that this is not a vote. Rather, we are gathering feedback from our local college communities, including students, faculty and staff.”

    However, some of the faculty and students this reporter spoke with suspect that the district’s collection of public input is just for show–a suspicion bolstered by SCCC campus security’s new badges, which read “Seattle Central College.” As Higdon put it at the BoT meeting, “Most of us understand full-well that this is a fait accompli [Latin: ‘accomplished fact’]. This decision has been made.

    “Seattle Central came out of a fight to democratize and extend education,” Higdon said. (In the late 1960s, SCCC’s Black Student Union and others successfully protested against official plans to divert funding away from the new school.) “[T]his is the latest move to stab that movement in the heart.”

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