Name change elicits discussion, protest

By Josh Kelety | Campus News Editor

On March 13th the Seattle Community College District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to drop the word ‘Community’ from all district college titles, finalizing a drawn-out process of rebranding Seattle’s community colleges. But there are mixed feelings among the Seattle Colleges’ community on the BoT’s decision.

Sign at name change protest (photo by Josh Kelety)
Sign at name change protest (photo by Josh Kelety)

“We believe this [the name change] will inspire prospective students to reach higher than they thought possible,” the Seattle Times reported SCCD Chancellor Jill Wakefield saying during the March 13th BoT meeting.

The BoT and SCCD cite the renaming as a way to increase enrollment and add  credibility to Seattle’s community colleges, which currently offer and are developing four year bachelor degree programs. Other two-year colleges in the state and the nation have undergone similar rebranding, such Bellevue College (formerly known as Bellevue Community College).

“This means that we are no longer an exclusively two-year institution,” said SCCC President Paul Killpatrick in an email sent out to the community shortly after the decision was made.

Despite the decisive unanimous BoT vote, feedback and public opinion regarding the rebranding is varied. The SCCD sent out a survey which showed a majority of students, faculty, and community members were supportive of the name change while a second similar survey put out by the Central Circuit showed less definitive results.

Those in opposition view the action as symbolic of the SCCD shifting its mission away from providing accessible and quality education to marginalized local communities (low-income, minorities, LGBT, veterans), a role that Seattle colleges have traditionally embodied.

Prior to the March 13th vote, Carlos Hernandez and small group of other students and community members gathered outside of SCCC to protest the impending name change. ‘We don’t want to be like Bellevue’ was a popular phrase repeated at the protest.

“I understand the District’s point of view. They are facing a decrease in enrollment, they are seeing empty classes, and they need to fix that. But I don’t think changing our name and this PR stunt is going to help that or improve our college in any way,” said Ty Pethe, the Student Leadership Program Assistant at SCCC who spoke at the event.

Others see the redesign as a marketing ploy to help attract more international students, whose higher tuition makes up a sizable chunk of college operating budgets due to the steep decline in state public funding. A presentation (slide 21) given at a June public budget hearing on the District’s 2013-2014 fiscal year strategy specifically outlined plans to use and increase revenue from International Education Programs to “offset [state] cuts”.

“You [the SCCD] can market to international student markets much better with the title ‘college’ as opposed to ‘community college’,” said Tina Young, Director of SCCC Multicultural Services during a SCCC public forum on the name change.

Another major point of contention for the opposition was the District’s alleged avoidance of transparency on the proposed rebranding. Pedro Marquez, Executive of Student Services with the SCCC Associated Student Council, noted at the public forum that most faculty and students that he talked to learned about the name change from him, not from the District administrators.

This sentiment was also reflected at the March 13th BoT meeting where emotions ran high among a group of students and community members who were protesting the name change.

“Tell me, where is democracy?” exclaimed Hernandez at the meeting in reference to the alleged lack of public engagement on the issue.

City council member and former SCCC faculty Kshama Sawant publically denounced the District’s dropping of the word ‘community’ during an on-campus rally in favor of a $15 per hour minimum wage. “They are not just removing a word, they are removing the community from the college,” said Sawant to raucous applause.

In response to numerous claims that the rebranding reflects a change in the colleges’ traditional role as servants of their communities, Wakefield released a statement via email saying “In making its decision, the Board reinforced its commitment to our mission: The Seattle Colleges will provide excellent, accessible education opportunities to prepare our students for a challenging future.”

The renaming will be phased in over the summer and officially implemented just before  the start of the upcoming fall quarter in September.

Follow Josh on Twitter: @Josh_Kelety

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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