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SBCC Looks for New Leader and Fresh Start

New City College Superintendent Will Inherit Fallout from Tumultuous School Year

Retired SBCC English instructor Celeste Barber (pictured) recently filed a lawsuit against chemistry professor Raeanne Napoleon and others after Napoleon interrupted her during a January Board of Trustees public comment period. The incident sparked one of several high-profile controversies the college endured this past year. | Credit: Paul Wellman

The new academic year begins at Santa Barbara City College this week, and the campus is looking forward to a fresh start. Last year, the school, considered one of the top community colleges in the country, was hit with a number of high-profile controversies involving lawsuits, protests, Title IX complaints, an administrator’s use of the n-word, and accusations of free-speech infringement. Amid these troubles, superintendent/president Anthony Beebe resigned in February for health reasons, and today the college is still actively searching for his replacement ​— ​someone who must solve the financial challenges that all California community colleges are facing, as well as finding ways to quell the tensions on a divided campus.

A 17-person screening committee is accepting applications for the position through September 16 and will begin interviewing applicants in late September. When asked what qualities SBCC was looking for in a new leader, Dr. Helen Benjamin, the interim superintendent/president, declined to comment, as did the committee’s cochairs Patricia Stark, Academic Senate president, and Geoff Green, SBCC Foundation CEO. However, interviews with many of those at the center of last year’s turmoil revealed vital points of view yet to be resolved.

SBCC’s #MeToo Moment

Raeanne Napoleon, the Academic Senate president-elect and a chemistry professor, was one of the most outspoken critics of the administration during the 2018-19 year, yet she supports the promise of new leadership. 

“Our current superintendent/president, Dr. Helen Benjamin, has many of the traits that I would like to see in our next,” Napoleon said. “Specifically, those are intelligence, consistency, empathy, and refreshing honesty.”

Before her appointment as president-elect, Napoleon found herself at the center of the first campus crisis. On March 19, 2018, she sent out an email warning staff and faculty about a Michael Shermer, who had been invited to speak on campus that day. She cited a 2014 BuzzFeed article in which three women accused him of sexual assault, although he was never investigated or charged by police. Shermer threatened to sue Napoleon, the college, and The Channels, a student news publication, but in the end decided against it. 

Napoleon’s tensions with the administration began here, when she felt then-superintendent/president Beebe failed to support her during these legal wrangles. In a letter to The Channels, Napoleon wrote that she “begged Dr. Beebe and his Administrative staff for guidance, reprieve from the harassment, questions about college procedures, advice for how to deal with the media, and so many other specific, tangible, obvious things” but was “met with nothing.”

Since Benjamin took over as interim leader, Napoleon has been much more supportive of the administration and hopes to continue that with the new, permanent leader. 

Another Lawsuit

Krystle Farmer was at the center of a different SBCC eruption when she resigned from her position on the Board of Trustees and the student senate last October, stating, “As a black woman and a single mother, I have experienced nothing but hardships during my time on the Associated Student Government, and especially as the student trustee.”

Since then, she has filed a lawsuit against the college listing eight separate allegations, including racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Though no longer at SBCC, she does not predict a quick solution to the conditions that she found “toxic.” She stands by her resignation letter, saying, “Until folks hold themselves accountable, wash away their egos, and allow space for real conversations to be had for restorative justice, the problems will only continue to grow and become worse.”

Photo: Paul WellmanRaeanne Napoleon

Racial Tensions Arise

Perhaps the biggest upheaval on campus occurred when Vice President of Business Services Lyndsay Maas said the unabbreviated n-word at a gender equity meeting in November 2018, resulting in multiple protests at board meetings and throwing the college administration into months of chaos.

Two dozen students, most of whom were black, surrounded the trustees at the January board meeting following Maas’s return from paid administrative leave, demanding she resign or be fired. Multiple coalitions of black students and faculty formed as a result, and backlash continued at each board meeting for the remainder of the semester. Despite their efforts, Maas continues to serve as VP of business services.

Pledge of Allegiance Scandal

Retired SBCC English instructor Celeste Barber was at the center of one of the college’s most high-profile controversies when she requested in January that the Board of Trustees reinstate the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance before each meeting. Barber, whose son is Santa Barbara City Councilmember Eric Friedman, was cut off during her public comment when chemistry professor Napoleon began shouting objections. 

The exchange garnered national media attention overnight, and Barber has since filed a lawsuit against Napoleon, Board President Robert Miller, and interim Superintendent Benjamin over the interruption, although Benjamin was not employed with the college at the time of the incident. 

“I was actually a big fan of Beebe,” Barber said. “He took a lot of heat, but he really tried and was a good leader. … What we need in this next leader is someone who gauges the needs of the local students rather than focusing on housing students from outside the district.”

Student Housing Woes

The issue of housing for out-of-area students has been a source of contention for years. Though community colleges such as SBCC are required to accept any qualified California resident, Santa Barbara does not have the housing needed for out-of-district students. Last fall, more than half of the 16,177 main campus students (including online and dual-enrollment high school students) came from outside the district — 8,307. Though student enrollment over the last decade has been declining throughout the community college system, housing remains a major problem in the city. 

Trustee Jonathan Abboud, who was elected to the board in 2014, said during his campaign that creating affordable housing for students was his biggest priority. And unlike Barber, he thinks the new superintendent/president should prioritize it, too.

“The college needs someone who is completely committed to putting all students first, will cultivate a positive climate on campus, and will make sure Santa Barbara City College is uplifting those who need it most,” he said about the search for the new leader.

An Experienced Perspective 

Lori Gaskin, who retired as head of the college before Beebe was appointed, had grappled with the housing problems during her tenure but had a broader view of what qualities were needed to guide Santa Barbara City College into the future. 

“It’s critically important we remember the roots and framework of the college ​— ​academic excellence,” Gaskin said. “I use the pronoun ‘we’ because I still feel so much a part of the college. In all of the crises and issues the college suffered recently, that hallmark has remained the guiding light. … SBCC needs a leader who understands that. The cutting-edge caliber of the academic programs speaks directly to issues of gender and race.”

Following the screening committee’s evaluation and selection of finalists next month, the Board of Trustees will interview prospective candidates at public forums in late October.

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