Chong faces heated questions during sit-in


Students and faculty thronged outside President Frank Chong’s office Monday morning to protest the sudden slashing of sumer classes. Chong listened to concerns and answered questions for more than 30 minutes. Photo by Jennifer Do.

Rachel Edelstein, Managing Editor

Editor’s note: To receive updates on this story and other breaking news, please download the Oak Leaf mobile app for Apple or Android.

Students and faculty pummeled Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong with questions Monday morning about the fate of the Summer 2018 course offerings, which remains unclear.

The topic that came up over and over was how cutting classes was a realistic solution for the budget deficit.

“I hear a lot about how low enrollment of students is a problem for the budget, and then we are cutting classes. That doesn’t make any sense. If you want more people to enroll, why are you getting rid of classes?” one member of the crowd asked.

Chong said according to the business model there must be a certain number of students in each class section to break even. It usually takes 23 to 24 students per class to pay for faculty and other costs.

“We are trying to be more efficient,” Chong said.

According to Chong, the college is offering the same number of sections now, with enrollment at 20,000, as 20 years ago, when enrollment was at 58,000.

“With that in mind, I don’t understand why this isn’t a problem that was known by the students earlier because I feel like there could be a way to funnel all the students into a smaller number of classes as opposed to cutting them four days before people–like me–were supposed to register,” another crowd member said.

Chong was quick to apologize saying he would take this feedback to the academic senate meeting on Wednesday to ask for restoration of summer classes.

“I’m glad you are asking those types of tough questions about ‘why do we need to cut sections when we want more students,’ because we’ve been adding sections, and holding firm with hope growth would come,” Chong said.

He said Sonoma County’s economic growth and low unemployment rates caused enrollment to drop steadily.

“We’d like to grow the college but right now there is just not the students for the number of sections we are offering,” Chong said.

Crowd members questioned Chong about the lack of transparency and communication about this ongoing problem.

Before Chong could reply, another student questioned the mechanisms used to cut classes after low enrollment. Usually there is a census after the start of each semester, and based on enrollment after that, classes are cut or retained.  

“If you wait till then to cut classes and you know what your enrollment is going to do, you’ve done your due diligence to prove that you’ve actually waited and put faith in the system,” the crowd member continued.

“And then you say that part of the problem is–this is ironic–half of the people going to this school have to work three jobs over the summer and during the school year so they can attend the JC. Because it’s too damn difficult to live here and attend school.”

Several people voiced concern over losing financial aid, which many rely on to live in Sonoma County, if the classes they need this summer are cut. The crowd cheered each time.

“When those sections were cut, Mary Kay [Rudolph] said we’re going to save 2 million dollars, but doesn’t the JC actually make money from summer school? Isn’t there a positive net gain?” asked math instructor Gale Bach.

Chong said because of the fires he made a special request to the state chancellor’s office to hold enrollment steady at 19,500 to allow time to recover.

“So we could have no classes and still get what 19,500 would give us. We have a $6.5 million deficit,” Chong said.  

He added that he wants to see SRJC’s governing bodies work together with students to meet their needs in this situation.

Another faculty member asked Chong to speak to the fact that many students spend too long at the JC. It’s difficult to fill transfer requirements when classes are cut, forcing many students to spend four or more years here.

Chong replied that this is an objective of the Guided Pathways initiative–to help provide a faster pathway for students. The average time for a student to get an AA degree is six years, not four, he said.

“We have to rethink our scheduling so we can make it more efficient so students who want to get out sooner can, and those who want to continue to come here for self-enrichment can,” Chong said.

Chong emphasized that he will address concerns over students losing financial aid from this decision on Wednesday.

“I’m going to raise the concerns that all of your are bringing. I’m pretty sure we’re going to restore much, if not all, of summer session,” Chong said.

One attendee asked Chong if the Board of Trustees learned of this plan last Thursday just as Maggie Fishman, board president, appeared in front of the crowd.

Dr. Chong had mentioned to me that he was considering it. The board was unaware that a memo was going out and that those changes were being implemented, so part of it’s on my head. I knew that the discussion was coming up,” Fishman said.

Fishman cannot talk to the board about the issue because it would be in violation of the Brown Act.

Chong listened and responded to every question raised.

He concluded by saying he appreciated all the input he received, even though some of it was difficult to hear.

“I thank you for coming out today,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of mistrust and distrust, I’m going to try to turn that around and I’m going to come up with a plan in the next few days that I’m going to distribute to the entire community to see how we can get things back on track.”

He apologized for the stress and angst people feel from the situation. “I’ve felt some of it today and it’s warranted. I don’t take it personally. As your president I need to do better. I’m hoping with your help, I can,” Chong said.