Houston Community College System Chancellor Bruce Leslie and a cohort of his administrators had barely gotten over jet lag from a recent globe-girdling flight when they were confronted with a bigger headache, a surprise 7 percent cut in state funding for HCC. Within weeks, notices went out from the five campuses that summer class offerings will be cut by a quarter in order to cover the $5 million decrease in funding.
The system, whose mission is to provide Harris County students with low-cost access to quality higher education, also downshifted to a four-day workweek, cut part-time employee costs by half and eliminated most temporary workers. The new HCC Alief campus, based in a renovated superstore, will be open only at night. The actions immediately provoked system academics to charge that education was taking the biggest hit while administration and nonacademic programs were protected.
"We're significantly cutting classes that provided tuition revenue, without cost benefit analyses that justify it," complains one department chair. "It's kind of interesting that the way the budget is being balanced is on the back of instruction and making fewer opportunities for students."
According to this source, "The faculty has been consistently asking since day one for some sort of rationale. What is their justification for making these decisions that end up cutting classes and not cutting other things? And we don't get any answers back."
Helen Orman, chair of languages and literature at HCC's Southwest College, says she just received orders to cut seven of her literature classes for the spring. She says the college's enrollments are already bursting at the seams.
"You're cutting the revenue" from student tuition, says Orman, a past faculty president, "and you're cutting the students' opportunities. The students who take these courses really want them, and when you cut them, they're not out there -- period.
"This is a horrible irony for an institution that calls itself The Learning College. I find it ironic and frankly appalling."
HCC officials counter that everyone shares in the unexpected budget cuts and that the quality of educational services will not be materially impacted by what they call "class consolidation" and shorter operating hours. They also dismiss the notion that cutting revenue-earning courses is counterproductive, noting that student tuition covers less than a third of the system's budget.
HCC board chair Jim Murphy says the state cuts came without notice and required action within a week. He's hopeful that some of the class offerings can be restored by hiking student tuition and fees. That would seem to undercut HCC administration claims that loss of tuition via class reductions is inconsequential.
With financial crisis in the air, in-house critics question why top HCC officials took two trips to communist-ruled Vietnam earlier this year. The jaunts, paid for by their hosts, were to assist in accrediting Saigon Tech, a private school in an industrial park in what is now called Ho Chi Minh City.
Saigon Tech is the brainchild of a Vietnamese émigré, Van Sau Nguyen, a German-educated, naturalized Canadian citizen who had apparently chosen HCC to try to establish credentials for his start-up institution.
"He came to us and said, 'How can we work together? How can we possibly make American college more accessible to Vietnamese students?' " recalls Charles Cook, HCC vice chancellor of academics. "We told him it had to be completely at your own costs, but we're willing to work with you."
According to HCC officials, Nguyen has two brothers in Houston, a doctor and a community newspaper publisher. He initially pushed the improbable idea of offering full HCC degrees in Vietnam. That ambitious plan was eventually reduced to allowing Vietnamese nationals to take computer classes to earn HCC credits that would be posted on U.S. transcripts. When HCC officials signed the first agreement with the school in 2001, it had not yet conducted a single class.
The partnership between Saigon Tech and HCC generates no money for the community college, other than travel expenses and costs of involvement in accreditation. HCC administrators tout the possibility of receiving a share of tuition revenues from Saigon Tech students and instituting exchange programs for HCC faculty and students at some point.
Saigon Tech has received no local media publicity. That's probably a good thing for HCC, since the mere display of the Vietnamese flag at a system commencement last year sparked protests in the local community of exiles from that country. HCC administrators are hazy about the degree of cooperation by the Hanoi-based government for the Saigon Tech venture, but it's clear the plan could not go forward without Hanoi's approval.
"Why are we doing anything that does not directly involve our constituent-serving base?" asked one incredulous HCC source, who then chuckled: "Last I checked, Saigon, Vietnam, is not in our servicing area."
According to sources, faculty of the HCC computer sciences department complained to top administrators after being given the task of overseeing the Saigon Tech offerings. "HCC agreed to post credits to transcripts here in the U.S. that make us responsible for the quality of education," notes a source. "Our ability to control that quality of education halfway around the world is dubious at best."
The other concern is the obvious: "We have our own constituency that we need to better serve here, and we ought to be addressing our efforts to the items here, not to this extra item. This is a diversion from the planned mission."
Juan Perez, the system's international initiatives director, visited Vietnam in January to prepare for the chancellor's later trip. He cites a line from the HCC mission statement promising to "prepare individuals in our community for life and work in an increasingly international and technological society."
He believes that international partners are needed, in part to "change that provincial-type mentality that we really need to break from, if we are going to fit into today's world."
Although the community college has had academic assistance and exchange programs with educational institutions in other countries, Perez says this is the first time it has allowed another school to offer HCC credits overseas. He admits that "it represents a really big change for the college in the way it looks at itself and the world."
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Academics Vice Chancellor Cook holds out the possibility that Saigon Tech will provide income for the college system while training Vietnamese workers.
"They are paying us for our curriculum, oversight of the program; paying us for the privilege of having HCC as credit in the computer science field," says Cook. "Hopefully, it will result in helping train additional workers there who can come to Houston to finish a degree or go to work for U.S. or Houston companies as workers."
As to possible objections over dealing with the Vietnamese government, HCC board chair Murphy says, "There are some who think it's a problem to do anything with Vietnam. Others say, 'Open the borders to trade.' Those are largely political issues. We certainly believe our international relationships are going to help us build things."
Perhaps, but plenty of community college staffers share the view of a professor who asked to remain anonymous: "The mission of HCC is supposedly to serve the students of Harris County. The chancellor comes back after 'Good morning, Vietnam,' to deliver the message, 'Good night, Alief.' "