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SRJC Hijinx

Faculty unrest smolders as free-speech lawsuit heads for federal court

By Bruce Robinson

DON'T BE DECEIVED by the silence. Things may have seemed quiet under the oaks since March, when the Santa Rosa Junior College faculty heatedly passed a resolution of censure and "no confidence" in the school's president and board of trustees, but that does not mean the hard feelings have abated.

The deep-seated and apparently mutual distrust between the college's workforce and its administration has smoldered for several years, and the passions that erupted last spring have now been channeled into grievances and lawsuits, cases that could ultimately resonate through institutions of higher education across the country.

The legal pivot point for many of the interlocking cases will come early next month, when a federal court in San Francisco is due to rule on a question that strikes to the heart of two years of campus controversy. This issue revolves around five letters and a flier--all critical of SRJC President Robert Agrella and the board of trustees, and all written and distributed anonymously between August 1995 and October 1996.

Although some of the letters--attributed by the administration to SRJC instructor Sylvia Wasson--claimed to have originated from such sources as "Eight Concerned Members of This College Community," "Concerned Faculty and Administrators of Santa Rosa Junior College," and "Students Against the President," no members of any of these groups have come forward or been otherwise identified. The administration has spent tens of thousands of dollars investigating faculty members in an attempt to confirm its suspicion and to hang the deed on Wasson, who has denied any connection to the letters.

The core issue, as framed by Santa Rosa attorney Martin Reilley, who is representing Wasson, is whether the letters are protected free speech under the First and 14th amendments. If they are, he argues, the SRJC administration had no legal grounds to investigate who wrote them.

"The administration took umbrage that someone would write these things and publish these things and then went on the attack to try and find out who did this," Reilley explains, as the late fall sunlight pours into his Fountain Grove office. "The only reason to find out who did it is to punish.

"Now, if it's constitutionally protected, which we believe it is, then there was no reason to expend any public funds to investigate or to seek out for purposes of punishment or retaliation. But they did, and they came to the conclusion that it was Sylvia Wasson."

Wasson, a languages instructor at the college for the past 22 years, has consistently and vehemently denied having any role in the creation or circulation of the letters. She is being scapegoated, Wasson says, because of a prior incident in which she ran afoul of the Agrella administration.

The administration's accusations against her are "false and slanderous," Wasson told the Independent shortly after she was summarily fired by the board of trustees last January. "All letters I have written to this administration I have proudly signed."

After an extensive internal inquiry--an effort that involved at least three attorneys, a private investigator, and a handwriting expert and "questioned-document examiner"--the administration branded Wasson the author of the mystery writings. Wasson was fired and never given a chance to rebut the accusations leveled against her. Her dismissal provoked a wave of protest from her colleagues, erupting into outrage when it was subsequently revealed that the investigation had also involved the clandestine removal of confidential personnel files of 10 SRJC employees, as well as searches of 49 computers in 13 campus offices.

"I think for many people, that was adding insult to injury," says instructor Johanna James, one of those whose files were rifled. "Why wasn't our permission asked? Why was the whole thing done in secret?"

Through the teachers' union, the All-Faculty Association, James has filed an invasion-of-privacy grievance, one of five such complaints working their way through the internal grievance process. Asked why she thinks she was included in the search, James remains perplexed. "Bob Agrella has looked me in the eye and told me to my face that I was just a name that popped into his mind," she replies, "and I find it hard to disbelieve someone when they look me in the face and tell me something.

"But I also find it hard to believe that this particular group of people was chosen at random. Although I have been told my office was not entered, I do believe my office was entered and some documents were removed. But when you can't find something in your office, it's hard to prove it was ever there."

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Funding of new SRJC building raises budget questions.

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IN AN ANGRY RESPONSE to the revelations about the extent of the investigation, the college's 22-member Academic Senate, which represents the 275 faculty members, voted overwhelmingly March 12 to censure and express no confidence in Agrella and the board of trustees. "That was a milestone in the history of the college," says history professor and Academic Senate member Dean Frazer, who has taught at SRJC for almost 30 years. "It suggests how general and how genuine the outrage was on campus."

In May, the senate conducted a campuswide survey to gauge faculty attitudes toward Agrella. In 12 of the survey's 13 questions, well over half the 125 respondents rated Agrella's performance as poor or unsatisfactory. Negative responses to the question "Overall, how would you rate your confidence in the leadership of the president?" totaled more than 80 percent. That was two months after Agrella's March 25 public apology to the campus community, in which he conceded, "Whether an investigation should ever have been initiated is now highly questionable."

In an effort to mollify the faculty, the board also reinstated Wasson, but did so "without prejudice," reserving the option to renew actions against her in the future.

But Wasson received no apology. "No one has ever said, 'We blew it, we're wrong,' that she is indeed a good professor. They don't admit they did wrong by firing her and calling her all these despicable things. In fact, they insist that they're right, and they reserve the right to fire her again at any time," says attorney Reilley.

"If the administration really wants to get past this, they should admit that they were wrong, that it was unconstitutional, that they have no basis to conclude she was the author, and that whoever the author is, [that person] is not, just because of authoring these letters, immoral, unbalanced, or unfit to serve--and then this case would probably be over."

EVEN NOW, the internal justification for the probe remains disputed. It is clear that Agrella and the trustees were angered by the charges raised in the unsigned letters, but there appears to have been no consideration that any of those documents might have contained even the slightest kernel of truth.

"Wasn't there anybody who said, wait a minute, what are we doing here?" wonders veteran economics professor Ron Schuelke. "A seven-member board, a college president, and two vice presidents--I find it almost incomprehensible that not one of them said, wait a minute, look at what we're doing with respect to the First Amendment, academic freedom, rights to due process and tenure, and rights to privacy."

Yet several of the recurring points in the letters seem to be easily verifiable. The earliest documents allege that Agrella carried on an adulterous affair with a junior member of his administration; he has since married the woman. Other letters charge that the Agrella administration has repeatedly mishandled personnel matters and routinely engaged in "intimidation, character assassination and threats of dismissal" against "employees who dared to oppose him," creating a climate in which dissent could not be expressed openly without fear of reprisals.

Another recurring theme, Reilley says, is the contention that the district has "squandered vast amounts of taxpayers' money, more than any other administration, in pursuing vendettas and defending lawsuits and claims filed by employees for violations of employee rights," and been sued more than any previous administration.

"Now, when you ask the question, which of those are true, they're all very easily determinable," Reilley continues. "Certainly the board of trustees ought to know [whether it's] true this administration has been sued more than any other. And the answer is yes. There've been 32 lawsuits filed in state court over the last nine years, when Agrella [has been] there. And let's get an accounting--how much money has been spent? Logic would tell you, if you've been sued more than any other administration, you've spent more money on lawyers.

"As to [whether] the Agrella administration created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, I think that was answered by the faculty survey that was conducted over the summer. Over 62 percent of the faculty gave him an F for ethics, caring about academic freedoms." A report by Michael O'Donnell, a Santa Rosa attorney hired by the district to review the investigation, offered some revealing insights into the previously confidential process when it was made public by the board last spring. Even before initiating any kind of inquiry, the trustees felt that "the nature of these anonymous writings . . . caused grave doubt as to the fitness of whoever was responsible in terms of moral character" and "seemed to the Board to indicate a lack of emotional stability so severe as to call into doubt the author's fitness to continue as an employee of SRJC," wrote O'Donnell.

Those were the precise reasons cited for Wasson's eventual dismissal, after the administration asserted that the anonymous writings were "false and defamatory," though their veracity has never been examined.

The O'Donnell report also laid bare the slim chain of analysis by which Wasson's supposed guilt was determined. The supposedly ultimate "evidence" was in the reports of Oakland document examiner Patricia Fisher, who was hired by the administration. She focused on two hand-addressed envelopes, one of which was directed to board of trustees president Rick Call and contained a copy of an anonymous letters. Fisher's analysis centered on the handwriting samples. She found no "unexplainable differences" between the writing on the two envelopes, and attributed any differences to "an attempt to disguise the writing," even though "several variations on letter configurations were not part of the known writing" of Wasson.

Using a computer to analyze both the anonymous letters and documents known to have been written by Wasson--including papers allegedly taken from her personnel file--Fisher reported finding general similarities.

"I think it's incredible that anyone would believe that Sylvia Wasson was the author of these letters, based on this analysis," scoffs Reilley. "We are certainly prepared to present evidence that these were not authored by the same person."

Meanwhile, the case has caught the attention of educators across the country. "It seems like a threat to tenure and academic freedom," says Cal State Hayward history professor Terry Jones, president of the California Teachers Association. "That's unconscionable in an educational setting. Stuff like that puts a chill on the whole academic environment.

"What goes on in an educational setting is the ability to think, argue, express ideas, even unpopular ideas. If you cut off that ability to freely express one's feelings and opinions, then you stifle creativity and the things that have made this country so great."

SAYS LAW PROFESSOR Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia, "The question of how far a faculty member may go in conveying views of a certain administration, that is certainly of interest broadly."

But the aspect of the SRJC dispute that "may attract more attention than the pro and con is the invasion of the faculty member's privacy, electronic and otherwise. That will certainly be of great interest," he adds.

However, O'Neil does not expect the Wasson suit to establish any significant legal precedents. "It will have limited impact because the circumstances are so extraordinary."

Still, the unusual nature of the face-off has caught the attention of the New York Times and other media. On April 18, the Times described the "near open revolt" of the faculty that "left the administration fending off accusations that they approved a witch hunt."

Yet for all the furor that has surrounded the letters and Wasson's precarious status at the college over the past year, it is almost universally acknowledged that the fundamental problems within the campus community run much deeper.

"We're all very focused on this particular incident, but in a lot of ways it is part of what I see as a pattern, of an administrative approach at the college," says Johanna James. "In all fairness, I don't think it's just Bob Agrella as being some sort of master villain--his personality and behavior are just another piece in the puzzle. I think the board should be very accountable, too."

Critics say that the expansion of the college administration to include more deans and associate deans in recent years has narrowed the opportunities for direct communication between the top levels of the administration. When combined with the high-handed and unpopular actions of the president and his staff, those changes have fostered a widespread view that the administration disdains the faculty. "The organizational structure of this college has evolved to the point where there is clearly a dichotomy between the administration and the faculty and staff," agrees economics professor Schuelke. "Instead of being on the same team, it's like two teams playing against each other. The line seems to be drawn right at the department chair level."

Put another way, "There has been a great reduction in the spirit of mutuality, reciprocity, and collegiality" that was formerly present at the school, observes history professor Frazer. "I feel very much that the high reputation of the college has been sullied, that the growing ill will and adversary relationship seems almost on the verge of becoming permanent."

EVEN NOW, a committee of Academic Senate members is preparing a series of resolutions--some call them demands--calling on the administration to fully disclose what was taken from files and offices during the letter investigation.

Faculty members want administrators to return documents and any copies; to make public quarterly reports on the cumulative costs of the investigation and related lawsuits; and to meet regularly with a senate committee to review "substantiated" claims of "retribution by the administration against faculty who have been critical of the college."

These steps are necessary, social sciences instructor Marty Bennett told the senate Nov. 5, to counter "a continuing pattern of retribution against faculty who would speak out on this case and others. We really do have a climate of fear, a very chilly atmosphere. Morale has bottomed out."

But amidst all the conflict and controversy of recent months, a group of employees has been working to build a campuswide consensus around a new document intended to affirm the highest ideals of the institution. On Nov. 11, Agrella and the trustees officially adopted the SRJC "Magna Carta."

It now hangs where much of the recent animosity has been generated--the board of trustees' meeting room.

The college Magna Carta specifies four "values and principles" as imperatives for the campus community: freedom of speech, due process, human respect and dignity, and a condemnation of abuse of power.

SRJC staffer Carole Wolfe, one of the prime movers of the charter, recognizes that these are precisely the issues over which Agrella and the board have been repeatedly criticized, and has encountered considerable skepticism from others on campus who doubt that the administration will live up to the lofty ideas the Magna Carta spells out. Some even suggest that Agrella's endorsement is a cynical bit of face-saving to counter all the negative publicity that has surrounded the Wasson suit.

"This is a big fear of mine," Wolfe admits, "but I don't think this is a bad thing, even if they don't live up to it. It aims for change in the way the organization works. It aims for more shared governance and consensus.

"If we all live by the principles, change will occur."

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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