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Seattle’s colleges: What’s with dropping the ‘community’?

North Seattle Community College: Most job-related education has shifted to community colleges. Credit: Lawrence W. Cheek

The Seattle Community College District Board of Trustees unanimously voted last month to drop “Community” from the name of the district and its three colleges. The concerns and opposition expressed by students, staff and faculty went unheard. We feel that we were not invited into the discussion of this issue.

The unions that represent the staff and faculty of the Seattle Community Colleges District — Washington State Federation of Employees Local 304 and the American Federation of Teachers–Seattle Community Colleges Local 1789 — both voted to keep “Community” in our district and colleges’ names, because we think community is an essential part of our vision and purpose; education that is accessible and grounded in our communities. We question the validity of survey data used to justify this change.

Members of business and industry of the Seattle region were the first to be asked about changing our name. Roughly two-thirds responded that they would like to remove community from our name. A year later, the employees of our district were polled, and the results showed a slight majority favoring the change. A month later (during Winter Break), the same survey was emailed to our students and showed support for the change. However, the questions and how the surveys were conducted have generated widespread concern about whether people were given proper context, time or options to reply. The Central Circuit, the student publication of Seattle Central, found large discrepancies between the district’s surveys and their own, which showed a slight majority in favor of keeping “Community”. 

District officials claim that dropping “Community” is a rebranding that is friendlier to prospective employers and graduates of the new baccalaureate programs. However, rebranding sidesteps the deeper significance of community colleges and how the name symbolizes a commitment to disenfranchised people of color and immigrant communities.

We must consider these communities' concerns while addressing the real problem: decreasing enrollment and funding. Our three colleges — North Seattle, Seattle Central and South Seattle — are currently facing a slide in enrollment that may cause financial ruin if it continues. However, we must ensure that everyone is able to attend community colleges and concentrate on programs like college prep, basic adult education, English as a second language and STEM education. Our students must feel welcomed, regardless of their background.

Engaging the community to discover solutions must be our highest priority. We must foster a dialogue and work inclusively with all communities, not just the business lobby. There are more important changes than just a simple PR fix, like changing our name. How long will it be until we must change our name again because “college” has lost its meaning and we must become a “university”?

Our mission is to provide high quality educational opportunities to any student in a diverse learning environment. The only way to know what offerings are relevant to our changing society is to listen to our audience, the current and future students. We must ask them to tell us what inspires them and what they are interested in studying.

To strengthen our reputation, we should refocus on improving our educational environment and showcase the academic achievements of our staff and students. We must also fix our current problems: facilities overdue for repairs; short-staffed departments; and underpaid staff and faculty. We have cut programs that were nationally recognized as leaders in their fields. 

In the last six years, we’ve lost our Child Care Center, Interpreter Training Program and Film & Video and Journalism/Publishing departments. We’ve faced wage and hiring freezes. Our classified staff have gone without any pay raise or cost-of-living increase for over six years. Services like advising, financial aid, tutoring and counseling cannot handle the volume of students requesting their help.  It often takes two or three weeks before a student can see a counselor.

Let’s reverse this sorry state. Let’s proudly demonstrate our successes and become a leader in community. Let’s change our course offerings to reflect the modern era of an intelligent/creative economy, the focus on STEM fields, the need for collaboration, instant communications and a multidisciplinary approach. Let’s bring Community back!

If you care about the future of our region, we urge you to contact the Board of Trustees and Chancellor’s Office and ask that they publically address these issues and start a conversation with all of us. Our community needs to discuss what our educational and economic future will look like. It is time for a broad dialogue throughout the Seattle community on what the purpose of our colleges will be in the future.

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