A sign on the Ohlone College campus in Fremont boasts “students first” but the Associated Students at the community college say the message they’re getting from the school’s administration tells a different story.
A high-stakes fight between the college’s student leaders and its top administrators has touched off a debate over student independence and free speech rights.
Article 6 in Ohlone’s student government constitution grants the school president the power to act against the wishes of the student government majority and the students say it has led to conflict between the student government members and Ohlone College President Gari Browning.
“Over the past year there have been several abuses of that clause that have silenced the voice of the students,” said ASOC President Talha Tariq in a recent interview with San José Spotlight.
For example, the Associated Students last fall voted to keep the requirements for joining student government at taking five units of classes with a 2.0 grade point average, but Browning reportedly pushed to increase the number of units and grade point average, ultimately bringing the issue to the Board of Trustees.
In another example, Browning also reportedly forbid the student leaders from endorsing a letter from the students that requested a more efficient transportation system between the college’s Fremont and Newark campuses. Today the school is working on bringing in a shuttle to address the issue but only after student outcry, the students say.
Browning did not respond to San José Spotlight’s repeated attempts seeking comment.
“It felt like we students were nothing more than puppets for the administration,” ASOC Vice President Tiffany Dang said during a Board of Trustees meeting last week. “The only explanation that the administration offered us was that this was a misunderstanding.”
ASOC members conducted research and found that nearly 90 percent of California’s Community Colleges do not have an equivalent to Article 6 in their student government constitutions. Indeed, most community colleges in the South Bay, including San Jose City College, do not have such rules in place. Campuses in the UC and CSU system also do not have such a clause.
The students say they tried to put removal of the offending article on the Board of Trustees agenda in June, but were shot down by the president. In response, the administration has reportedly placed further limits on its student government by freezing up its budget and not allowing the students to post their minutes or reserve rooms for meetings.
In addition to speaking out at the July 10 board meeting, the Ohlone students have also created an online petition that calls for the removal of Article 6.
“The College President has used this clause to force student government members not to discuss unflattering items, or even forcibly change their votes to favor the college administration’s interests,” the petition said, adding that the ASOC’s budget has been frozen and they’re banned from reserving rooms for meetings in retaliation for the students fighting against “suppression” of their voice.
San Jose resident and state Assembly candidate Alex Lee is among the roughly 150 people who have signed the petition.
As a former student president at UC Davis, Lee says he recognizes the students’ need for independence.
“I feel a lot for them,” Lee said of the students, whom he said approached him with their concerns. “I understood quite quickly the rationale and their issues.”
Lee noted that too often students can be looked down on because they’re seen as lacking the experience necessary to make wise decisions.
“Remember that you are helping to cultivate the next generation of leaders for the state, for the country,” Lee said during the meeting. “(For) many students here, the testing grounds for their leadership skills are in student government.”
Contact Carina Woudenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @carinaew on Twitter.