Complaints, Concerns Dogged Southwestern College’s Hunt for a New President

Education

Complaints, Concerns Dogged Southwestern College’s Hunt for a New President

Months before the Governing Board announced Mark Sanchez as the new head of Southwestern College in December 2020, students, faculty and staff accused the group of favoring Hispanic candidates over Black applicants. 

The Cesar E. Chavez Student Services Center at Southwestern College / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Incoming Southwestern Community College Superintendent Mark Sanchez stirred up controversy before setting foot on campus.

Months before the Governing Board announced Sanchez as the new head of the South Bay college in December 2020, students, faculty and staff accused the group of favoring Hispanic candidates over Black applicants.

Members of the hiring committee – tasked with helping the Governing Board decide who to hire – accused the Governing Board in emails of rushing the process and shutting them out to the point of not being able to properly vet each candidate.
Black members of the committee also accused then-Governing Board President Nora Vargas, now a county supervisor, of using her influence to boost Sanchez instead of a Black woman who was considered a leading candidate.

Neither Vargas nor Southwestern College denied these accusations when they were made in 2020, emails obtained by Voice of San Diego show. The college and Vargas both declined to discuss concerns about the hiring process.
The hiring committee members’ concerns are particularly noteworthy given Southwestern College’s history of anti-Black racism, as outlined by an external report in 2018 and in a discrimination lawsuit filed last year by current and former Black employees.

‘A Palpable Climate of Anti-Blackness’

Southwestern College began the search to replace outgoing President Kindred Murillo after she announced her retirement in November 2020.

Her tenure was defined in part by the school’s struggles with diversity and inclusion.

A 2018 report written by researchers from the University of Southern California revealed a “palpable climate of anti-Blackness at Southwestern College.” The report described instances of Hispanic custodial staff using the walkie talkies to make monkey noises at their Black coworkers, and administrators relocating a Black employee from the main campus because a White female coworker was afraid of him.

A lawsuit filed in November 2020 by five Black current and former employees in the counseling department alleged years of discrimination, including being passed over for promotions and denied overtime opportunities by mostly Hispanic supervisors.

Southwestern College has denied the allegations in court filings. There is a tentative jury trial date for March 2022.

Murillo was largely seen as a reformer who confronted the college’s anti-Black culture and introduced programs and initiatives to change that culture.

For example, she led an effort to institute implicit bias training for hiring committees, mandated a minimum level of diversity for hiring committee members and standardized the hiring process to reduce subjectivity in screening candidates.

In an outgoing interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Murillo said, “The diversity, equity and inclusion work needs to continue. The college is not where it needs to be at; there’s still a lot of work that needs to happen.”

Concerns Emerged in November

Complaints about the hiring process for the new president began in November, when two staff members reached out to Governing Board members, the emails show.

The first was Matt Millus, an instructional laboratory technician who emailed the Governing Board on Nov. 20, 2020.

Millus wrote Vargas with concerns about the process feeling rushed compared with previous hiring efforts. The college set a two-and-a-half-month timeline. “It feels as if we are trying to wrap this up by Winter Break,” he wrote. He also thought the committee’s input wasn’t being taken seriously: “This process is feeling more like window dressing.”
Specifically, Millus noted that the committee was not allowed to review or even know the identity of the 44 applicants who applied. Instead, the Governing Board selected their top eight candidates without any input from the committee.

During previous hiring efforts, the committee members had been given a chance to review each candidate.

“When we hired Dr. Murillo, the process was much closer to a ‘typical’ selection process, at least by my experience,” Millus wrote.

Millus wrote in an email to the Governing Board that he believed “the Governing Board is squandering its most valuable resource, the students, staff, faculty and community members, by sidelining us. This process should be more transparent and inclusive.”
Records show the racial makeup of the finalists included a much higher percentage of Hispanic candidates than the overall applicant pool.

Of the 44 applicants, 34 percent were White, 27 percent Hispanic and 24 percent Black, 9 percent Asian and the rest did not disclose. After the Governing Board selected the eight finalists, 63 percent were Hispanic, 12 percent were White, 12 percent were Black and 13 percent did not disclose. None of the eight finalists identified as Asian.

Neither Vargas nor Southwestern College directly addressed this specific demographic disparity when asked about it by Voice of San Diego.

Vargas received a second complaint two days later from Andre Harris, who was in the hiring committee and is also a member of the Southwestern Black Alliance, an employee affinity group at the college.

“20 years of working with various Superintendent/Presidents at Southwestern it was a first for me to hear that many would go on record (publicly) and state that our next President should be Hispanic or Latinx,” Harris wrote.

In response to the complaints, Vargas said the hire should not be based on whether a candidate belonged to a specific race.

“We agree that the best person will be the person who can represent every student and employee and that this ability is not limited to any one race or ethnicity,” Vargas wrote.

She also wrote that the Governing Board wanted to have a bigger say in the hire because it is such an important position.

Regarding the choice to prevent the committee from vetting the 44 applicants, Vargas said that decision was made on the advice of a consultant.

“For candidate confidentiality reasons, we cannot share the list of candidates that did not move foreward (sic) to interviews,” she wrote. “This is a confidential executive search process, and candidates moving forward have a right to keep their employment pursuits confidential.”

Tim Nader, another Governing Board member, said he was unaware that the committee was not allowed to  review all 44 applicants.

“It’s news to me that the committee is precluded from vetting candidates,” he wrote in response to Millus’ email.

In a separate email, Vargas acknowledged that the Governing Board unilaterally decided to prioritize its own involvement in the hiring process, records show.

“As a board, we made the decision to prioritize the selection of the next Superintendent/President by the current sitting board,” Vargas wrote. “We felt it was important that the Governing Board play a more active role in this recruitment to ensure the work we have invested in these last few years can continue, specifically our work leading the state in addressing systemic racism and anti-blackness.”

Current Governing Board President Leticia Cazares also acknowledged that the board “modified” the normal hiring process and that “some did not agree to aspects of those changes.”

‘Some Did Not Agree’ With Changes to Hiring Process

In December, Southwestern College announced the Sanchez as the new president and superintendent.

Sanchez attended Southwestern College before transferring to Point Loma Nazarene University in 1993. He has worked more than 20 years in community colleges and was most recently the assistant superintendent for student success and support programs at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

Sanchez declined an interview request with Voice of San Diego but previously told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he’d like to continue Murillo’s work.

“I want to ensure that everyone feels valued,” he told the U-T. “I want to ensure they feel heard, that they feel like they’re contributing to the institution meeting its mission.”

Just one week before announcing Sanchez as the new president, the Governing Board received a second round of complaints from disgruntled committee members. Black members of the hiring committee were particularly upset by the decision to hire Sanchez.

This time, the complaints focused on race and specifically criticized Vargas’ actions that led to Sanchez’s hiring.

Nora Vargas campaigns for county supervisor in November 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On Dec. 7, 2020, Rachal Hamilton, student body vice president and a member of the hiring committee, wrote that the leading candidate was a Black woman who had scored significantly higher than others in a ranking system that Vargas ultimately withheld from the committee and the public.

“Although the number one candidate scored upwards of 70 points (possibly more, I wouldn’t know because President Vargas chose to withhold the final scores from the committee) above the second chosen candidate, there were no discussions held on members’ thoughts on her interview or performance,” she wrote.

When asked about this specific allegation, Vargas did not deny withholding the final scores and did not directly comment on it. Her office issued a statement in which she defended the hiring process and lauded the Governing Board’s inclusion of others.

“At my request, the process also included representation from campus stakeholders and community representatives, furthering our commitment to transparency,” Vargas wrote in a statement to Voice of San Diego.

Hamilton told Voice of San Diego that she has met with Sanchez and believes he is “very kind,” and has won many people over. She said the main issue isn’t with Sanchez personally but rather the process through which he was hired.

“They see that he’s nice and rather than continuing this conversation and fighting I think a lot of people are falling in line,” she said. “Which I’m actually very disappointed to see.”

Ursula Williams, a facilities, leasing and special events coordinator at Southwestern College and another member of the hiring committee, said Sanchez was not a favorite to get the job until Vargas personally lobbied for him.

“We as a committee had discussed during our Monday morning meeting that Mark Sanchez was NOT moving forward,” Williams wrote in a Dec 9, 2020, email to the Governing Board. “It was not until the very end of the meeting when committee members had to leave that Mark Sanchez’s name was added to the list.”

Williams wrote that the committee had essentially written Sanchez off until Vargas threw his name back into contention.

“The Chair of the Committee (which was Vargas) rushed to include Mark Sanchez’s name without an opportunity for the committee to discuss was unfair and felt politically driven,” she wrote. Williams also noted that none of the Black members of the hiring committee thought Sanchez was the best candidate.

“Every Black committee member as well as other committee members opposed Sanchez,” she wrote.

Through Southwestern College, Sanchez declined an interview and did not answer questions about how he plans to address anti-Black racism at the community college.

Vargas is no longer at Southwestern College. She is now a member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, after a successful campaign in which she ran as a progressive who would bring a diverse voice to the historically conservative board.

“As an alumnus of Southwestern College and a former Governing Board trustee for 7 years, I am proud of my legacy of equity, transparency, and accountability at the college,” she wrote in a statement to Voice of San Diego. “Throughout my tenure I was deeply committed to creating systematic change through diversity and inclusion to address the racial climate on campus.”

Cazares, president of the Governing Board, mentioned vague changes from the normal hiring process and acknowledged concerns with those changes in a statement.

“The Governing Board takes the job of hiring the Superintendent/President very seriously,” she wrote. “To that end, the Board’s goal was to balance two critically important interests – having broad and diverse input from our constituency groups as well as ensure the participation of seasoned board members in the selection. To achieve this, the search process of the previous Superintendent/President was modified. The Board acknowledges that some did not agree with aspects of those changes. The Board has heard those concerns and will seriously consider them to inform future search processes.”

Still, Cazares backed the decision and said the entire Board of Trustees “believes the process was fair and effective.”

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