By Erik Galicia
The recent firing of Norco College President Bryan Reece has warranted opposing responses from students and faculty around the Riverside Community College District.
The district chose Monica Green, vice president of planning and development at Riverside City College, as interim president of Norco College, effective July 1. Reece was not available to comment.
But many at Norco College are still confused as to how and why the Board of Trustees came to their decision to terminate Reece.
“In this kind of situation, an agreement is signed by the district and by the employee being released,” said Wolde-Ab Isaac, chancellor of the district. “That agreement clearly states that the issue cannot be disclosed. This is done to protect the person being fired and to protect the institution. This is the way it is at every university and college.”
Norco College students and faculty first protested at the board meeting May 21 after finding out the district decided not to apply for $24 million in state funding for on-campus housing for homeless veterans and foster youth at Norco College. The opportunity for that funding was offered by Rep. Sabrina Cervantes, a state assembly member representing Norco.
Cervantes has not made herself available to comment after multiple requests.
Students, faculty and community members then flooded the board meeting on June 11 to protest the district’s decision to place Reece on administrative leave and urge the board to reinstate him.
The board voted to terminate Reece on June 12 even though board member Bill Hedrick was not present. This decision drew criticism since protesters requested that the board postpone its vote until a day when the entire board would be present.
“The board’s guidelines are clear,” Isaac said. “A majority of votes is necessary for all decisions. But we can’t always wait for everyone to be there for every decision. The vote was 4-0. So whether or not Hedrick was there, the motion would have still passed.”
Norco College student Thalia Moore-Shearer started an online petition in support of Reece that reached 721 signatures in a matter of a few days. But that petition has since closed.
There is another online petition that remains open and demands “the reinstatement of Dr. Reece or the resignation of Chancellor Issac.” That petition has no signatures to date and does not identify the person who started it.
Norco College students have started the No Saddles Committee in hopes of creating a resistance to the board’s decision to fire Reece. The committee has pages on Instagram and Facebook which aim to “ensure that the termination of Dr. Reece does not go unnoticed” and to “continue his legacy on behalf of Norco College.”
Jose Marquez, a Norco College student who has been active in advocating for Reece, expressed the reaction of his peers to the whole situation.
“I can say not only myself, but a lot of students are disappointed,” Marquez said. “We were shocked that it was a unanimous vote but we will try to get together and organize something.”
Although Isaac and the district have been adamant that they will not release information regarding Reece’s firing, Marquez feels “there’s still a way to get an answer.”
“It’s very suspicious to me that Hedrick wasn’t there for the decision,” Marquez said.
Marquez added that Hedrick had not been present for past decisions regarding the budget.
“Because he is the representative for the Norco area, we wanted to know Hedrick’s view,” Marquez said. “It feels like it was planned out to target Norco specifically.”
Marquez went on to say that he feels “Isaac is very RCC oriented” and that he is skeptical of interim President Green.
The debate over equity in the district has been brought to the forefront in recent weeks as Norco College students and faculty have argued that the denial of their projects is a trend.
“I don’t believe anything shows the district treats one college differently from the rest,” Isaac said. “If students at Norco feel that way, we had no intention of doing that.”
Isaac claims that the district-wide success rate of students has “tripled in the last five years.” He went on to say that his administration is doing enough now to fix the inequities of past administrations, but that results do not become apparent overnight.
In the midst of the issues between Norco College and the district, there have been questions about the RCCD Faculty Association’s involvement in the situation.
Dariush Haghighat, Riverside vice president of the Faculty Association, claims the group was “wrongly accused” by its colleagues at Norco of siding against Reece.
“The faculty association has not taken any side,” Haghighat said. “The faculty association has remained steadfast for the integrity of the process. When push comes to shove and there is disciplinary action, there is a legally defined process for that. We don’t under any circumstances support any violation of the process.”
Haghighat said that those who are demanding the district reveal the reason for Reece’s dismissal do not have an understanding of confidential personnel matters.
“These are highly regulated processes governed by very strict labor laws,” Haghighat said. “The people requesting this are not taking into consideration that the information may come back to harm Reece.”
Reece admitted to applying for positions at other colleges shortly before his termination.
“My plan A is to stay at Norco for a very long time,” Reece wrote in an email to Norco College faculty June 8. “But with a family who still depends on my income, I need a plan B in place. I am not trying to leave NC, but I need to be realistic about the possibility that I may be forced to exit and I need a plan in place if this happens.”
Rhonda Taube, president of the RCCD Faculty Association, explained that Reece is the only one who can release information regarding his release and the district could be sued if it discloses any information.
“If Reece chooses to contest his termination and take legal action, then that information can be made public,” Taube said.
Taube went on to explain the faculty association’s involvement in finding the facts surrounding the missed opportunity for the $24 million. She claims the association was invited to get involved by Reece and Norco College.
Haghighat supports these claims.
“We were asked by our colleagues to find the facts about the $24 million and find out what went wrong,” Haghighat said. “The responses we got from the chancellor were different than what we got from Reece. Because of the discrepancies, we had to take the investigation further.”
Haghighat claims the investigation was taken to the board and that the board gave information “in line with the chancellor.” He said the board then “needed to further investigate the issues” and “promised” to provide a report once all the facts were found.
“That same night, everyone was shocked by a sudden report from Peggy Campo and Dr. Reece,” Haghighat said, referring to the board meeting on May 21. “It was shocking because in the middle of the fact-finding, the faculty association was accused of leaving unanswered questions.”
Campo, the District Academic Senate president, has expressed that she meant to voice her concerns and not to attack Isaac.
Haghighat expressed that he sympathizes with the sentiments of Norco College students and faculty. He disagrees with the “emotional tactics,” not the emotions.
“I applaud our Norco colleagues for coming to board meetings and exercising their democratic rights,” Haghighat said. “Our alliance is not to individuals. It is to the students and colleges. We cannot and must not violate the processes for Dr. Reece, for Dr. Isaac, for any individual.”
Haghighat also expressed his support for the chancellor and his belief that Isaac is committed to equity for all three colleges in the district. He admits that there has been a history of inequity in the district, but to say that there is no equity in the present is “utter nonsense.”
He urges people to demand that the process become more equitable instead of working against the upcoming bond measure if Reece is not reinstated.
At the board meeting June 11, Corona City Council member Yolanda Carrillo warned the board that the decision to fire Reece would cause trouble when it came to the bond measure.
Carrillo’s argument is that if people in the region are let down, they will not be willing to vote for increased taxes in order to fund initiatives at the colleges.
“The area we live in is a big voting block,” Carrillo said. “We’ve been through lost opportunities in the past three years. We are not going to forget about this. The area will not be happy when it comes time to vote.”
Carrillo, who is involved in Reece’s presidential advisory board, said Norco College had been moving in a forward direction in the last three years but that the district’s funding mechanism is still not equal.
“We are now at a standstill,” Carrillo said. “The presidential advisory board will continue to meet and plan what our next move is.”
Norco College student Kathy Vaiasuso expressed her fear of what the decision to terminate Reece could do moving forward.
“They went after Reece, who was a voice for students,” Vaiasuso said. “He told staff and students about the $24 million and one week later he was terminated. What’s to stop the chancellor from stopping students from speaking out?”
Norco College student Alan Ruelas expressed the feeling that Norco College will be “just another regular school” without Reece.
“The district should be more realistically connected to students,” Ruelas said.
Contrary to the beliefs of some of his critics, Isaac claims that the $24 million were not a sure thing. He maintains that the opportunity was only for an application for the funding.
Isaac was unable to guarantee anything or give a time estimate for when he believes on-campus housing for homeless veterans and foster youth will be a reality in this district. Yet, he has gone on the record saying he was told by Cervantes that she applies for that funding every year and that the district will be working with the representative going forward.