Keith Law: Merced College turning a corner

January 17, 2013 

In 2010 I authored an article for the Sun-Star titled "Utopia: Merced College." In it, I declared that our very own Merced College is a utopia. I also pointed out problems that required a shake-up of the college's leadership. As we head into 2013, it is clear that a shake-up has occurred.

I have taught full-time at Merced College for more than 20 years, and in all those years I have not felt a buzz in the air as I currently do that suggests the best years for Merced College are ahead.

The common perception of community colleges is more practical than is suggested by the term utopia. Most people see them as places where students can learn a trade or pick up their first two years of college.

The term "utopia" was invented by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book "Utopia," which described a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has come to signify our dreams of an ideal community that has yet to be realized.

Merced College is, for the most part, provided by the good citizens of California. Each month working Californians have a chunk of change taken from their paychecks to pay for our community colleges. To a lesser degree the system is funded by student tuition and federal dollars.

What we get for this investment is a place in Merced where any citizen can enroll to earn a degree or learn a trade. But more than that, it is possible to learn at Merced College from an expert about everything from how to shoe a horse and grow food to how the universe was formed or how to write a poem.

A resident of Merced can take an ancient Greek philosophy course one day, learn how to run a business the next, and then play water polo or a guitar the next. Many of our doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers got their start at Merced College.

How many places on this planet can boast such a wonderful resource for learning? I can't imagine an institution that does more to serve our community.

As the term utopia implies, Merced College has room for improvement before this great resource is fully realized.

Over the past few years Merced College, and community colleges in general, have generated some bad press. There has been a budgetary crisis due to the recession, and Merced College was placed on warning by our accreditation agency. Community college success rates in terms of retention and transfers are low, and Merced College's rates are low relative to other community colleges.

Over the past few years Merced College witnessed a cut in library hours and the layoffs of part-time faculty and support staff who directly served our most needy students. At the same time, there was an increase in administrative hiring and massive budget surpluses at the end of each year.

Though all of the bad news referenced above is true, there is a clear sense that we have turned a corner. Californians approved Proposition 30 in the November election, and though this will not solve all of our budget woes it did reaffirm taxpayers' commitment to public education.

Further, the current leadership of Merced College seems more capable of working together, and with other constituent groups, to ensure that we regain full accreditation.

Merced College is one of the most amazing institutions in the world. I know instructors, staff members and administrators in every area on campus who work extra hard to provide the best possible education for our students.

Though there is room for improvement, it is clear now that we are improving and that our best years are ahead.

Keith Law is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Merced College and president of the Merced College Faculty Association.

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