Peralta Community College District's Only Student-Run Publication
Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

    Instructor seeks shelter from heat and bureaucracy

    Caballero-Christian and students find refuge in Tower bldg. faculty lounge

    Laney College Professor Alicia Caballero-Christenson’s Women of Color class marches slowly across a quickly darkening campus. It’s nearly dusk at the end of a long and sweltering Wednesday, and the heat has gotten to her students. They’re sweating, and angry, and confused. 
    The three dozen students — primarily women of color — are seeking refuge from the 98-degree heat of their Eagle Village portable, chased away by the administrative passivity resulting in an insufferable learning environment amid last week’s oppressive heat wave. 
    They are not alone: students and professors all across campus are sweating bullets at these temperatures. Maybe the Laney College administration — an administration that has put professors and students alike in hot classrooms or locked outside them, in a boiling heat — should be sweating bullets, too.
    Now resettled in the sixth floor faculty lounge, Caballero-Christenson’s Women of Color class finally begins, with a nerve-unwinding icebreaker. “I just want everyone to go around and tell us your name and how you’re feeling,” the shaken but undeterred professor says. She goes first — and she is by no means in good spirits.
    The students aren’t either. The vast majority express annoyance, disappointment, and defeat — although a highly resilient few keep the mood a little lighter.
    Their shared emotional rollercoaster was only the climax of weeks of frustration. At the root of September 9’s incident is the yet unsettled problem of classroom access. Professors across departments come to campus unsure of where they’ll be teaching, whether their classroom will be the right size, or even if they’ll have the keys to their classroom. 
    To get those keys, professors submit official requests to the Business Office, which is in charge of doling them out. But when they don’t receive them in a timely fashion, their only recourse is to check in — and keep checking in — with the Business Office staff. They can only really shake their heads yes or no, or else check with the district — which can also only do the same. Professors can also voice their concerns to administrators like Dean Phoumy Sayavong — though his primary response to the problem is also to check in with the Business Office.
    In other words, nobody seems to know exactly how to speed the process along, or even how to avoid it altogether in the future.
    Dean Sayavong says the issue of missing keys has been brought up among administrators and that concerns have been raised on their side, but he’s short on specifics — both on the action being taken and the details of the problem itself. “The line of communication requires multiple stops, from our end,” Sayavong says. But, according to him, his main concern is making sure requests get filled.
    TeacherIt’s only Business Office Supervisor Chungwai Chum who’s able to shine light on the astounding truth: there’s only one district staff member assigned to cut keys for all four of the Peralta Colleges. 
    “And he works the swing shift,” she says, explaining why it’s so difficult for her office to get in touch with him.
    Chum’s office, then, is the awkward middleman stuck between incensed teachers and an understaffed district. “Our office is more of a facilitator,” she says. “We cannot control the district.”
    Yet it’s categorically wrong for the district to push its professors — and their students in turn — to the brink, instead of dutifully supporting them on their professional and educational journeys. 
    One of the most arduous of these journeys began a few weeks ago, when Caballero-Christenson was assigned to a medium-sized classroom for her Women of Color class, but then saw enrollment explode during the first week of school. To accommodate the larger class, she was reassigned to the more spacious Eagle Village portable — but never received its key. On the day of the incident, she’d had to spend a full hour searching for someone who could give her and her class passage inside, and then for someone who could help her get the classroom’s multimedia devices set up. 
    But when her class walked in to discover that the unused room was unhealthily hot — unsuitable for any class, let alone her class’s three-hour block — Caballero-Christenson could only stand to work on the malfunctioning tech for a few minutes before deciding to lead an exodus to the slightly cooler faculty lounge. 
    “When we don’t have our processes in place, it directly impacts students and their ability to learn,” Caballero-Christenson says. “If we are serving students and students are our clients, we should prioritize having high-quality service. And yet the way the system works, students get the shortest end of the stick.” 
    The longer the issue goes unresolved, the more infuriating the problem becomes. A week after the incident, Caballero-Christenson received a new classroom key from the Business Office — and it didn’t work. 
    But the problem’s felt most palpably by new staff additions to the Laney community, whose first impressions of the college are likely less than ideal. “Many of them still don’t have keys to their classroom,” Caballero-Christenson says, “which is absolutely unacceptable.” 
    Professor Felipe Wilson is one of these 18 new faculty hires — and no, he doesn’t have keys, either.
    “Recently, I did get an office key, but I didn’t have that for a long time,” Wilson says. “But that’s not even as important as getting into the classrooms. That’s been very difficult.” 
    Each time Wilson faces with a locked door, increasingly larger chunks of class time go up in smoke. And when he finally does get in, there’s always another set of burning questions: Will the technology he needs be there? Will it even work?
    Wilson’s been forced to draw up contingency plans for each class. “There’s been lesson plan A and lesson plan B. Lesson plan A is if I actually have the technology and have full access to the classroom,” he says. Wilson, a political science professor, uses Powerpoints to connect with visual learners, and relies on video clips to connect students to the political world around them. But without a full class period or a working projector, some classes miss valuable information. 
    “It’s really hurting the students and I think that’s what’s most important,” Wilson says. “I think they might be getting shortchanged a little bit.”
    Professor Inger Stark is more vocal about the issue. Stark has been at Laney College since 2004, and after 11 years on both sides of the desk — having been an administrator, a vice president, a dean, and a professor — even she’s in shock.
    “I’ve never seen it this bad,” she says. “It’s particularly egregious this semester, particular in light of the fact that we knew we were getting a fair amount of new faculty. Even a modest amount of planning ahead should have prevented the problem.”
    Dean Sayavong is apologetic on this note. “Hopefully, from this experience, when we have an influx of new hires, we should be prepared at all levels,” he says. He notes that the hiring process itself took top priority this year, with other considerations — like classroom keys — being labeled as minor issues. Next year, however, he says, “keys should be made just as important.”
    But promises like these don’t take much to make aloud, and translating those promises into tangible action seems to be where the fiery ire of professors and students alike is heading. In the final third of her September 19 class, Caballero-Christenson urges her Women of Color class to write letters to the chancellor of the Peralta Colleges, Dr. Jowel C. Laguerre. One student declares that she’s just recently learned that Laguerre pulls in an annual salary of over $300,000. 
    The volume in the classroom immediately triples amid shouts of protest; however realistic a proposal, the overwhelming consensus is that some of that money be used instead to make sure these incidents don’t happen again.
    Wilson, however, takes a slightly different tack.
    “I certainly don’t say anything in class to draw attention to it; I don’t think they know that the game plan was anything different from what they saw,” he says. “What they should see is that I’m always prepared, so I don’t want to get them too involved with the inner workings or the politics of the school.”
    Stark agrees with Wilson: it’s a professor’s duty to put their best face forward. But Stark teaches sociology and — like her Social Sciences comrade Caballero-Christenson — sees the value of student activism, wherever opportunities for engagement arise.
    “It seems to me the wisest course of action would be for the ASLC [Associated Students of Laney College] to be involved. In an ideal world, the ALSC would almost have some sort of standing concern or item of issue that said, are the facilities meeting our needs as students?” she says. 
    “Societies, communities, governments only work when people get involved. I just wish that students didn’t really have to fret or worry much about the facilities.”
    Wilson also concedes that, should the problem continue, the heat might just go to his head. He says, somewhat jokingly, that he’s begun to consider learning how to pick locks. 
    “But I could definitely see it going the way of getting the students involved, just as an extra point of leverage,” he adds. “I think maybe those that are in position to equip us with keys, maybe they tune out the faculty after a while, and so I think students can certainly bring a fresh voice, and then maybe they would be motivated more to actually fulfill what they’re supposed to be doing.”
    In the Business Office, Chum is the most reticent about action like this. She declines to comment on whether or not a coalition of faculty and staff pushing the district to do better — say, by hiring more key-cutters — might solve the problem. Chum says she seeks instead “to find ways we can function better in-house, to focus on here.”
    But why does this problem arise here at Laney College in the first place? Chum explains that the particularly long delays this semester are due in part to the opening of Merritt College’s brand new Science and Allied Health Center, a $42.7 million facility for which no professors had keys.
    One must ask how the district decides which campus will suffer the inconveniences of having only one district staff member cut keys for four rapidly expanding schools.
    Worse, Laney College’s location — in the urban heart of bustling Oakland — should be an advantage for young scholars looking to connect with the larger community. Instead, it serves as justification for keeping classrooms across campus sealed up tight, keeping potential burglars — and burdened professors — locked out. 
    “I think the protocol or policies about leaving classrooms closed or open — we’ve got safety issues, issues around burglaries and thefts, so there are probably some of those concerns [informing those policies],” Dean Sayavong says. 
    Yet he’s much more optimistic than anyone else in his personal assessment of the situation: “I think — or at least the Business Office has done — a good job. Custodial staff, other staff are available, there are other administrators with keys, there are faculty with keys, so they’re able to open doors for each other, whether it’s the offices in the Tower or the classrooms. So we’ve gotten by pretty well, despite the delay.”
    But the phrase “gotten by” is telling — it strikes at the heart of the matter. How do students come to see themselves when the school they attend can’t get it together? 
    Stark observes: “If the students just seem to be tolerating it, then that’s the story for the college and the administration: we’re getting by, and therefore things are sufficient.” She adds, “I think it all creates sort of a perception that somehow the college doesn’t take the students seriously. [Students might think,] ‘Well, I don’t really know all the logistics of this or the backstory; I just know that the expectation doesn’t seem to be there from the college for me to show up on time and the school as a whole is ready to launch that class.’” 
    Stark then quotes Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” It’s an urgent reminder of the reality of dealing with institutions like Laney College. “When the students, and the faculty, and the staff together voice concerns,” she says, “things really change, and things change pretty quickly.” 
    After all, why should students who are paying to be at Laney College suffer the injustices of classes not starting on time, or of technical difficulties that derail lesson plans, or of excessive and unhealthy heat and exhaustion?
    And yet who but the Laney College community — working together as a united front — has the strength to demand better?

    About the Contributor
    In the fall of 2019, The Laney Tower rebranded as The Citizen and launched a new website. These stories were ported over from the old Laney Tower website, but byline metadata was lost in the port. However, many of these stories credit the authors in the text of the story. Some articles may also suffer from formatting issues. Future archival efforts may fix these issues.  
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