Saddleback President Stern holds guided pathways town hall for Saddleback employees 

Saddleback President Stern (right) talks to NCII President Rob Johnstone (left) about guided pathways. Saddleback College CTVR | courtesy

Saddleback College President Elliot Stern hosted Robert Johnstone, an education researcher who is the president and founder of the National Center for Inquiry & Improvement, Wednesday, Nov. 30. He spoke to Saddleback employees about the continued implementation of guided pathways at the school. More than 100 people attended the town hall meeting.

The meeting featured a conversation between Stern and Johnstone followed by a question and answer portion with Saddleback personnel who have worked to implement guided pathways so far. Participants had the opportunity to submit questions for the panel to be vetted and presented by Stern, although there were no live comments during the event. 

The guided pathways model restructures classes into five different schools for health and wellness, business and industry, STEM, humanities and social science and art, music and design. These schools are meant to give students a sense of belonging and organize them into more manageable groups, according to Stern. 

“It puts them in nice chunks of about 3 to 5 thousand students, where we can aim support at them within the smaller more accessible structure, as opposed to the university structure that we currently have with about 23 thousand students,” Stern said. 

Johnstone, who is working to help community colleges statewide implement guided pathways, claims that the model is designed to help marginalized students. The current higher education system was designed to benefit the ruling elite and their offspring, without much regard to everyone else, he said. 

“The evidence tells us that our system is failing a number of our students,” said Johnstone. “Not because there’s bad people. Not because we’re not trying. Our intentions are noble. But we are rolling forward the same system of higher education that has been in place for centuries.” 

A goal of guided pathways is to improve the student experience by addressing the current failures in the higher education system, according to Johnstone. Proponents of guided pathways like Johnstone believe it can increase successful outcomes for the larger student body. 

Johnstone explained the pitfalls of the current “cafeteria model” of higher education structuring. It focuses on serving the top students who will most likely succeed no matter what is thrown at them and dealing with the bottom students who will most likely not succeed even when given the resources, he said. 

However, the cafeteria model leaves out the majority of students who are in the middle, who really need the support in order to succeed, Johnstone said. Guided pathways is supposed to help those middle students by providing more tailored support and connecting students with similar interests. 

After an hour with Johnstone, Stern invited four “internal experts” to join the panel. The panel consisted of Kris Leppien-Christensen, a former co-chair of guided pathways and a psychology instructor, Jonathan Luque, a co-chair of guided pathways and the department co-chair of mathematics, Penny Skaff, a co-chair of guided pathways and dean of counseling and Rita Soultanian, a former co-chair of guided pathways and director of the Career Resource Center. 

Stern spent the rest of the town hall asking the panel questions he vetted from the submissions. 

Previous town hall and board of trustees meetings featured voices of opposition from faculty who were unhappy with the guided pathways restructuring, such as at the Oct. 27 South Orange County Community College District board of trustees meeting. Three saddleback faculty members expressed concern over reorganization during public comments at the meeting. 

Pete Murray, a full time humanities and philosophy faculty member at Saddleback College, expressed concern about  the lack of communication from administration to faculty, as of late October. While acknowledging the potential for success with reorganization, he criticized how it was being implemented. 

“Communication about the reorg from our administration has been unclear,” Murray said. “It’s been filled with shifting justifications and sometimes straight-forward contradictions.”

He cited a contraction as being found on the topic of cost. This came after Stern told him in an email that the organization was not about the cost, although in later meetings, Saddleback Vice President Tram Vo-Kumamoto announced that the liberal arts division would be dissolved due to the inability to pay for support staff for six schools, Murray said. 

After Murray, Saddleback mathematics faculty member Kia Shafe addressed the board with similar concerns. He acknowledged the possible benefits of reorganization, but claimed the timing and communication was a major concern of his. 

 “The fundamental principle of reorg is implementation,” Shafe said. “Another fundamental principle is faculty, staff, admins working together. I just heard about [it] this past Friday,” he said in October. 

Saddleback professor Carmenmara Hernandez Bravo, co-chair of international languages and co-chair of equity and diversity, spoke to the board of trustees about the possibility that the reorganization will fail to serve the Latinx community. The school has made a promise to serve the Latinx community and getting rid of the liberal arts division may impact that, she said. 

The Latinx population, “especially first generation, need the liberal arts division to support them with reading, ESL, English writing lab, etcetera,” Hernandez Bravo said. 

President Stern suggested that these were only a couple faculty who do not represent the consensus. 

“You might be getting some information from a couple faculty, and I literally mean a couple, who may not be giving you all the information,” Stern said. “Remember our faculty have elected representatives who represent the consensus view.” 

Saddleback will continue to implement the guided pathways model by continuing restructuring into a five school system.