Upon reflection of the past occasionally a remembered comment or incident, insignificant or trivial at the time, may serve to snap an era into focus. Through that remembrance subsequent events take on a different context, a new perspective. It becomes in retrospect a “defining moment.” Such are my reflections of Ocean County College over the past twenty-five years.
On my first official day at OCC, during a break in Convocation activities, a colleague took me on a tour of the campus. In the course of our walk around the college, my colleague commented that “no one gets fired from OCC unless they’ve committed a crime. OCC is family.” Having come from a college with a tenure quota system, this was a comforting thought.
As with most families, there were differences of opinion on how to move forward, on how to best carry out the college mission. At times the tenor of the debate was paternalistic, past President Milton Shaw “knew best;” at other times the discussions turned acrimonious, even personal and hurtful. Yet at their most personal and confrontational, there was always a sense that at the heart of the controversy was a desire to do best for the college, for the students rather than the advancement of a self-serving agenda or achievement of personal glory.
For the most part exchanges between administration and faculty and establishment of college policies were conducted in public during the monthly meetings of the college governance body. The first governance body, the College Assembly, consisted of all administrators and full-time faculty. The College Assembly, which provided for a two-thirds majority override of presidential vetoes, then morphed into the College Forum which did not allow for overriding vetoes, but did include representation from the other college constituencies. Thus during the Shaw years the college “family” managed most of its business in an open public manner.
For me the defining moment of the current era occurred shortly after Jon Larson took office in 2001. The college was contacted by a group of Russian entrepreneurs who wished to partner with the college and maintain a Russian submarine to be based in Seaside as a tourist attraction. A meeting of Larson, some science faculty, and the Russians was held in Larson’s office at which the particulars of the partnership were discussed. Among the details was that the submarine as a tourist attraction would eventually be not only financially self-sustaining but a new revenue source for the college, and it could be used (when not taking tourists down to the bottom of the ocean) to augment OCC’s marine program. All of this for an initial start-up fee of 2 million dollars.
The proposal was absurd on many levels. OCC is a 2-year community college with a marine program consisting of one course offered only in the summer. The waters off the Jersey shore are notoriously muddy with minimal visibility – what would tourists be able to see? Dull, brown fish in brown water?
The fact that this bizarre idea was even entertained to the point of actually convening a meeting to discuss it is revealing as to Larson’s mindset. It indicates an attraction for and interest in pursuing anything entrepreneurial which has characterized many college decisions. It seems that it’s all about the money, not about the students or about education.
Contemplation, albeit briefly, of the idea of a community college owning and operating a submarine for profit illustrates a rather tenuous hold on reality. Unlike the Beatles’ song, at OCC we do not all live in a yellow submarine only the college president does. With no shared governance to speak of, there is no forum for exchange of ideas. Out of touch with reality and the college community and with only the smell of money as a guide, college programs and policies are established with little regard for education, students, or college employees.
So in twenty-five years Ocean County College has descended from democratically conducting business through the College Assembly to autocratic management from a yellow submarine at the bottom of the sea where the sky is blue and sea is green.