Fonte's Inferno

ACC's New Pres Faces the Hot Issues in East Austin



New ACC president Richard Fonte

With his nervous laugh, pronounced tic, and wonky demeanor, Dr. Richard Fonte seems badly cast in his new role as the savior of the perennially mixed-up Austin Community College. But if the post of ACC president is above all a sales job, he has the rap down pat.

"One of the challenges for us out there is that ACC is something of a secret," Fonte says as he gestures toward the view from his fifth-floor office at the college's Highland Mall headquarters. "And that's particularly true in the workforce arena -- we very much need to improve our marketing and our promotions.... The person on the street doesn't know how much money they could make in the semiconductor industry with two years of education from ACC. We need to reach out to the community and encourage it to get the education it needs."

This neatly sums up what -- in the minds of Fonte's bosses on the ACC Board of Trustees, and among the community powers who've been alternately leaning on the college and slapping it upside the head -- should be the institution's main priority as it lumbers into the new millennium. From here on out, expect job training to be Job One at ACC. Of course, no one will come out and say, quite so bluntly, that ACC should be investing its meager resources and fluctuating energies in vocational education -- "workforce development" in the jargon du jour -- instead of in the other tasks that make up any community college's multifaceted mission.

Trustees, faculty members, and opinion leaders in the community, as well as Fonte, hasten to assure us that ACC will continue in the roles to which we've become accustomed. The college will still offer academic courses and programs for students planning to transfer to four-year schools, or for students already enrolled at UT and elsewhere, who can't get or pass their core courses at their own schools. (Currently, over 5,000 of ACC's 27,000 students are co-enrolled at UT-Austin alone.) It will still offer adult basic education and remedial programs for the un- and under-schooled. And it will still offer continuing ed and "lifelong learning" for the shrinking pool of citizens for whom education is its own reward.

However, ACC is limited by law to a tax rate of 5cents per $100 in property valuation, which it very nearly assesses now, and Fonte's first task as leader, upon taking the job in February, was to make up a budget shortfall of between one and three million dollars. Students at the college have already seen the summer course schedule decimated, with hundreds of sections being dropped even as registration was about to begin. This makes it highly suspect that the college will be able to greatly expand its workforce-development programs without eliminating other programs. But despite the current level of funding, a great expansion is exactly what those currently calling the shots at ACC are looking for.

Why expand at all? Because, of course, city boosters in Austin have made a lot of promises as they've midwifed the Boom and ReBoom, and now they are hard-pressed to deliver. The high-tech titans who've relocated here at great expense were promised a skilled, educated industrial workforce that simply doesn't exist, and the citizens whose taxes are subsidizing these moves were promised a rising tide of meaningful jobs that has so far failed to lift most boats. There is a very real and serious gap between the needs of the wafer-fabrication plants now ensconced in Montopolis and the job skills of the people who live there, and ACC is now being pressured to fill that gap.

Meanwhile, ACC is also being pushed to ensure the employability of citizens destined to be thrown off public assistance by welfare reform, of students emerging from the K-12 system without any real job skills, and of folks living in communities from Luling to Fredericksburg, all of which lie within ACC's state-mandated service area even though the school collects no taxes from them. To do all this and still maintain credibility as both an institution of higher learning and a genuine product of community values, as opposed to a tax-supported and glamorized trade school kowtowing to the business elite, would be a tall order for any ACC leader, requiring deep reserves of grace and sensitivity. And judging from his brief but tumultuous tenure so far, Fonte may not have all these traits in ample supply.


Misplaced Priorities

Admittedly, ACC has always been able to generate plenty of tumult without Fonte's assistance, dating all the way back to its charter in 1972 as a project of the Austin Independent School District. "From the beginning, ACC has taken turns that have kept it from doing what it should," says Gus Garcia, who served on the initial ACC board as a member of the AISD board. "There've been too many times when the board and the president seemed more intent on building an empire than on meeting the needs of the community."

Since going independent under the leadership of three presidents in just over a decade -- first Dan Angel, then Bill Segura, and now Fonte -- the ACC empire has grown to comprise six campuses, ill-distributed geographically and of ill-defined autonomy, with dozens of programs and thousands of course offerings, each with its own vocal constituency within the community. Its faculty is made up of an unstable mix of full-time and part-time instructors, compensated at dramatically different rates and -- in the view of faculty members of both stripes -- pitted against each other by administrators and the board.

It's the ACC Board of Trustees itself that usually gets tagged with responsibility for the school's problems, since in recent years that elected body has been notorious for micromanaging institutional affairs and waging petty grievances and vendettas. (Generally singled out among the current board members and most often branded as meddlers and micro-managers are Allan Kaplan and Hunter Ellinger. But in fairness, this might be inevitable, since both of their significant others are full-time ACC employees.) By the end of Segura's brief tenure, the school had been put on probation by accreditation authorities, an embarrassment largely blamed on the trustees, at whose meetings mass displays of protest by aggrieved staff, students, and citizens, had become fairly regular occurrences.

Into this mess has walked Fonte, newly arrived in Austin from Chicago. Unlike Segura, who made his reputation as a higher-ed glamour boy running an innovative community college in (where else) Oregon, and who left ACC to helm the world's largest two-year college district in Los Angeles, Fonte's resumé doesn't much illuminate how he might be well-suited to his current gig with its current requirements. He's spent most of his career as a consultant and professional expert, most recently on workforce-development matters in Illinois' governor's office.

However, this focus on workforce issues seems fairly new for Fonte, since his own resumé makes no allusion to success with job-training programs at either of his two previous tenures as a college administrator. Instead, he appears to have been mostly concerned with PR. As president of South Suburban College near Chicago -- an institution less than half the size of ACC, with a notably more homogenous and middle-class population to serve -- his official biography on the ACC website touts his success at "marketing and image-enhancement efforts" and at forming partnerships (for what purpose, it doesn't say) with local business leaders.

Fonte believes that this experience makes him sensitive to, and qualified to deal with, what he sees as ACC's most immediate problem -- a lack of adequate communication with the business interests who are, in his eyes, the ultimate customers for ACC's workforce services. "I felt that the way we were organized, and how we had worked before, created difficulty in responding to the business community," he says, "especially in creating an awareness of how our programs served and could serve their needs. Based on what's already happened, it's clear that something was wrong with the system, and I think I

know how to fix what's wrong."

Now, lord knows ACC could use better PR, but one hopes that by hiring Fonte the board is not indicating its intent to talk about new missions and services rather than actually providing them. In any case, Fonte did a good job of convincing the board that he knew what needed to be done to get everyone off the ACC board's back. "ACC has a larger mission now, and we have to make workforce development a top priority," says ACC board member Lillian Davis. "And we need to establish better communication between the college and industry. One of the reasons we hired Fonte is that's the model he comes from, where his background is strongest. Other candidates talk about it, but he seems to have actually done it."


The ACC Shuffle

What Fonte has done so far is frantically and dramatically reorganize ACC, creating a complicated system of teams and task forces and coordinators and "process owners" to implement his "one college, many sites" philosophy -- that is, to eliminate the autonomy formerly enjoyed by individual campuses and departments. This is intended to solve the college's problems with accreditation by ensuring that faculty have more direct connection to the administration; it'll be interesting to see if it actually works. Given that eight ACC faculty and staff members contacted by this reporter expressed fear for their jobs if they spoke on the record, it's clear Fonte has quite the hurdle to overcome, if indeed he has not made faculty morale worse.

"The frustration that I hear from faculty leaders at ACC is that this is yet another reorganization," says Charles Burnside of the Texas Community College Teachers Association (TCCTA). "With each new administration there's been at least one, sometimes several, and it's difficult for faculty to have a sense of security and continuity, and to understand what the philosophy of the school actually is, during changes that seem to be made for the sake of change."

While, for the most part, this reorganization has resulted in fewer layers of bureaucracy -- or, in the view of some faculty members, a shifting of workload to them without adequate compensation -- the situation is different with workforce development, where there will be several new executive positions specifically created to cut deals with industry representatives, whose prior complaints about ACC disorganization and unresponsiveness to their needs have been taken deeply to heart by Fonte and the board. "I obviously need only remind everyone that the local business community expects and demands that they deal with one college, not five colleges based on separate campuses," Fonte writes in his May memo detailing the latest reorganization. "The college's struggles to respond successfully to the business community under our past structure have actually caused us embarrassment."

As one might expect, between an organization with morale problems and a president who cares a great deal about image, information about the various reorganizations has been tightly controlled, and as a result "the rumors have been running rampant throughout the institution," says Jane Latham, coordinator of ACC's Office Systems Technology (OST) program. "We're kept in the dark about what's going to happen -- everything is basically subject to change without notice."


East Austin Offerings

Tied up with the ACC reorganization is the planning for the school's new Central East Austin campus, to be located on Webberville Road behind the old Anderson High School, around the corner from the Booker T. Washington projects. Ever since ACC closed its Ridgeview campus at Anderson, years ago when that old school building -- the former black high school in a segregated AISD -- was declared unsafe, community leaders have been pushing for a new ACC facility in the 78702 ZIP code, and were dissatisfied by the half-measure of the Eastridge campus, out on US 183 by Tracor.

Given the de-emphasis on unique campus-based programs, it would seem that a separate Eastside campus -- less than two miles from either of ACC's two largest existing campuses, Riverside and Rio Grande -- would be neither needed nor wanted by an institution that can ill afford the extra bricks and mortar, but it's clearly too late to stop now. "I think a lot of the faculty thinks having a new campus is purely a political decision," says Cary Sowell, librarian at the Northridge campus and president of the ACC Faculty Senate. "Each new campus means new infrastructure -- instead of hiring more faculty or putting more materials in the library, we need to hire more campus management and duplicate materials we already have. There's no objection -- in fact, a lot of support -- for an East Austin site per se, but there's concern about the size of the pie and how often it gets split up."

Clearly, the ACC pie is not so large as to support a wealth of new offerings at the Central East Austin site, and that creates a quandary, since even though Fonte wants ACC to be only one college, each campus will, out of financial necessity, house unique programs. Deciding which programs will be unique to East Austin, as one can imagine, is a highly politically charged problem. Programs the community wants -- like semiconductor manufacturing or health services -- are too expensive to move. Programs that are definitely moving to East Austin, like criminal justice, hospitality, and child development, seem targeted to the unschooled, unskilled, and poor, although staff and administrators are adamant that the new site, in Lillian Davis' words, "won't just be a slew of certificate programs. We've added higher-level courses to the programming because community leaders didn't just want there to be entry-level jobs."

It's unclear whether, or how, the workforce programs at East Austin will solve Austin's share of the upcoming welfare-to-work debacle. The college is ill-equipped, we are told, to teach the life skills needed by those leaving public assistance, and the need to focus on the quick-and-dirty high-turnover job training demanded by political reality will inevitably detract from current instructional and community goals and missions.

For example, today's ACC Child Development Department is the most rigorous and accomplished child-care training program in Austin; its lab school has a waiting list several years long, and child care providers throughout the city use ACC services and look to the department for leadership and advocacy. (The Connections Resource Center, which was developed and is managed by ACC staff, grew out of the wish list of Mayor Todd's citywide child-care task force, and ACC oversees accreditation of child care programs throughout Austin.) While none of this is inherently jeopardized simply by a move to East Austin -- indeed, the department has sought to establish a presence in East Austin for some time -- there's little doubt that if Fonte, who made the decision to move the Child Development Department, sees the program as nothing but a quick and easy way to provide low-level job training, he will have hell to pay. It will no doubt be tempting for Fonte to go after the grant funding that such job training programs attract, but the fear is that by providing the child-care options demanded by the community for an East Austin site, he may gut its community services or lower its academic standards in his haste to move the program to the Eastside.

"If I were Dr. Fonte, I'd have asked the Child Development Department what they wanted and needed, instead of telling them to do what he wants and needs," says one ACC insider familiar with the behind-the-scenes decision-making process, which has left more than a few feathers ruffled. "The board and Dr. Fonte are more concerned with keeping the promises they made in East Austin than with maintaining the quality of the programs ACC already offers."

At the same time, program organizers who won't be able to establish a presence at the East Austin campus are disappointed. "I don't mean this in a critical way, but I think I'd like to see our certificate program -- some good, fast training -- offered at East Austin," says OST's Latham. "We have new one-semester programs that are intense, but when you're done, you're marketable, and that serves a real need everywhere, not just on the Eastside. Ultimately, I would like to see them duplicated throughout the city." (In order to accommodate the child development program, OST was dropped from the initial list of programs to be relocated.)

Fonte implicitly concedes that ACC's commitments to East Austin are, if not a direct threat to both good and not-so-good segments of the ACC status quo, at least a more immediate concern. "The college is making a commitment of more than $13 million to East Austin," he says. "That's a significant statement from the board -- that we know people in that community aren't exactly job-ready and that we take our responsibility there seriously. The board feels that the college has always been viewed in East Austin as a fine transfer institution, but that we needed to make workforce issues more visible. Now our challenge is to make the connection between East Austin's needs and our programs as easy as possible."


Integration, Not Competition

ACC trustee Sharon Knotts-Green -- the only board member who actually deals with workforce training and development for a living, at Motorola -- sees a positive side to the philosophical and practical challenges of the new site, which is ultimately a microcosm of the entire job-training question. "I see it as being the epitome of how we can be flexible to meet a variety of community needs," she says. "I know this is where we have great employment needs, and I think we'd be making a grave mistake if we weren't sensitive to the immediate employment needs of the community.

"On the other side of the house," she continues, "there may need to be changing community perceptions, and we may help the community work toward longer-term goals. As we bring people into the setting of the college, they can see the possibilities of higher education, and then they can take the next step. I'd like to see parents, who come in for necessary workforce training, be able to prepare their children to have their sights set higher. I may be optimistic, but definitely hopeful, that the college can help shape the dreams and aspirations of the community."

This sort of integration -- as opposed to competition -- between the parts of ACC's mission, and between the parts of the institution, and between the institution and the community it serves, has to be more than just a nice ideal. If it doesn't happen, ACC will end up like Capital Metro, reviled to the point of endangerment by the citizens even as the problems it was created to solve threaten to destroy the city. Fonte does a fairly good job of talking in big-picture terms, but the solutions to ACC's specific problems seem destined to fail unless, as UT's Don Phelps puts it, Fonte "provides the leadership and incentive for people to do it his way. If he does, then it doesn't really matter how the campus is organized or who reports to what -- it's whether the institution buys in."

So far, it hasn't seemed to, though Fonte's tenure on the ACC stage has but begun, and much can change as we move through subsequent acts. "I've watched the faculty grow and adapt for 25 years and been favorably impressed," says TCCTA's Burnside. "I'm confident they can adapt now, too, but I hope they're not asked to do the impossible. Carrying out the full mission of ACC is a complex task, and there have to be changes. That doesn't need to mean upheaval and destruction."

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