MISSION VIEJO — On the eve of its 30th anniversary, the South Orange County Community College District, long considered one of the finest in the state, finds itself at the center of unprecedented turmoil and criticism. In just the last few months:
* A Superior Court judge ruled against the district's embattled board of trustees, saying it failed to comply with the state's public meeting law, the Brown Act.
* Meeting in separate closed sessions, the board eliminated 10 department chairs at Irvine Valley College, one of two campuses the district oversees, and appointed chemistry professor Raghu P. Mathur interim president. On Monday night, the trustees voted 4 to 3 in closed session to make Mathur's appointment permanent.
* Faculty members at Irvine Valley and Saddleback colleges--who rank as the highest-paid community college teachers in California, averaging more than $80,000 a year--accused the board of trying to bypass the shared governance process with faculty and students, which state law requires.
* The Saddleback president chose not to rehire the faculty advisor to the school's student newspaper, the Lariat, which had often been critical of the board of trustees.
* Drawing national attention, the board approved a course that claims there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a move faculty and community members say exposed the district to ridicule. The board allocated $5,000 from student fees to fly in four guest speakers, one of whom contends the Holocaust is exaggerated and argues that agents for the Israeli government killed Kennedy.
Board President Steven J. Frogue, who conceived the course and also planned to teach it, cast the tiebreaking vote to approve the community education offering, which the board rescinded later in the week.
The course, which Frogue plans to offer privately off campus, has been listed for discussion on the Thursday agenda of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
The litany of recent events has some professors perplexed.
The trustees "seem to be executing a horrible decision to destroy both colleges," said Cheryl Altman, chairwoman of the Department of Reading at Saddleback. "The atmosphere . . . is terrible."
But Board Vice President John S. Williams, who usually votes in a bloc with fellow members Teddi Lorch, Dorothy Fortune and Frogue, said most of the changes are part of a "restructuring" made necessary by shrinking revenue in one of the fastest-growing districts in the state.
Last November, voters overwhelmingly elected Williams, Fortune and Frogue as trustees of the district, which offers 331 courses to 33,000 students and employs 300 full-time and 760 part-time faculty members at the two colleges.
Enrollment is up 8.5% at Saddleback, which has 22,000 students, and almost 12% at Irvine Valley, which became the district's "north campus" in 1985 and now has 11,000 students. Because of the county bankruptcy in 1994, revenue has declined $500,000 from pre-bankruptcy levels and has never been replaced, according to Williams.
The district's annual budget of nearly $72 million is made up almost entirely of money from Orange County taxpayers, with a small percentage coming from the state and tuition from students.
As the board majority sees it, the issues are largely about money.
"Change is hard," Williams said. "But having to undo change--that which your predecessors made and which you see as harmful--is much, much harder. That's the kind that makes people angry . . . but which you as a leader have to face."
But some board members and faculty question whether such sweeping change is necessary, saying the district's finances and academic reputation have never been better.
"You know they're having an effect on the district," Lisa Alvarez, an associate professor of English at Irvine Valley, said of the board, "when your students walk up and ask you what's wrong. We try to teach our students the meaning of critical thinking, but we teach in a place where, if we protest or question policies, there's fear of reprimand and discipline."
Irvine Valley philosophy instructor Roy Bauer, one of the deposed department chairs, who filed a lawsuit against the district, called the board "unethical," even "corrupt," saying its treatment of adversaries "does honor to the memory of Joseph McCarthy."
Williams called the criticism "grossly unfair," saying, "If anyone out there ever considers running for a local community college board, believe me, once they attempt to implement change--real change--a lot of people aren't going to like it. But this board has put its money where its mouth is."
In keeping with that philosophy, the board has been anything but timid.
In late April, in a closed session that infuriated the faculty, the board chose Mathur as interim president of Irvine Valley, despite many of his fellow faculty members saying he was unqualified and Bauer calling him "a puppet for the board."
Mathur has not returned repeated phone calls from The Times.