Fear and Loathing in la Escuela

President Eduardo Padron has instituted an impressive program of intimidation at Miami-Dade Community College

Every morning for the past year, readers of the Miami Herald have awakened to the smiling faces of former Miami-Dade Community College (MDCC) students. "Everywhere you turn," the ad copy reads, "successful alumni." These image advertisements -- depicting professionals in respected fields such as law enforcement, health care, and journalism -- day after day reinforce the notion that the county's oldest and largest public institution of higher learning remains true to the democratic ideals upon which it was founded. Wearing toothy white grins and dark business suits, the men and women featured convey not only contentment but consensus.

In reality, however, the past few years have been acrimonious ones at MDCC. Critics say the trouble starts at the top, with district president Eduardo Padron. His persecution of the faculty following their successful union drive in 1998 already has earned the college a sanction from one of the nation's most distinguished academic watchdog organizations. Allegations of financial and administrative impropriety at the Miami-Dade Community College Foundation, the school's fundraising arm, have resulted not in investigations but in the resignations and dismissals of individuals who dared raise questions. And MDCC's once-sterling national reputation for scholarly innovation and achievement has been surpassed by its reputation for palace intrigue. Everywhere you turn at the college, there is turmoil.

A progressive place: In the Sixties MDCC students (like Sylvester Stallone, top) worked to make something of themselves, spoke their minds, and elected the school's first black student-government president (Bobby Reid, bottom)
A progressive place: In the Sixties MDCC students (like Sylvester Stallone, top) worked to make something of themselves, spoke their minds, and elected the school's first black student-government president (Bobby Reid, bottom)

When Eduardo Padron ascended to the MDCC presidency in 1995, he commissioned a special medallion to mark the occasion. Veteran faculty were shocked by the gesture, and by the elaborateness of the Knight Center ceremony many now refer to simply as "the installation." "When I saw the medallion they had minted," remembers one retired North Campus professor, "and then the reception that followed, I said, We're all in trouble.'" Or, as another veteran North Campus faculty member puts it: "The whole thing struck me as a coronation, a celebration of a coup."

It was most definitely a changing of the guard. The outgoing president, Robert McCabe, by the end of his fifteen-year tenure, was considered a relic of sorts: a postwar white liberal living in a postmodern multiethnic cauldron. The Cuban-born, efficient, and always nattily dressed Padron, on the other hand, appeared tailor-made for the job of leading the nation's largest community college system into the future. Like the happy people in the Herald, he was an MDCC alum, having attended the college in the early Sixties before going on to earn a doctorate in economics from the University of Florida. He also was a long-time MDCC faculty member and administrator who had risen through the ranks to become president of the Wolfson Campus in 1985. Eduardo Padron, institutionally speaking, was one of the family.

Following his appointment as district president in 1995, however, the MDCC insider proved he had radically different ideas from his predecessors about how the college should be run. Almost immediately Padron, citing economic concerns, moved to centralize the school's administration. He eliminated positions at every campus. He fired employees en masse, including 119 on so-called Black Friday, March 29, 1996. He cut and consolidated the school's sports programs so that instead of each campus fielding a team in a particular sport, only one team would represent the MDCC system as a whole. And he began playing a game of musical chairs that, by now, has become a staple of his administration, an almost annual shuffling of campus presidents and staff from one location to another. The fact that he implemented these changes with almost no faculty input led professors, in March 1998, to vote overwhelmingly in favor of unionization. Padron responded by disbanding the faculty senate, the institutional body on each campus responsible for overseeing academic matters (see "Schoolyard Bully," May 7, 1998).

Following a bitter contract fight, the United Faculty of Miami-Dade Community College and the administration agreed to terms in the spring of 2000. A year and a half later, and less than a year before that retroactively implemented contract is set to expire, faculty and staff (most speaking on condition of confidentiality) claim that, under Padron, the quality of education provided by the college and the institutional climate in general have declined precipitously. Worst of all, they lament, in an environment in which perceived loyalty to the man with the medallion is the new coin of the realm, there is little hope for change.

When it opened its doors in the fall of 1960, MDCC -- then called Dade County Junior College -- was the first public institution of higher education in the county. Before that, the nearest community college was in Lake Worth, and the closest public university was the University of Florida in Gainesville, more than 300 miles from Miami. (The University of South Florida, in Tampa, opened the same year as MDCC.) In 1960 the residents of metropolitan Dade had the distinction of being one of the largest urban populations in the United States lacking immediate access to a public college or university.

MDCC, however, did more than simply meet a practical need. The two-year college in postwar America became a crucial cultural institution, helping to absorb the unprecedented number of college-bound baby boomers who flooded the nation's schools. The community college was a symbol of democratic promise, providing millions of students, many of them veterans, with the opportunity to continue their education beyond high school and participate in the expanding and increasingly information- and service-based U.S. economy.

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