Fear and Loathing in la Escuela

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

In the Sixties the number of two-year colleges more than doubled nationally. "It seemed like a community college opened every six days," recalls Robert McCabe, who joined MDCC as an administrator in 1963. If McCabe's estimate rings somewhat nostalgic, his math is only slightly off. Between 1961 and 1970, 497 community colleges were founded in the United States, an average of one new school every 7.3 days. "I never even applied for a job at MDCC," remembers McCabe, who was wrapping up a doctoral program in community-college administration at the University of Texas when he was contacted by then-MDCC president Peter Masiko. "I was hired over the phone."

Community colleges were imbued with the Zeitgeist of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The schools welcomed not only fresh-faced administrators but nontraditional students and new ideas. No coincidence that MDCC, after initially opening as a segregated school, quickly integrated. It also became a magnet for thousands of young Cuban exiles arriving in Miami in the Sixties. By the end of the decade, minority students, who in 1960 had comprised only ten percent of the college's total enrollment, outnumbered white students.

Dade County and MDCC grew up together. By the early Seventies the college, in addition to the original campus in Northwest Dade (now known simply as the North Campus), boasted two other locations: the South Campus in Kendall (now Kendall Campus) and the Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami. Eventually MDCC would add campuses in central Miami (the Medical Center Campus), Homestead, and Little Havana (the InterAmerican Campus), for a total of six. Enrollment, which in 1960 had been 4500, climbed and ultimately exceeded 100,000 students per year.

Former MDCC president Robert McCabe, circa 1980
Former MDCC president Robert McCabe, circa 1980
Some say current MDCC president Eduardo Padron is a master of manipulation
Steve Satterwhite
Some say current MDCC president Eduardo Padron is a master of manipulation

By the Eighties MDCC was the largest and, many believed, the best community college in the nation. "The college did such extraordinary things, led on so many fronts," recalls J. Terence Kelly, who joined MDCC in 1966 and eventually rose to the post of North Campus president. "There were faculty development programs that were leading the nation. There was nothing like the television college anywhere until we started that program."

Such was the extent of MDCC's institutional reputation and political muscle that Florida International University, which opened in 1972 as part of the Florida state university system, was precluded from offering freshman and sophomore level courses -- and thus directly competing with MDCC -- until the mid-Eighties.

The college's growth years were marked by institutional stability. For the first 35 years of its history, MDCC was led by only three presidents. After its founding president, Kenneth R. Williams, left the college in 1962, Peter Masiko was named to the top spot. Masiko remained MDCC president until 1980, when McCabe, his assistant of almost twenty years, succeeded him.

Masiko and McCabe shared a similar management philosophy. "Pete and I were willing to accept mistakes and failures," explains McCabe. "Good professional people need ownership in what they're doing, need room to try things." Chemistry professor and faculty-union vice president Ana Ciereszko says McCabe practiced what he preached. "He had a way of dealing with the faculty," remembers the Cuban-born Ciereszko, who has taught at MDCC since 1976. "He had a way of making people believe what they did was important, making us believe we had a mission." McCabe also was good at keeping a low profile as MDCC president. "I thought students should relate to the campus heads, not me," says McCabe.

Sitting in his New England-style study in the two-story house he shares with his wife, noted local historian Arva Moore Parks, the 71-year-old McCabe is the perfect picture of the retiring, and now officially retired, academic. The one-time recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant spends much of his time writing position papers and books on the state of community-college education. And deflecting questions on the current MDCC administration. "I decided when I left the college," he says, "that I did not want to cast a shadow on the place."

The current president casts his own shadow. "There's a veil of threat throughout the institution," says a Kendall campus psychology professor, before offering a textbook analysis. "It's MacGregor's X-Y theory. X: People are basically lazy and have to be watched, cajoled, threatened. Y: People are self-motivated and should be nurtured. This administration subscribes to the X theory." And, the professor admits, it has had the intended effect: "Padron's done a good job of breaking the spirit of the faculty."

With the exception of recognized union representatives, almost no faculty member, current or retired on any campus, is willing to publicly criticize the administration. The risk of being punished is too great, they say, and the possibility that specific concerns might be addressed is too small. Declining to be identified for this article, one senior faculty member put it this way: "Part of me says, Who cares if I attach my name to my opinion?' I've got tenure, I've got a contract. But then part of me says, Let me just finish out my time.'"

It is a sentiment so pervasive that it could become the new school song. "Why waste your time trying to fashion something that's going to be ignored?" shrugs Ciereszko. The administration, she says, didn't listen when faculty objected to general education courses being moved off the Medical Campus (forcing those students to commute to other locations to fulfill basic requirements and resulting in the transfer of a number of Medical Campus professors). And it certainly didn't care this past year when faculty disapproved of a revised summer-semester schedule that brought students to campus fewer times per week, dramatically increasing the amount of material that had to be covered each day; a situation that, again, appeared to work to the disadvantage of both students and teachers.

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