Out Goes Another SBCC President; In Comes New Identity for Private School
The seemingly revolving chair that is the top job at Santa Barbara City College is turning over yet again — the latest presidential resignation a partial byproduct of ongoing disagreements over COVID protocols as the school sets to reopen August 23.
In an abrupt announcement after a Board of Trustees special meeting on July 12, Dr. Utpal Goswami, president and superintendent since January 2020, sent a note to staff indicating that he was stepping down — joining Anthony Beebe (resigned 2019) as the second college president to abruptly resign from that post in the past three years.
“From my perspective, I have been a president whose presence has been primarily ‘virtual’ — having spent more than 85% of my tenure here in remote operations,” a portion of Goswami’s note read. “We did not get to interact on a personal level and get to know each other. It has been an unusual experience for all of us—but not unlike many of the unusual experiences we had over that last year.”
According to multiple BOT members, a lack of communication and Goswami’s lack of decisiveness contributed to multiple rifts in the shared governance of the iconic and top-ranked campus.
These schisms came to a head after the BOT voted down — by a 4-3 margin — a mandate that all staff, faculty, and students be vaccinated before returning to campus.
A lack of involvement by governing bodies representing both faculty and students ultimately led to a closed session meeting on July 12 that led to Goswami’s resignation.
“There’s been a real breakdown in the shared governance process,” said Kate Parker, the BOT’s vice president and Area 7 representative. “I would say SBCC has been kind of limping along. And that’s been visible for some time.”
Jonathan Abboud, the BOT’s Area 6 representative, was more direct in his criticism of Goswami’s decisions over his 18-month term. He first pointed to a closed-session recommendation for a trio of layoffs, with Abboud indicating that bad information was fed to the BOT by the school’s administration, led by Goswami, that ultimately led to the board approving the layoffs. The board would later have to retract that decision publicly.
More recently, Abboud has been outspoken about the administration’s efforts to be inclusive over the school’s COVID protocols.
“The planning for return to campus was not adequate,” Abboud said. “I felt that there was a lot of inaction, a lot of bad decisions.”
Abboud attempted to get the BOT aligned to approve the mandated vaccinations to return to campus, but came up one vote short, despite calls for amendments to appease everyone.
As a result, the current return-to-school plan approved by the BOT is now based on the honor system, with those that aren’t vaccinated having to self-disclose to their instructor upon attending in-person classes.
This is a process that many faculty members are uncomfortable with for myriad reasons including an invasion of their students’ privacy, as well as the logistics of setting up classrooms so that those that need to be masked and socially distanced are accommodated.
Kristen Sneddon, an SBCC professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences, says the lack of direction from the top creates issues downstream — issues that are completely avoidable if all parties have a seat at the same table.
“When you continuously seem to have this infighting at the top, that really impacts the staff and students,” said Sneddon, who is also Montecito’s representative on the Santa Barbara City Council.
Sneddon pointed to logistical questions of who would be forced to quarantine if a student becomes ill, or if unvaccinated students would be the only ones notified, not to mention the lingering issue of whether professors would have to have alternative lesson plans for those who do have to quarantine.
“(Goswami) was very indecisive; we couldn’t get simple questions like when something was going to happen answered,” Sneddon said.
Whether or not that will change anytime soon is up in the air, with the BOT naming Dr. Kathleen Scott as acting superintendent and president until they can meet to name an interim replacement.
While the process hasn’t officially been kicked off by the BOT, Parker does anticipate that another nationwide search for Goswami’s permanent replacement will be imminent — and would welcome the opportunity to look at a local candidate.
“We’re always willing to look locally; we didn’t have any local applicants the last go round. But, you know, we love to have local applicants, it certainly does make a difference, I think, when there’s a connection — a long-term connection — to the community,” Parker said.