Southwestern Community College Trustee Nora Vargas speaks at Alga Norte Community Park in Carlsbad in response to the 2019 Poway synagogue shooting. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Southwestern Community College has had its fair share of challenges over the past few decades.

Nora Vargas says her willingness to face those challenges head on – even when it has led to bad press – demonstrates the kind of commitment to her community that she will bring if elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

But now those challenges are also being used to question her leadership.

Vargas is running against state Sen. Ben Hueso to replace outgoing Supervisor Greg Cox, who has represented District 1 on the board for more than two decades.

Mailers blasting Vargas’ record on Southwestern College’s Governing Board have been arriving at houses throughout District 1.

“Politician Nora Vargas’ Record Leading Southwestern College Speaks for Itself,” reads one of the mailers. “Cover ups and scandals. Bad judgment. Mismanagement. Sexual Harassment and Discrimination.”

Another mailer referred to a Voice of San Diego story about John Tolli, a former Southwestern professor was allowed to quietly resign after a trove of nude student photos and sex videos were found on his work computer, and Southwestern officials agreed not to mention the findings to prospective employers.

“On the Southwestern Community College Board, Nora Vargas helped cover up sexual harassment and let predators walk away,” the mailer says.

Indeed, Southwestern College has faced many issues since 2013, when Vargas was appointed to the board. In addition to Tolli, Southwestern grappled with anti-Black racism that has long plagued its campus. The community college was sanctioned by the accrediting commission in 2016. Before Vargas joined the board, the college was part of a massive pay-to-play contracting scandal involving the college and the Sweetwater and San Ysidro school districts.

Southwestern College / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Vargas said her biggest concern about the mailers, which have been paid for by a PAC called San Diegans for Good Government, Opposing Nora Vargas for Supervisor 2020, is the impact all the negativity will have on students.

While the mailers paint Vargas’ tenure as a failure, Vargas describes her time on the board as one that was difficult, but filled with many successes.

The reality is that Southwestern College is probably in better shape than it was years ago when officials were embroiled in a corruption scandal, but there is still much work to be done.

Vargas was appointed to Southwestern’s Governing Board in 2013 after the man elected to the position resigned in protest of a “lack of transparency” by the administration at the time, according to The Southwestern College Sun.

Vargas said part of the reason she decided to go through the appointment process when asked was because of her commitment to the community.

“It’s hard to be on community college boards as is,” Vargas said, noting that board members have to dedicate a lot of time to the schools for little to no pay. “There were the pay-to-play scandals and there had been a general culture of absence of accountability since the early 2000s. Southwestern College was a tough place.”

After she was appointed, Vargas ran for and won the seat twice, both times unopposed – a testament to the fact that positions on community college boards are difficult and not sought by many, she said.

Vargas said she and the board led the search for Southwestern College President Kindred Murillo, who transformed the university.

“I made a commitment that we were going to deal with things head-on,” Vargas said. “I think these scandals that have been in the news recently were really the result of us trying to resolve some of the issues. I’ve made some really tough decisions and sometimes they weren’t popular.”

Vargas also said that the mailers and news often don’t cover some of the strides the college has made in the past several years. Between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years, the numbers of Southwestern College graduates who transferred to four-year universities increased by 138 percent. She said the Governing Board also is saving taxpayers more than $10 million over the next 20 years since they voted to refinance a portion of Proposition R bonds in June.

“In her capacity as a Governing Board trustee, Nora Vargas has repeatedly taken the initiative in engaging in productive dialogue and discussion around controversial and relevant issues with campus groups and the campus community as a whole, and has served the community and students here at Southwestern College well,” said S. Rob Shaffer, president of the Southwestern College Education Association, the faculty union, in a statement. “Additionally, Ms. Vargas was instrumental and resolute in the hiring of an equity-minded college president.”

The union did not endorse anyone in the race.

When it comes to the Tolli situation, Vargas said she can’t comment on it in too much detail because it’s a confidential personnel matter, but in general, she thinks the board and college administration did their due diligence in the matter.

“We did our due diligence,” she said. “We launched an investigation, the allegations were sustained and we took action.”

She said the Legislature could change the types of personnel information public employers are allowed to share, but she said officials were bound to handle his resignation the way they did by agreeing to keep his behavior confidential from prospective future employers.

Not everyone sees it that way.

Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher and evaluator at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and board member of the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, said that letting Tolli resign and agreeing to not disclose information to future employers about his misconduct may have been a recommendation by the college’s legal department or union, but that the governing board likely had some discretion.

The Tolli incident was rare in that there was actually a Title IX investigation completed and substantiated, Grant said. And while there might not have been any criminal behavior or a police investigation, the 12 substantiated incidents of misconduct should have made board members feel confident enough to take action like firing Tolli, instead of allowing him to resign quietly or decline providing a neutral letter to future employers, she said.

“They had a full investigation,” Grant said. “If there were 12 allegations that were substantiated, you shouldn’t be afraid to put that in writing. My rule of thumb is always to be honest and be clear that we know what we know. This board knew there were allegations with 12 substantiated findings. Why not write what you know instead of pretending like you don’t know anything?”

The campus also has long grappled with racial tensions.

In 2018, a report by University of Southern California researchers on Southwestern’s climate concluded it was one of the “most toxic” they had ever studied, especially for Black employees who have jobs other than faculty and administrator positions on campus. After the USC report, the college hired an outside firm to study the college’s HR practices, which found that it lacked consistency, transparency and accountability in hiring, the Union-Tribune reported. The college also recently settled several lawsuits in which Black employees alleged they were the victims of racial attacks, The Sun reported last year.

“As an elected member of the college governing board, I worked really hard to address racism on the campus,” Vargas said, pointing to the fact that both those studies were done during her tenure on the board.

The college has also since implemented new hiring practices to ensure there is more Black representation and diversity in faculty, staff, administration and leadership in the college, she said.

“For me this is continuous work and it’s important work that at times can be tough and challenging,” Vargas said. “The more we encourage transparency and accountability, the more we will learn from our communities. There is a lot of misinformation that my opponent is sharing about Southwestern College and I have to say that I am really proud of the work that has been happening under Dr. Murillo’s leadership.”

Although the increased diversity in hiring is a small first step to change, anti-Blackness continues to plague the college, the Southwestern College Sun editorial board wrote last year.

“A lack of black instructors and elected officials reveals a flaw in the system,” the editorial board wrote. “But, over the past decade, we also had feces being left in the lockers of black custodians; police being wrongly called on black faculty for incorrect assumptions of homelessness. Now, in 2019, we have black students on the receiving end of potential hate crimes.”

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that the pay-to-play corruption scandal that involved Southwestern College officials happened prior to Vargas joining the board.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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