Cel Block

We've Seen Celestino Fernández At Work. It's Not A Pretty Picture.


WE ARE LOATHE to trot out, once again, the story of Celestino Fernández's scandalous mismanagement of Arizona International Campus, the renegade college that the University of Arizona has now reeled back to the main campus. Last October, when UA President Peter Likins offered Fernández a demotion from provost to dean--a transparent demand for a resignation--Fernández mercifully acceded. Frankly, we thought we wouldn't have Fernández to kick around anymore. But here the man is, risen Nixon-like, shamelessly vying for a post in which he would have power over 63,000 schoolchildren in the city's largest school district. The devil himself makes us do it: The Weekly herewith offers its emphatic Un-Endorsement of Celestino Fernández for the Tucson Unified School Board, for the following reasons:

1) Naturally, TUSD parents would like to hear plain speaking from their Board members. Fernández has already allowed half-truths to be told to every last one of the district's schoolchildren. Last year, when AIC was desperately seeking students, the college ran a series of misleading advertisements in the annual calendar that TUSD distributes free to every schoolchild. The ads deviously listed majors--like fine arts--for which AIC had neither courses nor professors in place. The ads also proclaimed that classes at AIC were taught by "professors." Wrong again. While several of the AIC teachers were bona fide full-timers with Ph.D.s, there were five part-timers, some of them still grad students.

Currents A small mistake? Overeagerness by his recruiting staff? Maybe. Maybe not. Stretching the truth is a time-honored Fernández tradition. Out on the campaign trail, he declares in his stump speech that he's been a professor and administrator at the UA for 20 years. Well, yes, technically he's held onto the professorial title all this time, but Fernández has rarely set foot in a classroom in the last 14 years. During that period, he's been a UA administrator, bumbling from one bureaucratic post to another, getting kicked upstairs every couple of years. It's a lucrative racket, to be sure, but hardly the same thing as spending 20 years in the classroom trenches.

Even in his campaign-funding filings to the county elections office, there are characteristically sloppy mistakes. In just one instance, he lists contributor Peter Likins as president of the university, and then goes on to list Likins' wife, another contributor, also as president of the university. (The Likinses each kicked in $25, apparently what they think Fernández is worth.)

And at AIC, the same pattern held true. On the minor side, Fernández regaled the public with the fabrication that, despite its critics, the little school had managed to attract students with SAT scores above the national average. Wasn't true, though; their scores were below.

Far more seriously, Fernández pledged that on the tenure-less campus, academic freedom would be safeguarded and that professors who did a good job teaching would have job security. Yet, within nine months, Fernández fired without explanation an outspoken AIC scholar who had won outstanding teaching evaluations.

2) The TUSD Board is already wracked by cronyism, with Board members switching principals, peremptorily overturning decisions of parent-teacher site committees, and similar mischief. Now they stand accused of sweeping under the carpet sexual-harassment allegations against a long-time administrator--and then bringing him back on the job.

Here Fernández can indeed claim experience. He got his high-paying job at AIC through cronyism. Despite the protests of the UA Faculty Senate, former UA President Manual Pacheco bypassed all normal university procedures for selecting the head of the new campus. Without benefit of a single search committee, he simply handed the job to his good buddy Fernández.

Then, in AIC's first school year, a sexual-harassment allegation erupted against an AIC professor. Participants in the fracas say that after Fernández consulted with the male professor and another male colleague, the young female student was told that she was simply mistaken. The professor in question continued his employment uninterrupted. (As it happens, the female professor who counseled the young woman was the professor Fernández fired.)

3) TUSD teachers worried about job security should bear in mind that Fernández held on to his own tenure in the UA sociology department while declaring to all and sundry that tenure would be a bad thing, very bad indeed, for the professors under his thumb at AIC. His hypocrisy paid off. After crashing and burning at AIC, Fernández had a tenured escape hatch. When he resigned, he announced plans to return to the UA sociology department (and boy are they ever glad to see him coming). He has yet to darken a classroom door, however. He's on paid sabbatical this semester.

4) The TUSD Board has hardly been forthcoming in negotiations with teachers--right now talks are at a standstill--and Fernández's treatment of AIC teacher contracts is instructive. He offered jobs to the out-of-town profs by letter, writing that they would be protected by specific conditions of faculty service. When the new teachers arrived in town, Fernández pulled a switcheroo. The new profs had to sign a different document that made them temporary teachers without rights.

And TUSD teachers worried about the Board's determination to impose "terminal contracts" on first-year teachers should look at the Fernández record. He says he favors multi-year contracts at TUSD, but when the power was in his hands at AIC, he handed out only one-year teaching contracts, renewable at his discretion.

5) Fernández boasts on the stump that he's had experience with big budgets, but he doesn't say how well he handled them. Let us not forget that Fernández was unable to live within his means at AIC. At the end of the school's first year, the legislators were so provoked at the college's tiny number of students that they refused to up its budget. Instead of making cutbacks, AIC went a-begging to the UA. The main campus was forced to lend it $950,000, borrowing the cash from its own budget in a year when teaching departments all across the university had been obliged to cut back.

6) TUSD routinely comes under attack for a bloated administrative apparatus. So did AIC under Fernández. And while AIC was billed as an all-new model of college that emphasized teaching above all else, AIC followed the old model of paying administrators most, teachers least. In the first year, Fernández's own salary--$131,090--was more than twice that of the highest-paid professor. In the second year, when AIC was in deep fiscal crisis, Fernández, courtesy of buddy Pacheco, helped himself to an $1,800 raise.

When President Likins arrived at his new job at the UA last October, he drained the AIC quagmire in short order, repudiating nearly everything Fernández had done. He offered Fernández a demotion, accepted his resignation, immediately rehired the professor Fernández had summarily fired, reduced the school from branch campus to subsidiary college, and yanked it back to the UA for closer supervision and a retooling of all its faculty policies. But did Fernández suffer financially for his sins? No, indeedy. Matter of fact, he roped in another raise--this time a cool $10,000. Yep, $10,000, at a time when typical professor increases hover around $1,500. His reward for his abject failure at AIC is a salary of $142,750, far and away one of the biggest paychecks at the UA.

Did somebody mention pigging out at the public trough? Not us. TW

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