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Drama! 

Academic freedoms and censorship are laid bare in Cuesta's treatment of its drama director

click to enlarge DRAMA OVER DRAMA :  Cuesta College drama director bree vallee was vindicated by an arbitrator’s recent report. She will resume teaching in the fall. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BREE VALLEE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF BREE VALLEE
  • DRAMA OVER DRAMA : Cuesta College drama director bree vallee was vindicated by an arbitrator’s recent report. She will resume teaching in the fall.

By all rights, the stage should be set to bring more attention to Cuesta College’s acclaimed  theater program. A shining $24.5 million, 450-seat theater building called the Cultural Center for the Performing Arts, complete with orchestra pit, is due to open in the fall. Faculty and administrators are eager to discuss its many amenities, from a second experimental theater within the building to on-site laundry facilities, promising crisp uniforms and costumes.

Yet a recent arbitrator’s ruling regarding the college’s treatment of its drama director raises questions about what the campus’ Performing Arts Department will do with the spotlight. 

Largely critical of the college, the report, the result of a grievance filing against the Cuesta Community College District, details four years worth of bickering, censorship and harassment directed at drama director bree valle (she doesn't use capitalization for her name).

Allegations against valle, launched by two deans, an instructor in the music department, and her department head, ranged from a lack of professionalism to child endangerment, sparked by her child’s presence on set during rehearsals. In contrast, valle and union representatives alleged that the district engaged in a pattern of infringements on academic freedoms and censorship that included an apparent attempt to sabotage a production on opening night.

Among the only facts that everyone—administrators, faculty, and students alike—seem to agree on is that valle is a dedicated and inspiring, if unconventional, instructor with a record of staging theatrical productions that generate respect and admiration from the wider community.

The arbitrator, Wilma R. K. Rader, rendered her decision early this year in an 83-page document that detailed involvement from such faculty and administrators as then-Performing Arts Chair and music faculty member George Stone, former Dean of Humanities Roanna Bennie (now a dean of academic affairs at Allan Hancock College), then-Dean of Humanities Harry Schade (now vice president of student learning), current chair of the Performing Arts Department and music instructor Jennifer Martin, and then-president of Cuesta College Federation of Teachers Marilyn Rossa.

Martin and Stone declined to discuss the arbitrator’s decision, citing the fact that it concerns current personnel. They were eager, instead, to discuss the many attributes of the new Cultural Center. But as Rader pointed out in her decision, while valle, with her “proven track record of producing high-quality theatrical performances,” would be an asset to the new theater, it’s unclear whether the music and drama departments will be able to make the best use of the facility, given the history documented in the report.

William “Dave” Pelham, president of Cuesta College since March 2008, indicated that there was no question that the two departments would not only co-exist, but also collaborate.

“All the folks [in the Performing Arts Department] are professionals and I would anticipate they’re going to behave accordingly,” he said.

He also affirmed that he has read the document, which details years of antipathy between the two small departments. And, because he refuses to discuss the matter, his position is that “from the district’s perspective the decision needs to speak for itself.”

click to enlarge BIG LOVE: - PHOTO COURTESY OF BREE VALLEE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF BREE VALLEE
  • BIG LOVE:
The decision speaks for itself

The first of 10 arbitration hearings occurred on Oct. 26, 2007, and the last took place nearly eight months later. More than 200 documents were introduced as evidence and the transcripts of the proceedings exceeded 2,000 pages.

“The record in this case is truly ponderous,” wrote Rader, detailing the case’s background. In her decision, Rader addressed three primary issues: whether an off-cycle evaluation of valle’s work violated her union contract, whether she was discriminated against for seeking union counsel, and whether the district deliberately attacked valle because she utilized the academic freedom provision in her contract.

While Rader ultimately acknowledged the presence of “merit to the position of both sides” and stated that valle needed to establish a less rigorous rehearsal schedule for her productions, her decision overwhelmingly vindicated valle. Not only did she state that the off-cycle evaluation was “tainted by impermissible bias and retaliation,” but she also stated that its real purpose was not to assess valle’s performance, but “to find fault with her performance as a means of getting rid of her.”

Moreover, Rader found that the Cuesta College administration had demonstrated anti-union sentiment and actively censored valle’s theatrical productions. 

The problems between valle and the district began in 2004 with a series of seemingly minor conflicts between valle and Stone. Despite being the department chair, under Cuesta’s hierarchy, Stone possessed no authority over valle or the drama department. Nonetheless, multiple attempts to exercise control over, and even punish valle, between the years of 2004 and 2007 are detailed in the arbitration report.

Some of the attempts at control seem to stem from outright prudery. In 2005, for example, he encouraged valle to eliminate the word “vagina” from a promotional poster for her production of The Vagina Monologues, a fundraiser for the women’s shelter in San Luis Obispo.

That same year, during productions of Cabaret, student performers were asked to attend the SLO Farmers Market in costume to promote the play. The request came not from valle, but from the college’s marketing director, Scott Roark. A few outraged citizens complained that the costumes were too revealing—the Tony Award winner is, after all, set in a seedy nightclub in a Berlin that is fast transforming into a Nazi madhouse. In the ensuing uproar, valle was chastised by the then president of the college, Marie Rosenwasser, despite the fact that Roark informed Rosenwasser that valle didn’t have a role in the incident. As a result, Rosenwasser announced that valle would have to procure her approval before releasing promotional materials for her productions. The union leader of the time, Rossa, defended valle, stating that such a restriction violated valle’s academic freedom.

Administration oversight soon became even more rigid. Later that year, Stone began demanding that valle provide detailed budgets for drama productions, a request that had never been made by the former department chair. What made the demand all the more unexpected was the fact that the drama department funds each new play with money generated from the previous performance.

“Cuesta’s drama productions do not receive a single penny from the county, state, or federal government,” valle emphasized. From her standpoint, the department’s financial independence made the administration’s attempts to dictate the content of her productions all the more inappropriate.

Perhaps the struggle that most clearly illustrated the administration’s proclivity for censorship was in its response to valle’s spring 2006 performance of Fêtes de la Nuit, “a racy collage that expresses the beauty and complexity of love.” In what the arbitrator deemed an attempt to coerce valle into censoring herself, former humanities dean Bennie e-mailed valle a passage from the American Association of University Professors concerning academic freedom, stating that her work must “at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect.”

The union responded that the AAUP’s policies did not override the college’s own policies regarding academic freedom, set out in Article 3 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This clause protects, among other things, the “examination or endorsement (to the extent limited by law) of unpopular or controversial ideas that are appropriate to course content.”

While the administration could not deprive valle of these freedoms, she was under constant surveillance during rehearsals, culminating in apparent attempts to sabotage her production.

When valle submitted a request to borrow lighting equipment from the Blakeslee Auditorium for her show, a fairly standard occurrence, Stone and Bennie discouraged an employee from providing her with the requested equipment, recommending that the employee give her the lowest possible priority. Then, on the day of opening night, the report says, then-humanities dean Schade sent valle an e-mail detailing safety and code violations at the Interact Theatre, warning her that the production could not be staged until the issues were resolved. Many of the problems he detailed had existed for years. Fêtes de la Nuit opened as scheduled. (In the district’s response to valle’s allegations that it violated her academic freedom, the district stated that it “never sought control of valle’s creative decisions or attempted to prevent valle from producing plays.”)

  Rader stated that “controversy provides the quintessential opportunity for education,” but that the administration’s response not only failed to recognize this resource, officials attempted to stifle it.

  She went on: “… the arbitrator finds that Ms. valle’s exercise of academic freedom fueled a negative attitude towards her on the part of college administrators and supervisors, and was one of the motivating factors in the decision to ‘build a case against her’ for an off-cycle evaluation.”

click to enlarge CABARET: - PHOTO COIURTESY OF CUESTA COLLEGE
  • PHOTO COIURTESY OF CUESTA COLLEGE
  • CABARET:
valle’s view

valle’s own view of the administration’s attitude is far less restrained.

“The plays reflect current culture—the problems, the conflicts, the guts. Clearly, this is the function of art: to mirror and question and, finally to provoke,” she said. “In this specific case with Cuesta we have a collection of individuals—instructors, administrators, and board members—who would prefer to have art present only one world-view and only one narrow opinion. These people are not the friends of a liberal education. In fact, they are the death knell. They would be the ones burning the books.”

Years of poor working relationships culminated in a decision in May 2006, on Bennie’s part, to subject valle to an off-cycle evaluation. According to valle, it was the first time in the college’s history that a tenured faculty member was subjected to an off-cycle evaluation, a decision that was all the more questionable because valle’s previous evaluations had always been positive. In one evaluation, Schade had written, “bree is determined, intense, passionate, and loves her profession. This is transferred to her students and is repeatedly demonstrated in the high quality performances her students perform each semester.”

The Peer Review Committee for the evaluation consisted of Stone, Martin, John Knutson, and union chief Rossa. Three out of four were music department faculty, and two had already demonstrated antipathy for valle. During this process, according to valle, the Human Resources Department contacted every student who received her instruction during the 2006-2007 school year, more than 100 people in all.

At the evaluation’s conclusion in January 2007, the union filed a grievance against the district. Still Stone sought ammunition against valle, documenting her “disregard of procedure” indicated by the fact that she made alterations to a fall schedule in blue rather than red ink.

And the melee didn’t stop there. In November 2007, valle submitted a sabbatical proposal for 2008. The sabbatical committee unanimously accepted her proposal, sending it and two others to the Board of Trustees for an expected rubber stamp of approval. No such luck. valle’s request was set aside by the board, which expressed concern that the budget wasn’t adequate for three sabbaticals. Rossa, and the union, once again interfered, and the following June valle left for Canada, a move that might more closely resemble a self-imposed exile than sabbatical. Since then, she has traveled throughout Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Chile, and Argentina, teaching, studying, and volunteering. She is learning Spanish as well, with the intention of performing the plays of Federico García Lorca in the language in which they were written.

valle was in Costa Rica when she learned that Rader had rendered her decision. On Feb. 10, the union (now led by physical education instructor Allison Merzon, who defeated Rossa in a union election in the spring of 2008) released a statement that the decision was a significant victory for the union, but no additional information was forthcoming.

Accounts differ as to how valle received a physical copy of the decision. She said she was forced to retain a private attorney, who went to Merzon’s house to obtain the document. According to Merzon, the union offered to mail valle the document, an offer which valle rejected, instead retaining an attorney. The delay underscored a marked shift in the relationship between valle and the union, which she had characterized as her champion before the shift in leadership.

The release of the momentous decision was followed, largely, by silence. In May, frustrated by her concern that valle’s reputation had not truly been restored, Rossa released the decision, in its entirety, to her fellow faculty members via e-mail.

“bree was hurt publicly. Why shouldn’t the record be set straight?” she demanded. “She’s still being looked at as the one that caused the problem. And if the faculty are feeling a little compromised, they shouldn’t have done what they did.”

But from Merzon’s perspective, the current union leadership’s decision not to publish the document was grounded in a desire to protect valle. Merzon said the union followed a lawyer’s advice in deciding not to distribute the document and suggested publicity will only hinder relations  between valle and the district while matters remain unsettled.

“The arbitrator authorized the district to issue a ‘reprimand’ to the grievant on several matters. It was felt advisable to delay publicizing the case pending the issuance of a reprimand, as a triumphant article could well stimulate the district into a more negative reprimand of the grievant,” explained Merzon in a written statement. “This objective has now been precluded by the unauthorized publication of the award.”

Still, the district has its supporters, among them valle’s former student, Rosh Wright, who took valle’s classes and performed in her productions between 2004 and 2006. She testified on the district’s behalf in the grievance hearings.

While Wright called valle’s theatrical training “invaluable,” she also expressed her belief that valle’s teaching methods endangered students. Being considerably older than valle’s average student, Wright said she felt called upon to intercede on the other students’ behalf when rehearsals stretched beyond 12 hours per day, with very few breaks for meals or to use the restroom. At one point, Wright approached the Cuesta administration to clarify whether students were expected to attend rehearsals during spring break. It was a violation of campus policy, it turned out, but Wright said that rehearsals went on as planned nonetheless.

“Every other director that I’ve ever worked with has always seemed to consider safety as a number one issue and I didn’t get that feeling with her,” insisted Wright, who works as a registered nurse and has performed with the SLO Little Theatre and the Brickyard Theater. “Really, I think students don’t complain because they don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong.”

Wright’s only complaint with the district, in fact, is that it failed to interfere sooner. Despite her insistence that valle’s classroom environment was unsafe, Wright maintains her belief that valle’s intentions were good.

“I don’t know if she’s one of these people who innately believe the rules don’t apply to her because she’s in this creative artistic profession,” pondered Wright. “I think that might be the case. But if the swim coach and everybody else thought that [way] there would be a lot of damage done.”

click to enlarge PERFORMANCE SPACE :  The new Cultural Center for the Performing Arts is scheduled to open this fall, providing shared space for Cuesta’s music and drama departments for the first time. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Photo by Steve E. Miller
  • PERFORMANCE SPACE : The new Cultural Center for the Performing Arts is scheduled to open this fall, providing shared space for Cuesta’s music and drama departments for the first time.
The next act

In August, valle is set to return from her sabbatical. She intends to resume teaching and staging the sort of bold productions that have caused her so much trouble in the past. How she will be welcomed by the peers who executed her now-null evaluation is yet to be determined.

Martin, now the department chair, has been granted responsibility for scheduling at the new performing arts facility, and it’s impossible to predict how the drama department will fare in relation to the music department under this new regime. The two departments, previously separated by half a campus, are now going to share facilities. Pelham and Martin express an unwavering expectation of professionalism, which would seem to preclude apology as no one has claimed responsibility for, or even acknowledged that mistakes were made.

The union’s stance in regard to apology is that the arbitrator “did not require apologies from any of the parties involved,” and therefore that any expectation of admission of wrongdoing is not realistic.

In the end, the arbitrator set aside valle’s off-cycle evaluation and ruled that the district did discriminate and retaliate against her because she sought union representation and attempted to exercise the academic freedom rights spelled out in her union agreement. As for allegations against valle, the arbitrator ruled that valle violated copyright law by allowing students to make additional copies of the script for the musical Hair; it may result in a “Notice of Unprofessional Conduct” being filed in her record, although valle has a right to respond to such a notice. The rest of the allegations were set aside.

“Given the cowardly nature of the individuals involved here, I expect any admittance of complicity will occur when hell freezes over,” said valle, who, in true artistic fashion, goes on to compare the events of the past five years to a Shakespearean drama. “We have corruption, intrigue, romance, hubris, and a lot of ridiculous behavior by people who take themselves and their bits of imagined power far too seriously.”

Shakespeare is also credited with the statement, “The play’s the thing.”

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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