The Rancho Santiago Community College District Foundation’s controversial deal to provide consulting work to Saudi Arabian colleges, which a year ago appeared dead, has apparently gained new life.
In January 2016, six months after the contract was approved amid heavy criticism, there was no board in place for the joint venture in which the foundation would provide support to the Colleges of Excellence, which the Saudi government’s initiative to expand its technical colleges.
Meanwhile, other colleges had pulled out of similar consulting arrangements and the Colleges of Excellence was reportedly being investigated by the country’s anti-corruption commission.
But under an updated contract approved last month, Rancho Santiago Chancellor Raul Rodriguez, and Vice Chancellor Enrique Perez, will oversee the hiring of 12 to 15 “coaches” who will train administrators and faculty of one of the Saudi colleges.
The original idea was to give district employees first priority for the training work, but controversy erupted when it became clear that district faculty who are Jewish or female would not be allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia for the consulting work.
Critics called the arrangement discriminatory and possibly illegal under California and U.S. federal law. Rodriguez said he didn’t support the Saudi government’s stance but defended the proposed arrangement as legal.
The final contract now apparently relies on training staff who would be hired from outside the district.
And while the original proposal was worth about $35 million per year to the district, foundation officials say the scaled-down deal will generate a little over $1 million in total for the district over the next three years.
When the new deal came up for approval on Dec. 6, foundation board member Arianna Barrios noted that the original value “was much greater than what we’re looking at now.” It seemed like the district went through “a lot of heartache” for what will end up being a relatively small amount of money, she said.
In response to Barrios, Perez, who is also the foundation’s executive director, said he and other district officials were gaining experience that could translate into further international consulting work and more revenue for the district.
“For community colleges to enter the international education sphere, you need to have experience,” said Perez, who is also a vice chancellor at the college district. The foundation is looking at additional consulting opportunities in countries like China, he added.
As for the reduction in value, Perez said the district was initially looking at consulting for 10 or 12 Saudi colleges, but is now just working for one. And the Saudi institution has financial responsibility for the contract – including covering all costs – which means less money for the district, he said.
Yet critics say the main problem isn’t the terms of the deal, but that the college district is doing business with a government that has a deplorable human rights record, including punishing homosexual acts with death.
“Saudi Arabia is a human rights violator. They imprison, they torture, and they kill homosexuals, Jews, women and people [who] dissent from their point of view,” said local activist Thomas Gordon, in comments to foundation board members just before they approved the new contract.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when Santa Ana College is getting into bed and doing business with” such a regime, he added.
Rodriguez, the district’s chancellor – who also serves on the foundation board – responded that the consulting work can help change that reality.
“Nobody I think is endorsing that type of behavior, but at the same time, if you want to see change,” it’s important to “roll up” one’s sleeves and get involved, Rodriguez said.
In the past year or two, several colleges in the U.S., Canada, and United Kingdom have pulled out of their Saudi education contracts, saying they weren’t profitable. In one case, Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada said it had lost $5.8 million on its Saudi campus, according to a newspaper report in the Ottawa Citizen.
Rodriguez acknowledged that some colleges did lose money, but asserted that was “not the case” at Algonquin. He said it turned out that college gained $5 to 6 million in “additional earnings,” and that all of the financial risk for the Rancho Santiago deal would be on its Saudi partner.
The foundation board voted 5-0 to approve the contract. Voting in favor were Rodriguez, SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union executive Kristin Crellin, Wells Fargo executive David Coffaro, public affairs consultant and Rancho Santiago district board member Barrios, and municipal law attorney Todd Litfin of Rutan & Tucker.
One board member with voting power was absent: AT&T Regional Vice President Richard Porras.
The status of the reported corruption investigation into the Colleges of Excellence did not come up during the discussion at the Dec. 6 meeting, and after that meeting Rodriguez said he had no new knowledge of the investigation.
He didn’t return repeated phone messages Monday and Tuesday regarding whether there have been any new developments since the December meeting.
The district’s board is next scheduled to meet on Feb. 6, while the foundation’s next meeting is slated for March 14.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].