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By Paul Bradley  /  
2015 October 8 - 05:38 pm

Trouble in Paradise

Northern Marianas College Weathers Series Of Major Storms

By the time late July brought more sunny skies, mild temperatures and ocean breezes to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, its sole institution of higher education seemed to have weathered a series of earlier storms.

It had survived the most serious sanction — a show cause order — from the same accrediting body that had been threatening to shut down the City College of San Francisco. Northern Marianas College, in fact, had been on one kind of accreditation sanction or another for eight straight years.

College officials had also persuaded the U.S. Department of Education to back off its demand that the college pay back $8 million in Title IV money that it had improperly disbursed — allegedly — amid a dizzying bureaucratic snafu involving two different accrediting agencies. College officials traveled halfway around the globe to Washington, D.C., to make their case at the Education Department.

And finally, the college survived a break in an undersea fiber-optic cable that effectively unplugged the commonwealth from the rest of the world. The outage meant no credit card purchases, no ATM withdrawals, no Internet, no texting, no phone service. All communications were cut off. The commonwealth’s tourist-based economy, and the college’s fiscal operations, became cashonly. It took ten days before full communications were restored.

Then, the real problems started. On Aug. 2, Typhoon Souledor, packing winds of more than 150 miles an hour, slammed into Saipan, the CNMI’s main island, destroying hundreds of homes and knocking out power to the entire island. Without power, the island’s water system was rendered inoperable. People could not flush toilets or take showers. President Obama declared the CNMI a major disaster area. Miraculously, there were no fatalities on the island.

“Sometimes, living in paradise comes with a cost,” said Sharon Y. Hart, president of Northern Marianas College, which took a major hit from the typhoon, suffering damage not seen on a college campus since Hurricane Katrina a decade ago.

Hart lived and worked in her office for ten days. She returned home after her landlord provided a generator; it was capable of powering a single lamp and her laptop computer. It was six weeks before full power was restored.

The campus was battered. Fallen trees and utility poles littered the campus. Half-afoot of water had flooded several buildings, including the college gymnasium.

Hart wrote in an email: “The damage was extensive, as about 19 of our 25 buildings on campus received some form of damage and four or five were severely damaged. Some entire departments at the college were ruined. We are still in the process of relocating approximately 30 faculty, staff, and student workers who were displaced from our Cooperative Research Education and Extension Services Department. They will soon be located in a facility approximately half a mile from the Saipan campus.

“Power to the college was restored seven weeks after the storm hit. Life was extremely challenging the first few weeks, as water was hard to come by, gas stations often saw lines of seven hours and finding a place to do laundry was almost an impossibility. For those of us living on the island, it was almost an impossibility to obtain hotel rooms, as these were solidly booked.”

For the college, the storm’s aftermath meant some immediate adjustments and implementation of its emergency plan, Hart said. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency soon arrived to work with college officials on a damage assessment.

“Only essential employees reported to work after the typhoon,” Hart wrote. “A team was assembled to handle the hazardous debris removal. Some employees volunteered their time to assist with local relief efforts, others were required to be at the college to handle restoration of the campus, while others were asked to remain at home. Those who lost their homes were given priority for administrative leave. The campus did rally around all of these efforts and most of the college’s debris was removed within the first four weeks after the typhoon. The academic dean and her department chairs have all worked to change the class schedule of hundreds of classes and sections in order to facilitate a shortened semester which still must meet U.S. Department of Education Guidelines. The Education Department did approve our shortened semester. Classes started Sept 28 and the semester ends now on Dec. 24.”

In a practical sense, that means the normal 15-week semester will be compressed into nine weeks. Classes will meet three times a week for 75 minutes rather than the standard 50 minutes, Hart said.

Enrollment, expected to be about 1,300 students, is down about ten percent, Hart said. Still, some people are coming to campus seeking a respite from their own misery.

“A lot of people on the island are looking for some stability,” she said. “We have electrical power. A lot of people don’t. We are a place where they get some air conditioning.”

Hart is in her fifth and final year as president of Northern Marianas College, which in 2016 will celebrate its 35th anniversary. In addition to six associate degree programs, it offers two bachelor’s degrees, one in business management, the other in education. It also offers adult basic education, an English Language Institute and has a Community Development Institute which provides onsite training to the business community.

It is the only higher education institution in the CNMI, a U.S. territory consisting of 14 tropical islands stretched across 400 miles about 3,200 miles west of Honolulu and 1,300 miles south of Tokyo. About 90 percent of its 54,000 inhabitants live on Saipan. Its residents are American citizens.

The island is known as the site of one of the last battles of World War II. In the summer of 1944, members of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps and Japanese soldiers spent three weeks in intense fighting in the Battle of Saipan; more than 3,000 Americans died and another 10,000 were wounded. Of the estimated 30,000 Japanese defenders, fewer than 1,000 were taken prisoner.

Hart has been working in higher education since 1982. This is her third community college presidency; she previously served as president of Middlesex Community College (Conn.) and of the North Dakota State College of Science.

She took the job, she said, “because I enjoy the island life. This is the United States, and that was important to me. I love a challenge. And there have been some challenges here.”

More challenges await. The CNMI’s economy is undergoing a seismic shift, shedding its historic reliance on foreign contract workers in favor of a home-grown and American workforce. It will put a heavy burden on the college’s workforce development efforts..

The economic shift has its roots in the scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it was revealed that Saipan was home to two dozen garment factories where imported contract workers were forced to toil in slave-like conditions. The island was an inviting site for the socalled sweatshops. Employers were exempt from paying the federal minimum wage. The workers had few rights and could note vote. The commonwealth had its own immigration system.

After the sweatshop furor — which ensnared high-powered Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former House Majority Leader Tom Delay — CNMI immigration and labor laws were federalized under a bill signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. Most of the garment factories closed their doors and left the island, but about 10,000 contract workers, most from the Philippines and Asia, remain on the island today. Many are highly educated. They include a portion of the college’s faculty.

Under the new federal law, the foreign workers were to exit the CNMI by Dec. 31, 2014. But Labor Secretary Thomas Perez extended the CNMI’s foreign worker program until 2019.

Between now and then, the college will be primarily responsible for training replacement workers, with meager resources. The college receives only 4 percent of CNMI’s budget and has not increased tuition in nine years. States typically allocate about 10 percent of spending for higher education.

“It’s a huge problem,” Hart said. “We don’t have the money to do it. And now we need to rebuild our campus.”

Hart likely won’t be around when the federal law goes into full effect. She will leave her job next year and hopes to find work on the mainland. In the meantime, she is calling attention to NMC’s plight.

“My goal is to bring our situation to the forefront of the higher education and political community. I would ask our higher education leaders to lobby for equity across the US States and Territories as it relates to higher education.”

“The last four years have been a major challenge for all of us at Northern Marianas College: preparing for and undergoing six separate accreditation visits; the institution placed on Show Cause Status by ACCJC and one step away from loss of accreditation and institutional closure; pressure to address the pending departure of half of the Northern Marianas’ workforce and to train a new workforce with little or no resources to do so; our battle with the U.S. Dept of Education when they notified our two accreditors that an institution can only be under one accreditor, thus eliminating financial aid to 20 percent of our students; our inability to seek funds often available to other states (TAAC- CCT); the technology collapse of Saipan due to the underwater fiber optic break; and, then of course the demolition of the college due to Typhoon Soudelor.

How much more can one chain of small islands and one college endure?”

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