President of Kaplan College Campus Is Fired Over 'English Only' Dispute

May 31, 2010

The president of Kaplan College's campus in Chula Vista, Calif., was fired this month over his handling of an incident in which students were told they could face academic sanctions if they spoke Spanish in class, according to sources involved with the case.

Dennis Manzo had been president since the campus, located just seven miles from the Mexican border, opened in December.

All calls to the campus were referred to Ron Iori, spokesman for the college's for-profit corporate parent, Kaplan Higher Education, in Chicago. He would not confirm that the president had been fired, or provide information on how to reach him, but he said Mr. Manzo is no longer working for Kaplan. "We all agreed that it was best if we parted ways," he said.

Angel Roman, now president of Kaplan's Beaumont, Tex., campus, will take over as president of the Chula Vista campus this week.

Jonathan Cedeño, the student whose complaint triggered the investigation that led to the president's dismissal, said an Anglo woman in his medical-assistant course had been complaining that he and his friends, who started the class after she did, weren't keeping up.

"She had been giving us a hard time and insulted me in front of the class, and we had had enough, so we were talking about her," he said. The conversation took place on May 3 during a break in the class, he said. After the class, "she complained to the president that we were talking about her in Spanish and that she didn't understand what we were saying," Mr. Cedeño said.

He said Patricia Dussett, program director for allied health, came in to two of his classes the following day and told students that campus policy forbade the use of any language other than English in class, even in side conversations. "I told her I didn't think that was fair and that that violated my rights," Mr. Cedeño said. He said Ms. Dussett responded that if he continued speaking in Spanish, his grades could suffer and he could face other academic sanctions, including expulsion.

A Relative's Intervention

Mr. Cedeño e-mailed his aunt, Leticia Maldonado, a college-programs coordinator at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Ms. Maldonado, who has been involved in campus diversity issues, e-mailed Kaplan administrators demanding an immediate conference call with the president and any other officials involved in the incident, she said in an interview on Friday.

Kaplan was sending a troubling message to its multicultural student body, she wrote in the e-mail, and creating doubts about its commitment to provide students "with the tools to become engaged citizens in the diverse communities that California has to offer." She threatened to contact the news media and parents of Chula Vista students, and to seek legal advice if the matter was not resolved.

Within the week, Ms. Maldonado said, administrators and college lawyers had apologized to students and the president had been dismissed.

None of the administrators e-mailed at Kaplan's Chula Vista campus over the weekend responded.

Mr. Iori, the corporate spokesman, said he could not discuss the incident or allow a reporter to talk to other campus officials, but he clarified the college's language policy, which he said had been misstated to students. "Our policy is that instruction is in English but conversations can take place in any language. We don't discipline students for speaking other languages in class."

Ms. Maldonado said she flew from Santa Cruz to San Diego to meet with campus administrators because she was not convinced they were taking the matter seriously enough. She said she believed that Ms. Dussett was following the directions of the president when she addressed her nephew's class.

A Question of Professionalism

Ms. Maldonado said that while the president never said he favored academic sanctions against students who converse in Spanish, he told her that he wanted to make sure that students were held to the highest levels of professionalism and that having a side conversation in Spanish was unprofessional.

"I was outraged that he would make a correlation between being bilingual and being unprofessional," she said.

Ms. Maldonado contacted one of her former instructors at the University of California at San Diego, Patrick Velasquez, who also served as co-chair of the San Diego Chicano/Latino Concilio, a coalition of alumni, faculty and staff members, and students from higher-education institutions in San Diego County. The group wrote a letter to Kaplan officials saying that threatening students who speak Spanish on campus was "unethical, insensitive, and smacks of blatant racism."

Officials at a handful of other border campuses said they did not have English-only policies

The National Association of College and University Attorneys referred calls to James F. Shekleton, general counsel for the South Dakota Board of Regents. He said he would be surprised if other colleges banned the speaking of Spanish on their campuses. "Language can both facilitate and obstruct communication. It's very central to people's dignity and sense of self-worth," he said. "If you start legislating language, you're going to end up with a mess."