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Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis
October 13, 2008

For Northeast Lakeview College, educating the students of the San Antonio area has always been something of a family affair. The fledgling institution began as a satellite campus for two other nearby colleges, and students from those sister colleges still dominate the campus.

But as Northeast Lakeview moved toward establishing itself as a separate college in 2006-7, and began seeking its own accreditation, something of an identity crisis occurred. The college hired its own faculty, administrators and president, but the campus still catered mostly to students from the nearby – and fully accredited – St. Philip's and San Antonio Colleges. Trouble is, St. Philip's and San Antonio faculty say they’ve had little if any say in who Northeast Lakeview hires. They also say they've lost just about any semblance of the oversight they once had over the instruction students receive on the Northeast Lakeview campus.

“We should have been in charge of assessing those students and those classes, and this is something we have not been doing for two years,” said Jeff Hunt, chairman of the department of theater and speech communication at San Antonio College.

Given the arrangement between the three colleges, which share a common district, a college without accreditation is providing instruction to a substantial number of students who are covered by two other colleges' accreditation. That's raising the eyebrows of professors and accreditors, and it points toward the larger issue of quality control. In booming population centers like San Antonio, where spinoff operations are becoming more common in higher education, how do established colleges maintain oversight of branch campuses, particularly when those campuses seek to become free-standing institutions?

SACS: Financial Aid Practice 'Questionable'

At Northeast Lakeview, only about 400 of the more than 4,000 students on campus are considered Northeast Lakeview students. Part of that is attributable to history. St. Philip's and San Antonio, which share the Alamo Community College District with Lakeview and two other colleges, have been offering courses on the Lakeview campus for more than a decade. Lakeview, on the other hand, only applied for candidacy for accreditation as a separate college about a year ago, and it has just started building a base of students.

But there’s another reason so few students on the Northeast Lakeview campus are considered “Northeast Lakeview students,” and that reason is money. Students who register for courses at Lakeview are not eligible for federal financial aid because Lakeview is not yet accredited. Until recently, however, students who registered at one of Lakeview’s sister colleges – and sat alongside Lakeview students in the same room, with the same instructor, in the same course at the same time – were counted as students from separate and accredited institutions. As such, they were eligible for financial aid, even though their instruction was identical to that received by students at an unaccredited college.

Confused? So was the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which successfully pressed Lakeview this summer to end its practice of commingling students from the three separate colleges in one class. The arrangement raised significant questions about the level of oversight St. Philip's and San Antonio have over the classes they offer on Northeast Lakeview’s campus, SACS officials said. SACS also questioned whether the three colleges had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of financial aid law.

Photo: SACS

Belle Wheelan, president of SACS Commission on Colleges, has raised questions about Northeast Lakeview.

 

Belle Wheelan, president of SACS’ Commission on Colleges, contacted district officials this summer to express her concerns. Students from two accredited colleges were given financial aid for taking courses that had no discernible difference from those offered by an unaccredited college, and that was troubling, she said.

“The federal government wants to make sure that the money they are putting out is going to a program that is a respectable quality program, and because Northeast Lakeview is not accredited [there’s no guarantee of quality],” Wheelan said.

“Any money that would be spent on that course [where students commingled] is questionable,” she added. “That’s the bottom line.”

Eric Reno, president of Northeast Lakeview, said he discussed the commingling arrangement with the U.S. Department of Education, and “they said they didn’t have a problem with it, but they were going to rely on SACS and their assessment of it.”

Asked about the arrangement, the Department of Education issued the following statement: "We are aware of the situation and are working with the school and the accrediting agency to resolve the issue."

SACS Pressure Led to Changes

Northeast Lakeview officials readily acknowledge that giving financial aid to students registered through Northeast Lakeview would be a clear-cut financial aid violation, but college officials say they don’t think that has ever happened. SACS has no evidence to the contrary, but -- in assessing the college's candidacy for accreditation -- the agency would seek to independently verify that no such aid was offered, Wheelan said.

Asked if he was certain Northeast Lakeview students never received federal dollars, President Eric Reno said it was his “assumption” that they hadn’t.

“I wish I could say that [never happened], but my assumption is that we have not allowed anyone taking an NLC course and getting financial aid,” he said. “And I don’t even know if there was an example of when we did [award aid] and fixed it. I’m not even aware of that.”

When SACS started raising questions this summer, Northeast Lakeview officials rushed to make changes. Less than a month before the fall semester began, administrators scurried to reshuffle classes, segregating the Lakeview students from all others on campus. While the primary issue was separating Lakeview students from the rest, district officials say that by spring they won't even allow St. Philip's and San Antonio College students to share classes. Both institutions have slightly different outcome objectives, even in classes that share common course numbers.

Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Alamo Community College District, said the changes were made to accommodate SACS – not because he saw anything legally dubious about the previous arrangement.

“There has been nothing done here that was pushing the line or whatever,” Leslie said. “We’ve simply been trying to get this college established in the same context as two other colleges existing in the same physical space.”

And therein lies Northeast Lakeview’s peculiar dilemma. With few exceptions, community college districts are more or less accredited as a whole. The six campuses of the Houston Community College System, for instance, are all accredited under a single umbrella. But the history of the Alamo Community College District, which stretches back to the late 1800s, is different than most. Four colleges in the district are separately accredited, and the fifth – Northeast Lakeview – is now seeking its own accreditation. So while there’s an undeniable link between the colleges, SACS views each of them as completely separate entities for purposes of accreditation.

Photo: Alamo Community College District

Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Alamo Community College District, says the district's structure presents unique challenges for accreditation.

 

“Once they have decided that it’s its own freestanding institution -- and not a center where anybody can come offer classes -- they have to start from the beginning,” Wheelan said.

Sister Colleges Now Under Scrutiny

As Northeast Lakeview vies for its own accreditation, its two sister colleges are finding themselves under SACS’ microscope. Faculty from St. Philip's and San Antonio College say they have seen a significant curtailment in the oversight they once provided to Lakeview. While the two colleges are offering courses on Northeast Lakeview’s campus, department heads at St. Philip's and San Antonio have had little say in hiring the instructors who teach those courses, and little if any role in evaluating them throughout the year.

Jeff Hunt, chairman of a district-wide body of faculty chairs, said he’s been concerned for nearly two years that the lack of oversight at Northeast Lakeview could come back to bite his home institution of San Antonio College.

“We’ve been very concerned as colleges,” Hunt said. “Because we’ve been asking the questions, ‘Doesn’t this affect us? Shouldn’t we be running this until they are given permission from SACS to move forward or they don’t need us to oversee them anymore?’ Those questions have been squelched by the chancellor and the board.”

A lack of oversight of courses could prove to be an accreditation issue for both colleges, according to Wheelan, who heads the SACS Commission on Colleges. Under Section 3.4.1 of SACS' Principles of Accreditation, the agency requires that "each educational program for which academic credit is awarded (a) is approved by the faculty and the administration, and (b) establishes and evaluates program and learning outcomes." Wheelan said there are questions about whether that has happened at St. Philip's and San Antonio.

“The faculty needs to have control over whatever courses they are offering at Northeast Lakeview," Wheelan said.

The rapid -- and sometimes poorly planned -- growth of branch campuses has been an issue for SACS before. This summer, the agency ordered North Carolina Central University to shut down a branch campus it had operated in a church near Atlanta without permission of the University of North Carolina administration or SACS.

If a violation did occur at Northeast Lakeview, SACS has a range of options that include requiring monitoring reports from St. Philip's and San Antonio, issuing warnings, placing the colleges on probation or -- in the most severe instance -- removing accreditation. While Wheelan says she's concerned, severe sanctions aren't on the table at this point, she said.

“To say that their membership is in jeopardy is inaccurate, because the likelihood of them being removed from membership is too far flung," she said.

College President Says Oversight Will Increase

Under pressure from SACS officials, St. Philip's and San Antonio College are now re-asserting their oversight roles, according to Bob Zeigler, president of San Antonio.

“I’m not conceding that we didn’t have any role,” he said. “What I am saying is that the level diminished somewhat. Our vice presidents meet across the district; we look at curriculum, so I am comfortable the students at Northeast Lakeview were receiving quality courses.”

But Sean Nighbert, chair of communications and learning at St. Philip's, says he’s doing some pretty fundamental things now that he wasn’t doing just a few months ago. For starters, Nighbert is evaluating the credentials of faculty who were hired without his input to teach St. Philip's courses.

So what happens if Nighbert doesn’t agree with a hire that was made a year ago? Nighbert says he’s not sure. “What then is my role? Nobody’s been able to give me a very clear answer on that,” he said.

Inside Higher Ed sought an answer from Adena Williams Loston, the college’s president, but she declined an interview request. Additionally, district officials have not responded to a public records request for documented communication between the colleges and SACS regarding the oversight issue.

Zeigler, president at San Antonio, said he didn’t see any potential problems with the faculty hires that were made without his college’s input. If there were a problem with qualifications, however, Zeigler said he would address it.

“If we really felt strongly about that, we would say that [for] San Antonio College students that faculty member would not teach classes that a San Antonio College student is receiving credit for,” he said. “But I don’t see that happening.”

Extent of Oversight Lapse Remains Murky

It’s unclear how many faculty members were hired to teach St. Philip's and San Antonio College courses without input from faculty leadership at those colleges. Beth Lewis, vice president of academic affairs at Northeast Lakeview, said there had been input from faculty across the district when hirings began in 2006. As for the last two years, however, inclusion has been sporadic.

Photo: Alamo Community College District

Bob Zeigler, president of San Antonio College, acknowledges oversight of programs at Northeast Lakeview "diminished somewhat."

 

“We continue to use [district] college representation when we have no one at the [Northeast Lakeview College] with expertise [for the] position for which we are hiring, as we did in the spring of 2008 for a music faculty member,” Lewis wrote in an e-mail.

Asked to provide a list of past hiring committees, Lewis said “It would take some time to pull that together" and did not respond further.

Most of the teaching at Northeast Lakeview is actually carried out by adjunct faculty who aren’t vetted by an interview committee at all. The college employs 65 full-time, tenure track faculty; 14 non-tenure track faculty; and about 180 adjuncts. The adjuncts are hired by department chairs and not interviewed by committees, according to Lewis.

Lakeview Projects 15,000-Student Campus

Northeast Lakeview is poised for major growth. With help of a $125 million bond approved by district voters in 2005, the college just opened a new campus that will eventually accommodate more than 15,000 students, according to district projections.

As Lakeview grows, it will also likely begin to break away from St. Philip's and San Antonio. Within a year, Lakeview hopes to be formally accepted by SACS as a candidate for accreditation. Attaining candidacy status would allow Lakeview students to receive federal financial aid, and the college’s sister institutions could then significantly scale back their course offerings, according to Chancellor Leslie.

“There has been no friction. There has been no conflict,” Leslie said of his conversations with SACS officials. “There’s been nothing other than how can we make this thing work.”

Leslie then added, “It’s been somewhat of a winding road.”

 

 

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