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Pima Community College's deep accreditation crisis

Closing Doors No More
March 28, 2013

Pima Community College likely will be an open-door admissions institution once again, thanks to an accreditation crisis that has rocked the large Arizona community college.

Complaints about Pima’s leadership spurred a recent campus visit by a site team from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the college's regional accreditor. What they found wasn’t pretty.

A report from the four reviewers identified serious and “highly complex” problems on nine major themes. They included a “culture of fear,” an allegedly absentee governing board, flawed management by past and present administrators, and accusations of sexual harassment against Roy Flores, Pima’s former chancellor.

The team also determined that Pima had run afoul of new language in the commission’s criteria for accreditation, which seeks to ensure that an “institution’s mission demonstrates commitment to the public good."

That culprit was a move to tighten the college’s admission standards, which was a key part of the four-year college push Flores had championed. Pima also took heat over how it sought to change the delivery of remedial education.

“The college’s decision to change its admissions policy despite community opposition conflicts with its stated mission of developing the community through learning,” wrote Sylvia Manning, the commission's president, “and demonstrates a lack of understanding of its role in serving the public good in its community.”

In addition, Pima failed to notify the commission about its mission-shifting admission policy changes, according to the report, which was released earlier this month.

The college is working on a response, and plans to challenge several facts in the report, said C.J. Karamargin, a Pima spokesman. The college is also likely to suggest a lighter sanction than probation, he said. Its response is due at the end of the week.

“Pima College takes very seriously the concerns that have been raised,” said Karamargin.

The commission’s board will rule on the probation recommendation next week. In the meantime, the college’s leadership has recommended that the new admissions standards be dropped.

Suzanne L. Miles, the interim chancellor, wrote to Pima’s Board of Governors this week calling for the suspension of the tighter standards for this academic year. Miles, who announced last week that she will step down in April, said the suspension would give the next chancellor time to weigh in on the standards.

“We believe it would be in the best interests of the college to step back and re-examine how we ensure that our students are appropriately prepared for the rigors of college level work and equipped with the tools necessary to succeed,” wrote Miles.

Troubling Allegations

Flores resigned last year, citing health problems. He had been at the helm since 2003. Eight female employees accused him of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, the site team found.

After rejecting his advances, several of the women said, they were demoted or transferred to another position at the college, which includes six locations and enrolls about 40,000 students. One woman filed a claim to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was later settled.

The college’s governance problems stem in part from the board’s alleged inaction on complaints about Flores, according to the report. Board members first received anonymous complaints in 2008. But the board took no formal action until at least late 2011.

However, the report describes a hostile work environment with more pervasive problems than the troubling allegations about Flores.

The site team visited Pima in January and interviewed a total of 108 people. The interviews painted an ugly picture, with almost universal complaints about the management of the college. “An unhealthy college culture was established through the use of intimidation, fear and an abuse of executive power,” the report said.

Many employees said those problems had not ended with the departure of Flores, who left two years before his contract was to expire.

The college has suffered heavy turnover among managers. The report said 39 of a group of 55 top administrators from 2007 were no longer in their positions by 2013. Employees told the team that “cronyism” and the manipulation of employment policies to reward or punish employees contributed to the turnover. And the report also criticized the college’s awarding of contracts without considering other bids.

“The former chancellor and the board appear to have established a symbiotic relationship which prevented the board from acting independently and from taking appropriate steps to safeguard the well-being of many of the college’s employees,” according to the site team. “The team believes that some of the college’s senior leadership, both past and present, have misused and abused the power of their positions.”

Four-Year Aspirations

The Higher Learning Commission is the largest of six regional accreditors. The commission updated its criterion for accreditation in January, after a four-year overhaul.

Manning said the commission wanted the standards to make a statement that “education is a public good.” New language requires institutions to serve the public first, not themselves, and “thus entails a public obligation.”

The new section also says educational responsibilities must come before other purposes, including “financial returns for investors.” That language has worried some leaders of for-profit colleges, who fear their sector might be targeted for its business model. But Manning said the public good requirements apply to all types of colleges. And Pima’s accreditation problems seem to add evidence to her assertion. 

Flores had pushed hard for Pima to become a four-year institution, telling employees that he wanted to follow the lead of many of Florida’s community colleges, which in recent years began offering bachelor’s degrees.

Controversy is sure to follow when a community college tries to go the four-year route. Michigan is the latest flashpoint. But community colleges in Michigan are allowed to offer bachelor’s degrees only in a limited number of programs, like cement technology. Flores was more ambitious, according to the site team’s report.

The former chancellor had said he wanted to hire only faculty members with Ph.D.s. But the admissions policy change, begun in 2011, drew the most fire. Students now must meet a threshold on a popular placement test, ACT's COMPASS, to be admitted to Pima. That’s a big change for a college that, like most two-year institutions, had long opened its doors to any student with a high school diploma or GED.

Recent research has found placement tests lacking in their ability to accurately determine students' remedial needs. And Pima raised the stakes by using the test to bar admission to low-performing students.

Flores said deep budget cuts meant the college needed to focus on students who had a better chance of earning a credentialBut the admission's change rankled many around Tucson and beyond who want the college to remain open-access.

The tightened standards have had a substantial impact on enrollment. From fall 2011 to fall 2012, the number of full-time students enrolled in remedial programs at Pima declined by 30 percent, according to the report, while enrollment of other students fell by only 10 percent. Numbers for the spring were similar.

Those declines also affected faculty employment figures, with a dip of 28 percent for faculty members who teach remedial courses.

Furthermore, the team heard widespread complaints that the change in admission policy was not thoroughly discussed within the college and with local residents and groups.

“Many individuals expressed concerns that the approval of the change was not sought through extensive discussion with faculty,” the report said. “The team believes that faculty as a whole were not adequately consulted and, on at least one occasion, faculty leadership appears to have been coerced into supporting the college leadership’s desire to make such changes.”

Pima also did not properly brief the commission on the admission shift, which the team deemed to be an "effective change in mission" requiring a formal application. College leaders concede this mistake

“The roll-out of the admissions standards could have been handled in a better way,” Karamargin said.

But while the site team found a raft of governance problems at the college, Karamargin noted that they did not turn up substantial academic problems.

“Nowhere in the report do they raise questions about the quality of instruction,” he said.

 

 

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