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Remembering the Alamo (Faculty)

March 24, 2014

Faculty members at Alamo Colleges in San Antonio objected earlier this year to their chancellor’s move to make a course inspired in part by the popular self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People part of the core curriculum. Instructors said they felt left out of the decision-making process and weren’t sure if the course, which would replace one of only two required humanities classes in the core, deserved that kind of curricular billing.

Now Alamo's accreditor is responding to faculty concerns, saying it will investigate the course and the process by which it entered the general education program.

Last week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent a letter to Northwest Vista College President Jacqueline Claunch asking for documentation to support that the course – both in substance and how it was adopted – meets SACS standards. The Alamo system’s five colleges are accredited separately and Northwest Vista instructors have been most vocally opposed to the course being part of the core. Namely, they sent a letter to the state higher education board about their concerns, onto which Claunch and other administrators signed. Despite the letter, the board approved the course as part of the core earlier this month.

According to its letter, SACS wants to make sure that Alamo students can’t take a skills-based course, perhaps such as the one in question, to meet the agency's general education requirement of at least one humanities course. It wants to see a syllabus for the course, which is cross-listed as an education and psychology class, as well as a catalog description.

SACS also wants to know that the faculty has approved the course and that instructors maintain primary control of the curriculum. And since SACS requires that accredited institutions make it aware of “significant departures” from current general education programs, the agency wants proof that either Alamo Colleges tried to alert it to the change or that the change is not significant.

SACS also says the situation “raises concerns about the autonomy of the colleges within the Alamo District and whether or not separate accreditation of the colleges within the system is appropriate.”

Belle Wheelan, SACS president, said in an interview that “we want them to send back to us an explanation of what the course contains, as well as the process the college went through to get approval the [state] board and how involved the college was.”

If SACS finds that the college was “not that involved, and the system’s office did it, then we’ve have to go in and investigate, because they’d be out of compliance with standards.”

The college has until April 15 to prepare the report.

Claunch, Northwest Vista’s president, said she’d prepare a “perfectly truthful” report for SACS about EDUC 1300, as it’s listed in the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board list of approved courses. Claunch said no college ever wanted to be under the scrutiny of an accreditor, but that she was “proud” of the professional way in which instructors had raised their concerns with the state board.

The president said that with or without the course in question, Northwest Vista does meet SACS’ general education requirements, since EDUC 1300 would replace just one of two humanities courses in Alamo’s core. And if it’s ultimately decided that the class should remain part of the core, she said, “we will do our best to make sure it’s a great course for students.”

But, she said, “We could have preferred at this time that the course not be part of the core.”  

Viviane Marioneaux, digital media instructor and Northwest Vista Faculty Senate president, agreed, saying that faculty members didn’t object to the course itself as much as its being part of the core. Faculty value the “soft skills” training that Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie has said will be part of EDUC 1300, Marioneaux said. But there may be other, more effective ways for students to get that training.

“The question for us is why could we not have possibly modified existing humanities courses to include those principles, Covey or not,” she said, referring to Stephen R. Covey, author of 7 Habits. But instructors never got a chance to ask that question.

The change was made from the top down, outside normal, faculty-driven curricular channels, Marioneaux said. As a consequence, faculty members are now in the strange position of having to defend a course that “we don’t know anything about.”

Via email, Leslie said that Alamo colleges have been teaching the 7 Habits to students for years, “but not at scale. [The new course] is a concerted effort to provide the benefits of leadership to all of our students, not just to a small cohort.” He also noted that the 7 Habits made up just one of six learning outcomes for the course. Leslie has previously described the new course as one to help students learn to "do college."

Leslie said that placing the new course in the core was the suggestion of a faculty committee. (Jo-Carol Fabianke, vice chancellor of academic success for Alamo Colleges, later identified that committee as "the leadership group for the Learning Framework and the student development courses.") Of the SACS inquiry, Leslie said, “Our responsibility, of course, is to provide the information SACS is requesting.  We see this as helpful as the process may assist us in clarifying for everyone the process and, perhaps, the larger question [of campus- versus system-level accreditation]."

 

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