Moonlighting While Accreditation Fell Through

Community college faces students upset that they can't be licensed after a professor -- fired this week -- reportedly didn't have time to deal with accreditor, despite having time to teach online at two for-profit institutions.

April 28, 2017
 

When a few Tallahassee Community College students attempted to take the Registered Health Information Technician certification exam last year, they learned they couldn’t sit for the test.

Despite about two years of studying and working toward their health information technology degrees, the students learned they were ineligible for the exam, which is administered by the American Health Information Management Association, because TCC didn’t have program accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education, or CAHIIM.

On Tuesday, TCC trustees fired the professor and former chair of the program who was in charge of leading the accreditation efforts, Donna Francis-Clark. The termination came one day after a hearing examiner, a former appellate court judge appointed by the college's trustees, recommended that the trustees fire Francis-Clark. The college initially told Francis-Clark in August it intended to fire her after CAHIIM informed TCC that its candidacy for accreditation -- the step required in the process toward full accreditation -- lapsed in 2015.

According to testimony during the hearing, Francis-Clark informed the college’s new provost that she had become “overwhelmed during the accreditation process, had experienced personal challenges and had stopped working on the accreditation process.” She also taught online courses at DeVry University and the University of Phoenix during the time she was pursuing CAHIIM accreditation for the college.

Francis-Clark did not respond to calls, and her attorney wasn't available to comment.

The circumstances around Francis-Clark’s termination, however, have caused the college to review and re-evaluate its own policies around program accreditation and faculty members teaching at other colleges.

TCC students began enrolling in the program in 2013, when the college first gained candidacy for accreditation. Students were told that by the time they graduated in 2015, the health information management program would be accredited and they would be eligible to sit for the exam.

“Going through something like this opens your eyes to where you may have gaps,” said Feleccia Moore-Davis, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the college. Moore-Davis was the new provost last year whom students contacted when they were denied access to the certification exam. “One of the things we’re doing is basically looking at these policies and practices to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Moore-Davis said seven students were affected by the lack of accreditation.

“I withheld graduation for those students until we can re-establish accreditation,” she said. “This loss of accreditation adversely impacted their lives and projections for becoming employed and subsequently moving forward.”

There are a number of other options the college made available to students, as well. The college is working with Florida A&M University, which has a bachelor’s degree program in health information management, for students interested in pursuing transfer. Those students who wanted to pursue an alternate path or program at TCC could do so at no cost, she said.

Ben Miller, a senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said the situation strikes him as a failure of management, since the college should have been aware of what was happening.

“There’s this weird gap in federal policy where you need institutional accreditation to get federal financial aid, but you don’t need programmatic accreditation even if it’s required,” he said. “But you don’t want programmatic accreditation to become a thing that pops up unnecessarily.”

Miller said the problem becomes more complicated for online programs, but over all it can be confusing to students when the U.S. Department of Education says they can use their student aid benefits, but they may not be able to enter the career because of program accreditations and certification exams.

Although the hearing examiner blamed the failed accreditation process completely on Francis-Clark, TCC also recognizes that there was an oversight failure when it came to the accreditation process.

“I came to TCC in 2015, and since then we established a tracking mechanism so the dean is generally aware when accreditation should occur and when site visits should occur,” Moore-Davis said. “For the [former] dean for these two women, she simply took their word for it when she asked about accreditation, and they simply told her it was moving forward.” A second professor in the program also received a letter of pending termination for her involvement.

Today, there are 30 students in the program who have been reassured that the health information management program will be accredited, Moore-Davis said, adding that the process shouldn’t take more than a year.

“We had to start the process over again, and at that point, I tried to expedite it as quickly as possible,” she said, adding that the accrediting body has waived some initial fees and TCC’s program has regained its candidacy for accreditation.

Moonlighting

Francis-Clark also worked outside TCC teaching online courses at for-profit institutions.

It’s not an “uncommon practice” at the college, Moore-Davis said.

TCC has a formal process and policy when it comes to faculty and staff pursuing outside employment. About 40 faculty and staff members at the college have gone through the formal process and have employment outside of the campus, she said. The college employs more than 1,400 staff, full- and part-time faculty. About 200 employees are full-time faculty members.

And although there is a formal process when it comes to moonlighting faculty, in order to avoid conflicts of interest, Moore-Davis said administration can only be aware of those professors and staff who inform them of their outside employment.

Moore-Davis said there isn’t any evidence that Francis-Clark followed the policy and requested the right to moonlight.

“A lot of full-timers will teach overloads, and it’s a practice that is discouraged,” said Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization. “The assumption is if you’re already teaching a full-time load, you shouldn’t be teaching additional classes because that’s spreading yourself too thin. But the degree to which full-timers engage in it depends on how well they’re paid at the institution.”

Francis-Clark’s base pay was $47,599, according to the college. She also received $13,704 in 2015 and $8,328 in 2016 for overload pay and a supplement for being the program chair.

The college has hired a new program chair who is working toward the accreditation.

“Now that one case has settled, we’re moving to hire a second faculty member,” Moore-Davis said. “We will work with students, because is their welfare at the top of our list right now, and we’ll do what is necessary to help those students move through this difficult time. This was a direct conflict of what we do for our students and why we’re here.”

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