Pima still faces serious issues less than a year away from an evaluation that will determine the fate of the college
By ANDREW PAXTON
As Pima Community College looks to improve operations and emerge from probation, several events suggest the college may not be moving in the directions recommended by its accreditor.
Complaints regarding the handling of disruptive students, missteps involving the hiring of senior administrators and the continued use of interim administrators are just some of the problems Pima continues to face less than a year before being evaluated by their accrediting body.
The Higher Learning Commission placed the college on probation in April after identifying several operating deficiencies and a “culture of fear” at PCC.
Pima has until July 2014 to show progress in the areas of deficiency identified by the HLC, which will then send a team in August to evaluate the evidence presented by the college.
If the HLC determines that Pima has not sufficiently dealt with the issues that led to PCC being sanctioned, the commission could decide to impose further penalties against the college, including loss of accreditation.
Disruptive student policy
When the fact-finding team visited Pima in January, they found that the college did not have an effective system for receiving or analyzing complaints against administrators.
Now, some instructors are concerned with the way the college deals with students who make disruptive comments in class or otherwise interfere with the learning environment.
Chancellor Lee Lambert addressed the issue of faculty and student safety in a recent email to employees, which said he takes the concerns “very seriously.”
Lambert said an outside expert will be brought in to assess how the college handles complaints from faculty and find a solution to the problem.
“Have no doubt that we will act quickly and decisively to implement those solutions in the ongoing effort to ensure that our college is a secure place to learn and work,” he wrote.
“As long as I am chancellor, your security and safety will be a top priority,” Lambert wrote.
Administrator search reboot
The college hired Gwendolyn Joseph as interim president for Downtown Campus on Nov. 25 and is searching for a vice president for student development, but the process has not been smooth.
The hiring follows the dismissal of the previous administrators earlier in the semester after reports of mishandling student concerns.
Only one viable candidate for the position was available after a nominee withdrew from the process when allegations of misconduct at a previous job were discovered.
Candidate forums for the vice president position had been set until it was discovered that one of the two finalists had to withdraw from consideration.
The candidates were recommended to Pima by a national executive recruiting organization, which failed to find the allegations of misconduct.
The candidate forums have been rescheduled for Dec. 16 in the Amethyst Room at Downtown Campus. PCC employees are encouraged to attend.
The HLC fact-finding team noted a lack of appropriate oversight for the college’s human resources department in its January report.
“This team believes that a careful review of HR hiring, promotion, transfer and dismissal policies and procedures is warranted,” they wrote.
The college’s frequent use of interim and acting administrators was also an area of concern outlined in the HLC’s report.
The president of the HLC wrote in a letter to college officials that the frequent use of interim leaders led to difficulty in meeting institutional goals.
However, the college continues to hire interim leaders for many of its top positions.
Mark Ziska, the recently hired head of human resources, is an interim executive, as are several other leading figures at Pima, including the presidents of Downtown and Community campuses.
Jerry Migler, the current provost, is leaving the college on Dec. 13, creating a void in an important position at a crucial time.
The provost office has been leading the effort to bring Pima into compliance with the HLC.
Once Migler leaves, the position will be led on a short-term basis by Zelema Harris, who was herself hired as an interim vice chancellor for institutional effectiveness to help Pima get on-track.
Harris served as PCC’s interim chancellor earlier this year and received recognition from employees and community members for her efforts to restore the college’s reputation.
Some students wonder what Migler’s departure means for the college’s future.
“It’s very unfortunate that he chose to leave Pima at such a critical time,” said April Ramey, president of student government at Downtown Campus.
“However, I’m very glad Dr. Harris has agreed to return to Pima,” she said. “I feel the transition will go smoothly due to her familiarity with Pima and the issues Pima is dealing with at this time.”
The college has indicated it plans to fill the provost on an interim basis, according to a press release from the college.
Many other administrators are acting heads of their department, including the college’s police chief and the president of Northwest Campus.
The HLC team made their opinion regarding these temporary appointments clear during their visit in January.
“The team does believe that the college appears to have used ‘interim’ and ‘acting’ administrative positions excessively,” the HLC investigators wrote.
They also reported the high level of turnover “caused disturbances within the college’s programs and has proven unhealthy for the institution.”
Citizen’s finance panel
The college has made progress in addressing at least one crucial concern reported by the HLC.
The commission highlighted monetary mismanagement as a key issue at Pima when it placed sanctions on the college earlier this year.
“Some issues involving financial problems or errors are not brought into full public view during board meetings,” the team wrote in its report.
The fact-finding team also noted that the college did not have a finance committee that reported to the board.
Now, Pima is forming an oversight committee composed mostly of volunteers from the community to provide an extra layer of scrutiny to the college’s spending and purchasing practices.
The panel will meet at least four times a year and report their finding to Pima’s governing board.
Two members of the board will serve on the committee, and the college’s financial officer David Bea will offer advice as an ex-officio member.
Despite the issues Pima is facing, the college remains optimistic it will address all the problems in time to have sanctions lifted.
“I do believe we will get off probation,” Harris told a group of employees and students on Nov. 15, according to a press release.
A self-study conducted by Pima found 106 of 125 areas analyzed were in compliance with HLC standards.
However, about 15 percent of the college’s operations and procedures are not meeting criteria.
The college has assigned a team to each of the areas not in compliance to make changes no later than May 1, 2014.
“We will do the right thing because that is in the best interests of students and their success,” Harris said.