By ANDREW PAXTON
Sixteen months after first placing Pima Community College on probation, the Higher Learning Commission has dispatched another fact-finding team to determine if its concerns have been fully addressed.
The visit comes nearly two years after a previous team from Pima’s accrediting body found institutional misconduct and a “culture of fear” at PCC.
From Sept. 15-17, current and former college administrators visited Pima’s six campuses and held meetings at the college’s district office.
The goal of the meetings was to get firsthand knowledge of what Pima has done to remedy the issues discovered by the HLC in January 2013.
“We’re the followup team, and our job is to find out if changes have been made,” said Peter Wielinski, vice president of student services at Minnesota State Community and Technical College, during a forum with students.
The team members met with students, staff, faculty and members of the community in order to get as complete a picture as possible and determine if the information provided in Pima’s self-study report is accurate.
“They wanted to see specific evidence of what Pima is doing to reach out to the community and get off probation,” said Ingrid Martinez, vice president for student government at West Campus.
Martinez said that when team members met with student leaders, they wanted to know how the college works to enrich students’ experiences outside of the classroom.
During a forum at the West Campus on Sept. 16, about 20 students met with Wielinski and Marty Bachman, chair of nursing at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colo.
After introductions, Weilinski asked the students what changes they have seen since the college was placed on probation in April 2013.
Several students noted the attitude and engagement of Pima’s new chancellor, Lee Lambert, who was hired in the wake of the college being sanctioned.
“He has been in the cafeteria, or in Student Life office, and he asks students if they know about the probation,” Martinez said. “If they say ‘no,’ he stops and talks with them about the issues.”
The HLC investigators asked student leaders to describe their experiences at Pima, both positive and negative. They also asked students to explain why they first came to PCC.
The main reasons that students gave for coming to Pima were small class sizes, lower tuition than at a university, flexible hours and a respected nursing program.
Several issues that students have had at Pima were also discussed with the HLC team. The topic that drew the most discussion was financial aid and advising.
“You never get a straight answer out of anyone and it seems like no one has the information you need,” said one student who declined to be named for this story.
“We have been to every campus and the district office and everyone gives you a different answer,” he said.
Other students agreed.
“The advisors are friendly and approachable, but you leave wondering if you really got help or not,” said Pima music major Sierra Nealy.
“I was worried about my classes getting dropped because I didn’t know what was going on with my aid,” she added.
Many of the students said this was the first time they had issues with getting their aid, and that there was no way to get a resolution to their problems.
“Are you aware of how you can register a formal complaint if you have an issue with the way things are being handled at the college?” Wielinski asked.
Some students shook their heads and indicated they were unaware of any way to lodge their grievances, despite the fact that the college created an Office of Conflict Resolution earlier this year.
The HLC team will compile all the information it received during its three-day visit and issue a report on their findings.
The report, expected sometime in October, will make a recommendation to the full commission about whether probation should be lifted.
Pima will then have a chance to correct errors of fact and make one last presentation to the commission before the accrediting body makes its decision next February.