By JAMIE VERWYS
Pima Community College has been making headlines and drastic changes for the last few years.
With remaining concerns from the Higher Learning Commission, statewide budget cuts and a variety of federal audits, the students and faculty of PCC must be resilient.
That type of resilience only comes after chaos.
When Chancellor Lee Lambert arrived at Pima in 2013, the college was in the wake of the Jared Lee Loughner shootings and the departure of former Chancellor Ray Flores. By all accounts, the former president of Shoreline Community College in Washington had his work cut out for him.
“When I saw what was going on here at the college and community, I said, ‘That’s a place I want to come and be part of,’” Lambert said on May 1 in his first extended interview with the Aztec Press.
“I can contribute and add value. I know things were challenging but that doesn’t scare me.”
He views every challenge as an opportunity and explains Pima’s values with the imagery of a “North Star” concept.
“The college’s North Star in my mind has three facets to it,” he said. “The biggest one is student success, the other two are community engagement and diversity. Getting the internal culture to recalibrate those three things is part of the challenge that’s in front of us. The big opportunity that’s in front of us.”
The culture he seeks to improve was described as one of fear by the HLC and by employees.
Alec Moreno, the student representative to the PCC Board of Governors, has heard faculty, students and community members discuss concerns with customer service at PCC.
Moreno believes the solution to Pima’s problems cannot be solved by the chancellor alone.
“I know that he really wants to see the college grow and everyone work together like they should, but I know it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.
“The responsibilities are shared with everyone in this community, especially with students and employees.”
Moreno said he has seen in board meetings that students are very concerned about prices, the community is worried about PCC’s budget and faculty are unsatisfied with communication.
Lambert said with the changes to PCC and higher education nationwide, differing opinions and attitudes about what’s best for the college were to be expected.
“As you go through to realign you’re going be disruptive and its going to cause heartburn and so forth,” he said. “You have to keep things in that proper context. Folks stay focused to that and work through it to get on the other end, but it means people’s jobs will change in some parts.”
One example he provided of alterations to certain procedures at Pima is the former method of considering all students as out-of-state until they prove otherwise.
“When the vast majority of our students are in state, why do we create a system and process that treats everybody as if they are out-of-state until they prove otherwise? It should be the other way around,” he said.
“Some people, their old job was probably oriented to that and now I’m going to change it to the other way around.”
Looking back to the North Star, Lambert said all of the recent changes in procedure go beyond complying with HLC. They are being implemented to meet the highest point of the star, student success.
A new attendance tracking policy was enacted this semester, requiring that faculty log attendance for each individual student on a weekly basis and outline new attendance requirements in their spring syllabi.
“The issue isn’t attendance taking, the issue is making sure it’s being done,” Lambert said. “Yes, it’s going to be disruptive because it’s depending on the modality of what you’re teaching and having the tools to deal with it. We haven’t always gotten the tools at the college or we’ve not deployed the optimum tools.”
According to Lambert, the changing model of higher education and how it is funded is one of the largest challenges ahead.
“The model itself has to be rethought and then what streams of revenue could feed into that,” he said. “The whole model of education has to be looked at. Is the way were educating today the way the education will unfold into the future?”
One way the college is working towards bettering Pima is through the use of a lobbyist in Phoenix.
“The first piece of the lobbyist we put in place is to start to develop relationships on both sides of the aisle, which also includes the governor’s office.”
State aid is only one way in which government interacts with the college, and expenditure limitation laws impact Pima even more.
“The lion share of our budget is attached to property taxes. So if the law was to be changed or the interpretation of the law was to change to be less favorable to Pima, we would be in a far more world of hurt.”
Lambert said that there is talk of separating financial aid from accreditation, which would mean learning institutions would not need accreditation from organizations like HLC.
He speculated what could happen if this change were to occur.
“We would see a whole new group of organizations vying for a limited pot of money,” he said.
“That means the money our students have been getting for financial aid will be thinned out and that will have massive implications.”
Through community engagement, advisory committees, communication and creating plans to step out ahead of the obstacles still left to overcome, Lambert is hopeful for Pima’s future.
“There’s no reason why Pima could not be a leader,” he said.
“To be a leader means you have to be willing to change and you have to be willing to embrace the new frontier that’s unfolding,” he added.
“We have to redirect Pima to be going the path of the future. That’s some of the heavy lifting that has to happen.”