By EDDIE CELAYA
The Higher Learning Commission’s “focus visit” wrapped up Sept. 27 with a forum for invited community members. That meeting created little drama, unlike a more exclusive forum held between HLC reviewers and critics of the college earlier in the day.
Reviewers were present on all PCC campuses throughout Monday, Sept. 26, and Tuesday, Sept. 27. Their meetings and forums focused on a wide range of issues with varying groups of the college’s constituencies.
The two meetings at Downtown Campus could not have been more different in tone.
The first meeting focused on criticisms from the Coalition For Accountability, Integrity, Respect and Responsibility and the commission’s reviewers. The second meeting was limited to invited guests.
The scheduled meeting between accrediting reviewers and C-FAIRR representatives started off fiery, with C-FAIRR Board Chair Mario Gonzales beginning the proceedings by admonishing the reviewers from 2010.
“That team is the ones that gave a big, big pass to the college as sexual harassment issues were coming down; they discovered nothing,” he said. “For what reasons, I have no idea.”
As Gonzales continued, he was interrupted by reviewer Sherilyn Poole. “We know the history, we’ve all read that. So if there is something you want us to know, this is the time.”
Gonzales pressed on, alleging the HLC had continued to fail the college from an accreditation stand-point. “The HLC has failed to carefully and objectively vet information provided to it by Pima Community College,” he said.
C-FAIRR, according to Gonzales, is concerned about what it sees as various shortcomings at Pima. Concerns range from the recent increase in tuition for local students (and decrease for out-of-state students) to diversity among the college staff.
Carol Gorsuch, a former Pima instructor, also voiced her concerns. She brought up multiple cases of alleged abuse of executive power. Specifically, she cited the case of former chemistry instructor David Katz.
“David Katz decided to take a stand, not only for himself but for all other faculty and staff who he knew had been targeted unfairly by the college administration. In July 2016 a federal judge ruled in his favor,” Gorsuch said.
Because of his previous positions, that case and other such cases are especially damning to Chancellor Lee Lambert, according to Gorsuch. “His two previous jobs included director of affirmative action and director of HR.”
Gorsuch and Gonzales also criticized the finalized HLC focus visit schedule and the “hand-picked” nature of groups put forth by the college.
“You won’t be meeting with any focus groups composed of local residents, who no longer find Pima reaching out to them to provide once valuable educational services,” Gorsuch said.
Former Interim Chancellor and Provost Zelma Harris rounded out the C-FAIRR speakers. Her focus was on what she sees as “unprecedented” shutting out of C-FAIRR’s constituency.
“This is the first time in my 40-year history being involved in the community college movement that I have seen a community group representing a large constituency so totally disrespected, rebuffed, ignored and in fact not taken seriously,” Harris said.
There was some confusion as the meeting ended, with C-FAIRR representatives attempting to hand a packet of information to the reviewers, only to be told that was against policy.
“We can not accept any materials that have not been officially submitted,” Poole said.
For the HLC to truly help Pima, Gonzales and C-FAIRR see only one solution. “Our position is that PCC either remain on notice, or be placed again on probation.”
That notion, for the most part, was not shared at the larger community forum held later in the day. Many of PCC’s business, nonprofit and corporate partners were present and represented, letting their perspectives be known.
Many invitees praised PCC’s workforce development program and its student workers.
“The work force development team have aligned their goals with our goals, which helps align their programs and curriculum with the industry,” said Raytheon representative Patricia Brown.
Edwin Marquez of Southern Arizona Leadership Council expressed excitement “about Pima connecting with local businesses to help supply a quality workforce here in Tucson. I think the current administration is doing a great job.”
Other members, such as Arizona State University’s Kelle Masyln, praised Lambert for the positive changes in the college’s culture and programs.
“Over the last three years we have had a great working relationship with Lee Lambert,” Maslan said.
“He has really focused on many positive changes that benefit the student by aligning more with university programs. So when they go to universities, they’re prepared.”
Ted Maxwell, also of Southern Arizona Leadership Council, echoed that sentiment. “Chancellor Lambert, and the college as a whole, have given the community a great opportunity (for upward mobility).”
Dave Perry, president of the Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce, concurred.
“Chancellor Lambert has brought a new level of engagement along with the new leadership he has at the college. While doing that I think the college has stepped up its internal controls,” Perry said.
While the vast majority of speakers seemed pleased or heaped praise on PCC, the last speaker of the meeting, Luis Gonzales, was critical of the institution.
“Much of this has focused on personality. I don’t think this a problem with the chancellor,” he said.
“Transparency is still a problem, just read the newspapers. And I am very concerned myself about litigation coming down. It does not speak well of the college.”
With the conclusion of the focus visit, the HLC will now consider its findings and render a verdict on PCC’s accreditation status. A final decision will be handed down by the HLC’s governing board on Feb. 22, 2017.
A previous version of the story had identified Kelle Masyln of ASU as ‘Kellan Maslan.’ It has since been corrected. The Aztec Press regrets the error.