By EDDIE CELAYA
Pima Community College’s long struggle to maintain its accreditation may be coming to an end, according to college officials.
The Higher Learning Commission will make a “focus visit” to all PCC campuses Sept. 26-27. Its governing board will then meet in February 2017 to review Pima’s accreditation status.
The HLC is an accrediting board that evaluates whether institutions of higher learning meet criteria to have their degree programs recognized by other colleges and universities.
PCC Vice Chancellor of Accreditation Bruce Moses said Pima is ready to get out of the figurative doghouse.
“It’s been almost four years now, two on probation, about 16 months on notice,” he said. “The college is ready to get out from under this. It’s time to shed this.”
Moses believes the current semester is PCC’s most important ever.
“I’ve said that it’s the most critical semester, because it is,” he said. “We don’t need students and the public to be worrying about this, we need to get back to even keel.”
Chancellor Lee Lambert concurs.
“The upcoming HLC focus visit is the first step in getting Pima back,” he said. “You can see evidence of that at every campus.”
Moses is a former research analyst and a current peer reviewer for the HLC. His Pima position was created specifically to help deal with implementation of data tracking systems.
PCC has responded to HLC concerns by identifying areas of deficiency and implementing various information systems.
Moses and his team developed 26 initiatives within 11 areas of concern highlighted by the HLC. From there, they grouped the initiatives into four categories. By last fall, about 40 percent of the initiatives identified had been completed.
All identified initiatives have been addressed, according to Moses.
“To date, based on the report we submitted, we’ve addressed all of them,” he said. “The HLC will say, ‘how much evidence can you produce?’ to try and prove that.”
Humanities instructor Michael Parker, who served as lead writer for Pima’s compliance report to the HLC, echoed Moses’ remarks.
“Pretty much everything has been done to improve towards those standards,” he said. “I know sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.”
Mario Gonzales, chairman for the Tucson-based Coalition for Accountability, Integrity, Respect and Responsibility, said his organization sees things differently.
“As far as C-FAIRR is concerned, there are quite a few areas of concern that definitely need improvement,” he said.
Gonzalez calls C-FAIRR a community-centered watchdog group made up of “mostly retirees and locals.”
The group’s areas of concern include “a continued culture of silence” and diversity issues within Pima’s hiring process.
“We understand the spin that has to go on at the college,” Gonzales said. “It’s not as rosy as the administration wants people to believe.”
The beginning of sanctions
Pima has been in the HLC’s crosshairs since late 2012.
After voicing concerns about the leadership of then-Chancellor Roy Flores, C-FAIRR filed a complaint with the HLC.
CFAIRR’s initial complaints centered on actions by Flores and on concerns about a move away from open enrollment.
An ensuing HLC investigation found unaddressed sexual harassment allegations against Flores, a work environment based on intimidation and policies that conflicted with the purpose of the college.
HLC investigators listed 11 major areas of concern, ranging from the tracking of student learning outcomes to a “culture of fear.”
The findings set off a chain of events that eventually lead to the HLC placing the college on probation. The probation period was lifted in February 2015, and since that time PCC has been on “notice.”
Mark Hanna, chair of PCC’s Board of Governors, said the era of sanctions has deterred new students from enrolling.
“There are many factors involved in our enrollment drop; the specter of uncertainty in terms of accreditation has played a part,” Hanna said. “Once that is completely removed … confidence will be restored and that will have a positive effect.”
Board of Governors fears have been soothed, according to Hanna.
“Based on the reports that have been presented to us and our own personal observations of the work being done by our great faculty and staff, we are optimistic about the upcoming visit from the HLC,” he said.
Addressing key issues
The HLC will require evidence documenting the success of newly implemented programs, according to a letter sent to the college in March 2015.
The letter, which informed the college that it would be moved off probation and put on notice, also listed what PCC must do to reach full compliance with HLC accreditation guidelines.
Actions focus on collecting “evidence of the effectiveness of newly adopted policies, processes and procedures.”
Some systems were easy to implement but it will take time to prove their effectiveness, Moses said. He cited Pima’s new Strategic Student Enrollment Plan as an example.
“The SSEP was something the HLC just told us to implement,” he said. “They didn’t ask us to prove that it was effective, because they realize the difficulty of implementing a plan of this magnitude in one year. It’s going to take time before we realize how effective it is.”
Parker agrees. “Look at the letter the HLC sent us,” he said. “They say, ‘It looks like you’ve put the things in place that are needed to remedy this, but not enough time has elapsed to test their effectiveness.’”
Other systems will prove more difficult, for implementation and data collection.
For instance, the HLC requested “evidence of the effectiveness of the assessment process for making changes to the teaching and learning process based on learning outcomes, including documentation of the completion of assessment cycles in all programs.”
That takes time, Moses said.
“Typically you want to collect longitudinal data which is three years or more, to determine whether a system is effective or not,” he said. “Some of the programs we’ve instituted for just a semester or two. But the HLC understands our timeline.”
Fostering culture change
Pima’s initiatives are part of a larger change, according to Moses.
In past years, he said, the college “would put something in place, and it would die out after a year or so. It wouldn’t be sustained.”
“There is a strong, conscious effort where we put systems and processes in and we are evaluating them constantly,” he said.
From C-FAIRR’s perspective, that’s just not the case.
“We don’t believe the college’s culture has changed,” Gonzales said. “They still operate under a cloak of secrecy. We don’t believe they are better than when they were placed on probation.”
Focus visit outcomes
Pima’s change in culture, or lack thereof, will be on display and put to the test during the upcoming HLC focus visit.
The visit will bring one of three possible outcomes.
The first is being removed from “notice” completely.
The second would see the college removed from notice but continue to provide the HLC with reports on deficient areas.
The third, least desirable outcome is a “show-cause” finding by the HLC.
Show-cause would essentially give Pima a year to justify why it should keep its accreditation.
The third option won’t happen, Moses said.
“I’m confident we’ll be taken off notice,” he said. “Now, will we have to report to the HLC on some things? Probably. But show-cause? No.”
Chancellor Lambert also expressed confidence.
“I am very optimistic we will come off ‘notice,’” he said. “I am very confident we are moving in the right direction as an institution.”
The Board of Governors thinks so as well, according to Hanna.
“We also are confident that the HLC will indeed remove our ‘notice’ status when their board convenes in February to review our case,” Hanna said.
While all parties connected to the college expressed confidence in PCC’s ability to finally rid itself of the specter of sanctions, Moses stressed that continued progress is especially important.
“It’s real important that the HLC sees progress all the way through this semester, because the decision will be based on data derived all the way up until then,” he said.
Though PCC has come a long way, Hanna said, there will still be oversight of some kind.
“There is no doubt that we will have to strictly monitor and report on the issues they have pointed out to us in their reports, as well as plenty of other challenges our college faces in terms of continuous improvement,” he said.