By EDDIE CELAYA
After nearly five years of sanctions, Pima Community College is waiting on its accrediting body to decide its fate. That ruling is expected when the Higher Learning Commission’s board of trustees meets Feb. 23-24.
The saga began in the summer of 2012 with numerous complaints, including allegations of sexual misconduct against then-Chancellor Roy Flores.
A team of HLC peer reviewers visited Pima in January 2013. That visit led the HLC to issue a scathing report and place the college on probation. Flores later resigned, citing ill health.
Since that time, PCC has struggled to shed the burden of sanctions. In 2015, the college escaped probation but was placed “on notice.”
Last September, another HLC peer review team visited the college. Pima officials hoped the team would recommend removing sanctions.
PCC Board of Governors Chair Mark Hanna thought the college presented its best case during the visit.
“The visit was a really positive visit,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I thought there was a moral uplift.”
AWAITING DRAFT REPORT
The wait for the team’s draft report prompted worries, with Hanna describing it as akin to “old movies where the pages keep coming off the calendar and waiting, and waiting.”
Vice Chancellor of Accreditation Bruce Moses, however, suspected the draft report simply ran behind schedule. He noted that peer review members are busy with high-level jobs at their own colleges.
“They set a timeline, but it’s just like with anything else,” he said. “These are not retired folks sitting around doing nothing, these are career folks.”
Pima officials received the peer review team’s draft report on Dec. 12. It did not yield a full elimination of sanctions.
“I would be less than honest with you if I didn’t tell you the hope was, ‘Hey, you’re off sanctions, you’re done with it,’” Hanna said. “As it turns out, there were some sticking points.”
Of the 11 areas targeted by the HLC, five were considered “fully addressed,” five were deemed “improving” and one was deemed “deficient.”
OFFICE OF ASSESSMENT
The deficiency was in “student outcome assessment,” an area that has been a persistent knock against the college.
Student outcome assessment is more than just tests, according to Chancellor Lee Lambert. It’s making sure basic skills are imparted, and making sure instructors are tracking those skills in an effective manner.
The college is “trying to assess learning relative to that discipline or subject area the student is working on,” Lambert said. “We need to do that in a systematic way, and then the systematic way isn’t just administering the assessment, it is assessing the assessment process itself.”
District 3 board representative and former PCC instructor Sylvia Lee recalled the college’s past struggles.
“Pima was ‘written up,’ that assessment was a ‘weakness’ back in the ‘90s,” she said. “And then back in the 2000s, Pima was put on warning again.”
The HLC’s focus on assessment in the recent draft report was, in fact, actually Pima’s idea.
“Back in 2013, we said to the HLC, ‘We are going to staff an office of assessment,’” Moses said. “So when reviewers showed up in 2016 and we didn’t have a staff, now they are holding our feet to the fire.”
Efforts to establish an office of assessment never got off the ground, Moses said. He blamed a myriad of factors, from the job description to the pay rate. The specter of sanctions didn’t help.
“How attractive is that job, still on probation and it’s one of the main reasons you’re still on probation?” Moses asked. “You think about the applicants, they are thinking ‘man I’m on the firing squad right off.’”
So with what part of assessment, exactly, did the peer review team find fault? Was it the systems and software put in place to track student outcomes? Was it a lack of an established human resources infrastructure? That depends on whom you ask.
Moses, who helped implement many of the assessment systems, points to the HLC’s recent findings. “The reviewers’ feedback didn’t say ‘your processes are crappy, your system is not working,’” he said.
Instead, Moses said, the criticism focused on human resources.
“One of the things we had a problem with as an institution is, we had never put the infrastructure in to actually manage and facilitate the student learning outcomes assessment process.”
New governing board member Luis Gonzales takes a different view. He points out that while only the student outcome assessment was found to be deficient, problems remain with the five areas deemed “improving” in the report.
“That one particular item is an item of focus that falls into line with the rest of the lines of focus,” Gonzales said. “Of the 11 areas of focus, six are inadequate. If you got a test with 11 questions and you fail six, it’s not a passing grade.”
The draft report also called on the college to make new hires at the administrative level.
“The college should submit an interim report by Sept. 1, 2017, documenting that the director of assessment and the research analyst have been hired and are in place,” it reads.
The position of director of assessment has been filled since the peer review team’s visit in September. Former chemistry instructor Wendy Weeks officially took that role on Jan. 3.
Moses said the research analyst position has been filled, but the college has not yet made an official announcement.
The two hires will put PCC over the sanctions edge, he said. “That’s what the reviewers want to see. They want to say ‘OK, you made a commitment to putting people in a position to manage this process.’”
Gonzales isn’t so sure.
“The spin is that the entire focus goes to assessment only and that we have made so much progress, that it all focuses on whether or not we hire two individuals to run that program,” he said. “I simply do not agree with that concept in its entirety.”
Gonzales said he was not implying Weeks “is not competent.” Rather, he is “concerned that it should be an individual who has experience and has a good foundation to make it work.”
GOALS AND ACTIVITIES
According to the draft report, the new hires should “include a description of the goals these individuals have set, and the activities they have implemented since they have assumed their position.”
That won’t be a problem, Moses said. “We’ve had goals, even before we had a position. The office of assessment had the goals, it’s built in.”
Lambert echoed those sentiments. “We already have goals identified for them, now it’s just monitoring fulfillment of these goals,” he said.
Goals and activities vary in range and scope.
The college’s strategic planning report lists broad goals for the office of assessment, including a call to “increase the rate at which students with a transfer goal successfully transfer to a four-year college/university.”
The tool used to measure progress is known as a Key Performance Indicator. In the case of the office of assessment, there are multiple KPIs.
For example, one KPI measures the effectiveness of the transfer rate from PCC to four-year colleges by tracking the distribution of former PCC students at in-state four-year institutions.
Another KPI tracks the number of students who indicate they intend to transfer and then successfully do so.
The HLC will be looking at evidence derived from data gathered in the last six months, according to Lambert.
“I think six months will show we are making pretty good progress along that continuum,” he said.
THE FINAL REPORT
The college received the HLC peer review team’s final report on Jan. 27. Pima had two weeks to review the report and send a reply either agreeing with or dissenting from the findings.
That reply will be the last correspondence between the college and its accreditor until Feb. 23, when the Commission’s board of trustees meets.
The final report could have three possible outcomes, according to HLC liaison Karen Solomon. One possibility is that the HLC will remove the college from notice.
“The board might determine that the college is no longer at risk of noncompliance with the criteria for accreditation and can be removed from notice,” she wrote in a letter accompanying the final report.
Moses sees some hope for that outcome.
“We are going to make an effort to do that,” he said. “There is no guarantee we’ll get it, but we’re going to make that plea.”
The HLC could also make a worst-case ruling. If the board of trustees determines that Pima is unable to demonstrate compliance in multiple areas, the board might determine that the college should be placed back on probation.
That scenario would require a major failure on the part of the college. “We would have to completely drop the ball on something that was already identified,” Moses said.
The most likely scenario, Moses said, is the HLC determining Pima still has work to do in the office of assessment and extending notice for another six months.
“I would accept something like a monitoring report, which is not a sanction,” he said. “It’s just ‘give us a report in six months and tell us how everything is going in this area.’”
STATE OF THE COLLEGE
The HLC’s next scheduled visit will come sometime during the Fall 2018 or Spring 2019 semester. That visit, unlike the last two peer review team visits, will be a “standard” visit.
“That’s the four-year check in,” Lambert said. “That will speak to ‘we put this thing in, is it sustained?’”
Gonzales is cautiously optimistic about Pima’s trajectory.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I am confident that we are going to get there eventually.”
Moses knows it’s up to the college to change for the better.
“We are in a really good position right now,” he said. “All we got to do is not screw this up.”