A report by the accreditors for colleges in the Alamo Community College District (ACCD), also known as Alamo Colleges, has drawn diverging reactions from district officials and faculty members. While administrators say that the report mainly addresses “housekeeping” issues, a faculty group claims that it “repudiates the Chancellor’s leadership and ACCD board policies.”

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) released a report of its findings and recommendations after visiting ACCD colleges last month. The visit and subsequent report were spurred by questions of autonomy for San Antonio College (SAC), Northwest Vista College, and St. Philip’s College.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Currently, the colleges within ACCD are accredited as autonomous institutions. Their ability to confer degrees is based on their merits as individual academic institutions.

However, the chancellor and board of ACCD also serve as the chancellor and board of each individual college. This means that the board can make curriculum and hiring decisions as the board of each individual college, as well as system-wide decisions.

This double function seems to be the cause of some confusion over the colleges’ autonomy, which puts their accreditation in jeopardy.

“SACSCOC, because they are not designed to accredit districts with individual accredited colleges, like Dallas and Alamo … assume each college is, in fact, independent, with its own board, which employs for that college,” ACCD Chancellor Bruce Leslie said. “But each Alamo College has the same board, which has the state and legal authority.”

Accreditation committee member Patricia Donat told the Rivard Report that she and her colleagues did, indeed, understand the ACCD board structure, and that they made their recommendations accordingly.

The principals and guidelines apply to all those institutions who are members of the SACSCOC,” Donat said. 

The member institutions are Northwest Vista, St. Philip’s, and SAC. The district itself is not a member.

Accreditors recommended clearer communication of autonomy for the three colleges in question, especially in the realms of personnel management and curriculum. Among other things, they recommended that the colleges themselves be allowed to decide whether to implement a course on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People taken from the book by Stephen Covey. That course is currently mandated by the ACCD board.

The Northwest Vista chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) put out a statement outlining its understanding of the report and its implications when it was first released.

“(This 7 Habits policy) is in violation of SACSCOC Comprehensive Standard 3.4.10 which states that the responsibility for the content of the curriculum lies with the faculty at each of the independently accredited colleges. This calls into question the decision by the Chancellor and ACCD Board to spend millions of dollars on 7 Habits related products and licenses,” the professors union statement said.

Alamo Colleges Vice Chancellor for Planning, Performance, and Information Systems Thomas Cleary explained that because the 7 Habits course is a matter of board policy, whether or not it needs approval by the faculty of each college is debatable.

“The question really becomes to what degree (do) board policy and staff standards need to be in line?” Cleary said.

Another critical recommendation states, “The Committee recommends that the institution retain its authority as a separately accredited unit for the appointment and employment for all institutional personnel.”

Currently contracts are between employees and ACCD.

ACCD Board policy D.2.5., which states that ‘All employees … are subject at any time to assignment, reassignment, or transfer to vacant or new positions by the Chancellor,’ is in violation of (SACSCOC) Comprehensive Standard 3.13.4 which gives such authority to the president at each autonomous college,” the professors union statement said.

The recommendations for curriculum and hiring, according to Cleary, stemmed from the committee’s misunderstanding of the ACCD board structure, and did not mean what it seemed to say.

“It takes a little bit to get (accreditation committees) educated on how we function,” Cleary said. “(The review) was housekeeping and perfunctory after that.”

Donat said that the accreditation teams deal with a wide variety of governance structures, and that ACCD’s did not present a particular challenge.

Cleary told the Rivard Report that the recommendation for hiring actually refers to the letterhead on the contract and other issues of clarity. Confusion arose when an offer was made on the letterhead from an individual college, but the contract appeared on the letterhead of ACCD. Such “housekeeping” matters are easily fixable, Cleary said.

There is no mention of the letterhead in the report. Cleary cited this explanation as background for the comments in the review which recommend that hiring, placement, and transfer of personnel be between the employee and the accredited institution – namely Northwest Vista, SAC, and St. Philips.

By Cleary’s understanding, there was no reason for ACCD to change its hiring or transfer procedure. Leslie works with the faculty of the individual colleges when making hires and transfers, but ultimate authority remains with the chancellor.

“The only person that has the authority to transfer any personnel at any of the colleges is the chancellor,” Cleary said. “There will be no change to the contracts except for the nomenclature at the top of the letter.”

At the heart of the discussion lies the status of ACCD as an institution. While it currently brands itself as “Alamo Colleges,” ACCD itself is not an academic institution. Accreditors noted that the branding effort made the autonomy of the individual colleges unclear.

The professors union questioned the financial ramifications of that branding effort.

“This finding calls into question the decision to spend millions of dollars re-branding the public image of the colleges as ‘Alamo Colleges’ in examples ranging from monument signs to soap dispensers and mass marketing campaigns,” the Northwest Vista AAUP statement said.

In 2010, Leslie and the ACCD board discussed whether to bring all colleges in the district under one accreditation or to allow them to continue separately. This led to Leslie’s first no-confidence vote from the Northwest Vista AAUP.

An internal review committee determined that pursuing single accreditation was not financially viable, as the colleges – particularly St. Philip’s – would stand to lose millions of dollars in grants for their status as minority-serving colleges. Though those grant monies have diminished, according to Cleary, the subject has not been revisited.

“There is no conversation about (single accreditation),” Cleary said. 

The professors union renewed its no confidence vote when SACSCOC deferred the college’s renewal of accreditation.

“The faculty (members) at Northwest Vista who voted ‘no confidence’ in the chancellor have had their concerns listened to by the accrediting agency. The report clearly assigns the responsibility for curriculum development at Northwest Vista to the faculty at Northwest Vista,” union spokesperson Craig Coroneos told the Rivard Report. “It also calls into question the scope and cost of the nearly decade-long expansion of the ACCD central office into areas not authorized by the accrediting agency, ranging from hiring and branding to record keeping and entering into agreements with transfer institutions.”

Ultimately, Cleary said, the recommendations by the accreditation committee are just that – recommendations.

“Just because they recommend it, doesn’t mean it has to happen,” he said. 

ACCD will file a response report, explaining what Cleary calls “factual errors” in the report and outlining the district’s intended course of action.

“The good news is that our system of colleges – the Alamo Colleges – has become among the most productive and effective in Texas, if not the U.S.,” Leslie said. “We are doing so many things extremely well, as is being affirmed by SACSCOC in its earlier reviews.”

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.