San Antonio College, Northwest Vista College, and St. Philip’s College have received letters from their accrediting agency informing them of the specific issues jeopardizing their accreditation.
Following a special investigation and subsequent communication between the colleges and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC), the accrediting organization placed all three colleges on “warning” status in December. They will have a year to comply with the requests stated in the letters dated January 11. The colleges will remain accredited while under warning.
At a press conference on Friday, Alamo Colleges board representatives assured the community that necessary changes were well underway.
“The board is confident that all the accreditor’s requests will be satisfied in a timely manner,” Alamo Colleges Board Chair Yvonne Katz said.
Thomas Cleary, Alamo Colleges vice chancellor for planning, performance and information systems, has informed the board that the colleges would request a review in March so that the warning could lifted at the SACS-COC June meeting. Throughout the accreditation review process, Cleary has maintained that the issues raised by the accreditors were primarily cosmetic and administrative.
At Friday’s press conference, SAC President Robert Vela and Northwest Vista President Rick Baser assured the community that students are still the highest priority, and that none of the SACS-COC findings will compromise their education.
“Our students remain the top priority,” Vela said.
The first issue raised in the SACS-COC letter, and the one most contentious among the faculty at the colleges, is the distinction between the board and the administration.
“This standard expects an institution to have a clear and appropriate distinction, in writing and practice, between the policy-making functions of the governing board and the responsibility of the administration and faculty to administer and implement policy,” the letter states.
Also, the branding of the district as Alamo Colleges instead of Alamo Community College District, as it was formerly known, confuses the matter of whether the colleges are independent institutions, or campuses of one college.
“The main feeling was that based on the way we present ourselves, there can be a legitimate perception out there that when when we say ‘Alamo Colleges’ it’s the Alamo College that is accredited rather than the individual colleges,” Cleary said at a Jan. 10 board meeting.
Rebranding the district to satisfy the accreditors will be expensive, board members said, but could not provide a cost estimate. New marketing material will have to be produced. Signage and catalog materials will need to be reprinted by March.
Trying to satisfy the accreditors, Trustee Gene Sprague said, will be a matter of perception.
“I think it really doesn’t matter, in short, what the technical thing is, it’s a matter of perception. [SACS-COC] are the ones that govern perception,” Sprague said at the board meeting.
At the meeting, the board debated whether current television and radio adds using the Alamo Colleges brand should be pulled. Cleary felt this would be unnecessary.
The discussion on the scope of the branding efforts raised the question at the heart of the accreditation issue: Has the current administration made moves to centralize the functions of the colleges beyond what is appropriate for independent institutions?
Single vs. autonomous accreditation is important for obtaining federal grants, as well as for the ability of the individual colleges to make hiring and curriculum decisions.
In addition to other recommendations, SACS-COC pointed to board policy B.9.1, which formerly mandated the use of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People curriculum. Such over-prescriptive policy violates the autonomy of the colleges to determine curriculum. The board has drafted a replacement policy that does not mention Covey’s curriculum and will be voted upon at a Jan. 17 board meeting.
SACS-COC also stipulates that hiring and transfer of faculty should fall under the purview of the colleges. However, Alamo Colleges board policy states that hiring decisions are made by the chancellor.
The board has amended the policy to include consultation with the presidents and administration of individual colleges. Actual hiring authority will remain with Chancellor Bruce Leslie.
When asked if this would satisfy the SACS-COC, Baser said that the issue, like many SACS-COC standards, was “open to interpretation.” They hope that the new policy, which reflects the way things have been done in practice throughout Leslie’s tenure, will satisfy the SACS-COC.
Baser said that the current practice allows the necessary autonomy in hiring of faculty and staff. The inclusion of the chancellor in the decision reflects his role as liaison to the board.
Because the board is both the board of the district and of each individual college simultaneously, decisions made by the colleges and decisions made by the administration are difficult to distinguish.
While the board has changed the language on two policies cited by the SACS-COC, it remains to be seen if those changes will satisfy SACS-COC. If the efforts are not sufficient for the warning status to be lifted in June, the decision will be pushed back to the agency’s December meeting.