St. Phillips Colleger culinary students Allison Fox (left) and Yasmine Martinez prepare tortillas for breakfast tacos. Photo by Scott Ball.
St. Phillips College culinary students have chosen their "pathway." But do they have to choose between liberal arts and technical education? Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When the board of Alamo Colleges voted to place a $450 million bond on the May 6 ballot, they knew the public would have concerns. Three of the colleges are under sanction by their accreditor. While the sanctions have nothing to do with the quality of instruction or financial management, they do open the door on a long-time source of strife within the Alamo Colleges: the growing power of district administration.

It’s up to voters to decide whether to pass the bond as a vote of confidence in the direction and priorities of the administration, or to demand that the district get its house in order.

Read the first of this two part series here.

Tension Between Liberal Arts, Technical Training

There’s no question that Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie was brought in to do a tough job at a tough time. Community colleges were seeing low-income students drop out of school with a smattering of credits and no degrees. At the same time, jobs in technical fields are multiplying without a skilled domestic workforce to match.

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie
Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A 2014 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that “increasingly, businesses and policymakers are turning to community colleges to help fill these workforce gaps and educate the growing student body, predominately made up of historically underperforming student populations.”

As public entities, community colleges must strike a balance between serving students and serving the local economy.

“As board members, we’ve got to make sure that there’s a return on investment for the taxpayers,” Trustee Roberto Zárate told the Rivard Report.

While it may not seem like the two need to be mutually exclusive, liberal arts faculty and workforce partners would like to see more attention paid to their “pathways.”

The Alamo Academies and alignment with Port of San Antonio and other business entities has kept the spotlight on the technical training functions of the colleges. Workforce training is aligned to the needs of partner businesses such as Toyota and other advanced manufacturing roles at Port San Antonio.

Alamo Colleges is in a key position to be an economic driver in the city “if they do it right,” Toyota Texas spokesperson Mario Lozoya said. “They have to decide who their customer is. Is it liberal arts students or is it industry?”

When companies such as Boeing or Toyota consider coming to San Antonio, they need to know that the city can provide a qualified workforce. A city’s ability to produce qualified job candidates is a major economic driver, Lozoya said.

“[Liberal arts programs] are not economic development drivers,” Lozoya said. “[Those companies] are not coming here because of our liberal arts prowess.”

In 2015, Toyota Texas hired nine graduates of Alamo Colleges/Toyota Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program. The entry-level jobs can pay as much as $50,000 annually.

The Alamo Colleges AMT program currently is designed to enroll 20 students. It has not operated at capacity because instructors are hard to find. Qualified instructors can make more money elsewhere, Lozoya said.

“This kind of person can work pretty much anywhere,” he said.

Local industry is ready to scale up the program, Lozoya said. Currently there are 118 AMT jobs vacant in Bexar County.

In addition to the existing Toyota partnership, Texas Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (TX FAME) is seeking to create a pipeline through St. Philip’s Southwest Campus into H-E-B, CPS Energy, Toyotetsu Texas, and Takata. TX FAME is taking applications for Fall 2017.

While those students in the AMT program are benefiting from the industry partnership, some Alamo Colleges faculty feel that the industry-as-client mindset hurts the majority of the colleges’ students.

“To think of the community college system as primarily a demand-side pipeline seems to suggest that we’re not primarily providing an education for the students, but for a segment of the business economy,” said George Gittinger, a philosophy professor at Northwest Vista.

Liberal arts remain a key to the success of community colleges, even in the new era of alignment with workforce and four-year universities, said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Jenkins said there is a necessary tension to maintain between a robust liberal arts curriculum and streamlined course management. The former preserves the quality of the courses, while the latter ensures that students are able to progress to the next level.

The Aspen Institute, in providing feedback for the district in January 2016, recommended greater cooperation with faculty to ensure that the guided pathways approach was successful.

“Alamo Colleges’ faculty members are already engaged in the work of identifying high-risk courses and improving completion rates,” according to the report. “While this appears to have had some positive effect, it has also engendered concern among some faculty members that the administration valued course completion without regard to the rigor of course content.”

The administration’s efforts to accommodate the demands of employers were at the core of a policy that mandated the use of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as core curriculum for all students and as professional development for all staff and faculty. Faculty members saw it as administrative overreach into curriculum decisions that should be made at the college level.

“They rammed it down our throats,” said Mike Settles, a former San Antonio College history professor who resigned last February after clashing with the administration.

The Covey policy was cited by colleges’ accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Colleges (SACSCOC) when it issued an accreditation warning for Northwest Vista College, San Antonio College, and St. Philip’s College. SACSCOC stated in its letters to the colleges that trustees had been “overly specific in their requirement that certain course content be included in the institution’s curriculum.” 

In addition to its growing popularity in K-12 education and the business community, Covey’s curriculum had long been part of Alamo Colleges on a smaller scale. Northwest Vista and the Student Leadership Institute at San Antonio College had both used the curriculum for leadership training.

“When I came here, we had a lot of faculty and staff who had been using it for years,” Leslie said.

In response to growing demand from business leaders that potential hires demonstrate leadership skills, or “soft skills,” Leslie and the board decided to implement leadership education district-wide. Covey seemed to be the logical choice.

“We needed a soft-skills solution for all of our students,” Leslie said.

Hope Galvan-McCall, Alamo Colleges director of occupational development, learning, and talent management, praised Leslie’s sweeping implementation of the market-tested model even though the entire faculty had not endorsed the plan. At some point, she said, a decision simply had to be made.

“It’s hard to break that higher-ed culture and mode, and I think it takes a lot of courage,” Galvan-McCall said.

The district paid $1 million initially to license the curriculum, saying the ability to inexpensively reproduce materials and tailor derivative products to the colleges’ needs justified the expense. Subsequent license fees for the district’s tailor-made curriculum cost $262,500 in fiscal year 2016, $437,500 in fiscal year 2017, and $525,000 in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Faculty resisted the new Covey-based course, EDUC 1300. At San Antonio College, faculty preferred an approach that would weave leadership skills throughout the curriculum.

“You don’t begin [curriculum development] with a commercial product,” said Tony Villanueva, president of Palo Alto College’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

The mandated curriculum replaced a liberal arts course and poured gasoline on the flames of mistrust. For his part, Leslie acknowledges that he “made a tactical mistake” in the implementation.

The Covey method contains other problematic elements as well, Settles said. Trademarked practices such as “win-win contracts,” the “4DX” method, and setting of “wildly important goals” have jeopardized the integrity of curriculum, he said.

“That’s the reason why I quit,” Settles said.

Other faculty share Settles’ frustration with student grades and graduation being tied to institutional goal-setting. It prioritizes completion over real learning, Settles said.   

Zárate and Leslie claim that 4DX, a Covey goal-setting framework, in particular has revolutionized faculty effectiveness. However, a San Antonio College faculty survey found that 58% strongly disagreed that the method had benefited their department, and 75% strongly disagreed that the collective Covey methods had improved morale.

It remains to be seen if the SACSCOC recommendation will make a difference in how elements of the Covey program are implemented.  The board has revised policy B.9.1 to eliminate the required use of specific Covey material in hopes that this will satisfy the accrediting body. The policy still refers to “Principle Centered Leadership,” also the title of a book by Covey.

Beyond accreditation issues, faculty are concerned about the diminished value of degrees from their respective colleges. The administration feels that a degree, not an education, is the goal, Villanueva said.

“[Alamo Colleges is] following the business model that doesn’t care what the product is,” Villanueva said. “[The faculty] are saying, ‘The box is empty!’”

By elevating technical training and workforce solutions while liberal arts classes are watered down by grading and passing quotas, Villanueva sees another generation of poor and minority students being sent into the world with a limited future.

“If you don’t get an education, you are getting tracked to a place you don’t want to be,” Villanueva said.

Eventually, weak liberal arts programs compromise the success of guided-pathways schools, Jenkins said.

Settles and Villanueva say that students who pass through their classes are not always equipped for a competitive job market. Even for those in the coveted advanced manufacturing program, a lack of preparation could be devastating if they fail to land one of the 20 Toyota plant jobs, or even the 118 advanced manufacturing jobs county-wide. For the rest of the 60,000 Alamo Colleges students, Settles sees a grim future.

“We’ve set them up for failure,” Settles said.

Bekah McNeel

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