Presidents of Northwest Vista College, San Antonio College and St. Philip’s College received “warning” sanctions from their accrediting agency this week during the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges’ (SACSCOC) annual meeting in Atlanta. 

The sanctions stipulates that issues of institutional autonomy, among others, raised by an accredidation committee in October need to be resolved within a year.

“This is a ‘normal’ process and, we anticipate, that as the federal government places greater demands on the accreditation system, such procedural impacts will increase,” stated Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie in an email sent on Tuesday to all faculty informing them of the sanction. “Nevertheless, some will wish to turn this into a crisis, which it clearly is not.”

The email’s tone was not dire concerning the development. Staff and faculty at the colleges worry the situation is more serious.

San Antonio College SACSCOC Liaison Lisa Zotterelli said the challenge presented the warning is “not insurmountable,” but didn’t want to downplay the development. 

“It’s a big deal,” Zotterelli said.  Accreditation sanctions are “not an outcome most colleges experience.”

Details of the sanction will be given to the Alamo College board in a letter expected in January. Zotterelli expects to see the same issues raised by the committee report which focused primarily on the autonomy of the colleges.

Most of the issues raised by the report are technical issues according to Thomas Cleary, Alamo Colleges vice chancellor for Planning, Performance and Information Systems .

“The silver lining is that there are 92 standards and most of those deal with quality of education. All of the colleges scored perfectly on those standards,” Cleary said.

The one issue of policy, Cleary said, was the requirement that the colleges implement a course on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People taken from the book by Stephen Covey. Cleary expects the board to amend that policy at their board meeting next Tuesday night to comply with the committee’s recommendation.

The other issues are technical in nature, Cleary said, “basically housekeeping.” He welcomes the opportunity to bring the colleges into compliance.

The colleges each replied to the committee report explaining the steps already taken as well as plans to remediate the issues.

“We’ve made some changes. We don’t know which ones were deemed appropriate and which were deemed inadequate,” Zotterelli said.

Every 10 years the colleges must renew their accreditation by demonstrating that they adhere to the core requirements and 92 additional SACSCOC standards, as well as all federal requirements. Failure to adequately demonstrate that resulted in a deferred renewal for Northwest Vista, San Antonio College, and St. Philips. The accreditation committee visited the colleges after that, and found several key issues affecting the colleges’ function as independently accredited colleges.

According to an SACSCOC policy statement, “An institution may be placed on Warning or Probation for noncompliance with any of the Core Requirements or significant noncompliance with the Comprehensive Standards. Additionally, an institution may be placed on Warning for failure to make timely and significant progress toward correcting the deficiencies that led to the finding of noncompliance with any of the Principles of Accreditation. An institution may also be placed on Warning for failure to comply with Commission policies and procedures, including failure to provide requested information in a timely manner.”

Regardless of the details revealed by the forthcoming report, Zotterelli explained that a “warning” status is not something to be brushed off by faculty and administration.

“These are significant issues that must be addressed,” Zotterelli said.

Cleary made it clear that public sanctions were to be taken seriously, but wanted to emphasize that the colleges were not losing their accreditation. The colleges have at least one year to bring their policies and procedures into compliance before further action is taken by the SACSCOC.

“This will not take nearly that long to remedy,” Clearly said. “There is virtually zero percent possibility of us losing accreditation over these issues.”

When the report was first issued in October, college faculty and district administration had different reactions. Administration told The Rivard Report that the necessary fixes were primarily administrative, and easily enacted. Faculty, however, felt that the report spoke to the core of the institutions’ autonomy- their ability to make faculty and curriculum decisions independent of the Alamo Colleges central office.

“As someone who has spent my career in higher ed, I’m very aware of the gravity of the situation we are in,” Zotterelli said. “This should be something that is taken very seriously.”

The sanctions would appear to demonstrate that the issues were not as simple as the administration had hoped, though they won’t know exactly which ones remain unresolved until the report comes out in January.

It remains to be seen if the hiring practices cited in the October report are a matter of policy or simply “housekeeping.”

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

Alamo Colleges policy D.2.5 states that hiring is the responsibility of the Chancellor.

From Cleary’s point of view, this is merely asking for clarification on all documentation as to which institution is hiring. The Northwest Vista College chapter of the American Assciation of University Professors, see it as a conflict in policy.

The January letter should make that clear.

The colleges will have 12 months to address the issues in the official letter. In an email to faculty, San Antonio College President Robert Vela, reassured them that in this interim, the school would remain accredited.

“I was hoping for a lesser outcome, however, I am confident that we will satisfy SACSCOC’s concerns,” Vela wrote.

The fact that the Alamo Colleges board also serves as the board of each individually accredited college added to the confusion, however the SACSCOC officials told The Rivard Report that it adequately understood the district’s structure when it issued the report.

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.