Jumping on the Opportunity


At about this time last year, the California community colleges were confronting the fact that a large number of our colleges were being placed on warning and probation. Nine colleges were put on warning (the first level of censure by the Accrediting Commission) and two colleges were put on probation (the second and more serious level of censure). Six months later, the June report came out, and while four colleges moved off of censure status to have their accreditation reaffirmed, eight additional colleges were put on warning and one was put on probation. Two of our colleges were put on the highest level of censure before de-accreditation, Show Cause, at the recently concluded January Accrediting Commission meeting. Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of anxiety at all colleges and questions about what this portends for our system as a whole.

As I write this, our legislators in Washington, D.C. have come to a conclusion on an economic stimulus package amidst a daily litany of business declines, layoffs, foreclosure numbers, and heaving stock market fluctuations. In California, even as the Legislature wrestles with a greatly challenged budget for 2009-2010, action on addressing budget shortfalls in 2008-2009 remains stalemated in Sacramento. Not surprisingly, colleges face great uncertainty in their own budgeting and budget planning in the face of possible mid-year budget cuts, postponement of apportionment payments, suspension of promised capital improvement monies, and burgeoning student demand.

It would appear that we are in the worst of times-victims of accountability and accounting both run amok. However, knowing full well how Pollyanna-ish I sound with this pronouncement, I believe we are actually in a unique time of opportunity when it comes to participatory governance, and local senates should capitalize on it.

Let's begin with the issue of accreditation. While the aggressiveness with which the Accrediting Commission censured so many colleges took many by surprise, the fact is that few could actually say that the actions were unjustified.

The truth is that for many years, most of our colleges coasted along in the accreditation process, emphasizing in our self-studies that we were making a great effort but somehow never making enough of an effort to meet the minimums required by the accreditation standards. Just like students who learn that they can get a passing grade because the instructor gives credit for effort alone, not requiring actual achievement or competence, colleges were lulled into a similar practice when the Accrediting Commission took no action even when deficiencies on standards were noted cycle after cycle.

Over the course of the last year, I have had the chance to talk to many faculty leaders who work for colleges that are now on censure, and in the course of discussing how they were going to go about addressing their deficiencies, I would ask whether they were surprised by the Commission's findings. Of the more than twenty colleges that were on warning or probation last year, only two said that they were. The rest actually said that it was about time the Accrediting Commission took their colleges to task for deficiencies they consistently failed to address.

As discussed in "Have You Heard about the Two-Year Rule and Accreditation?" (Rostrum, February 2008), the top three deficiencies cited when colleges are put on censure relate to program review (including the use of student learning outcomes and assessment), linkages between planning and budget, and governance. Given the strong role that academic senates play in all of these areas, work to address these deficiencies falls solidly in the laps of academic senates.

Faculty could certainly choose to simply put the blame for deficiencies on administration or point to local boards that micromanage day-to-day operations, but the strategic senate knows to take advantage of such situations to bring the importance of participatory governance to the fore and to use the opportunity to review policies and procedures to strengthen the functioning of the college, and the faculty's role in the institution.

Senates come at the issue of deficiencies from a position of strength because underlying the Accreditation Commission's conferral of censure status is the threat of an institution's actually losing accreditation. Heretofore, no one really imagined that such a thing could happen, but the de-accreditation of Compton College in 2007 has made this possibility all too real. (At its January 2009 meeting, the Accrediting Commission took action on Solano College and changed its censure status from the lowest level, warning, directly to the highest level, show cause-another dose of reality for everyone to digest.) Senates can take a strong leadership role in revisiting and revising inadequate policies and procedures, thereby addressing cited deficiencies. Lest you think this is an overwhelming task, at both College of Marin and Modesto Junior College, senate leadership was central to the institutions getting not only out of probation but skipping past warning to reaffirmation of accreditation within six months and one year, respectively.

The Accrediting Commission is very well-versed in Title 5 regulation and how participatory governance is supposed to work in our system; hence, it can easily spot where such governance is not functioning well. As a result, the Commission has increasingly recommended that colleges engage with the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and the Community College League of California on technical assistance visits. Such visits, jointly requested by the local senate president and the college president/superintendant, provide an overview of the statutes and regulations regarding participatory governance. During such visits, faculty, administrators, staff, trustees, and students are all reminded of their specific roles and responsibilities. Technical assistance visits can also comprise separate meetings with constituent groups to provide each group a chance to air concerns which are negatively impacting the well-functioning of the college.

The citing of deficiencies with planning and budgeting processes and program review by the Accrediting Commission has a clear connection with how colleges respond to the current fiscal instability afflicting California. The Academic Senate has two excellent resources for local senates in this area, The Faculty Role in Planning and Budgeting (2001) and Program Review: Developing a Faculty Driven Process (1996 -a revision is coming before the body for adoption at the Spring 2009 Plenary Session). Both documents attest to the all-too-common problem of planning which takes place independently of budgeting. The Academic Senate emphasizes that budgets should emerge from the fruits of planning, and planning should be informed by program review at all levels.

In addition to the impetus that accreditation findings lend to a revisiting of current budgeting and planning processes, the bleak fiscal outlook is also something to take advantage of. Budgets will probably be flat for a few years, which means that there will be no new dollars to fight over. This provides an excellent atmosphere in which to review policies and procedures regarding budgeting and planning.

We all have a tendency to let processes slide when money is good. We manage to get the money we need for our program, for the senate, for long-needed equipment or supplies, and with that we are content. However, such processes often fail us when times get tough. What we all need is a better overall budget and planning process such that there is a clear process for allocations when times are good but also for reductions when times are bad. Sadly, most of us feel fairly disconnected from budget discussions except when the college announces that it needs to trim 20% from the budget and asks everyone to participate in how to make those cuts. A good process will have already set many priorities, providing a foundation from which to have these discussions based on a shared understanding.

Undoubtedly, there are budget and planning issues that have arisen over past years that have resulted in dissatisfaction with current processes. Choose one or two things that have been the most problematic and start with those. Engage your board and administration in a dialog about how to improve these processes. Since there are no new dollars, discussions can focus on process rather than on whether changes will result in more money for specific areas.

As an interesting concluding thought-I was recently at the System Office talking with a Vice-Chancellor and a representative of the Legislative Analyst's Office, and the conversation turned to accreditation and the budget shortfall. One of them commented that in a recent conversation with representatives of the Accrediting Commission, the representatives made a clear connection between the underfunding of community colleges and the diminishing ability of colleges to meet minimum accreditation standards, resulting in the wave of colleges being censured. A bleak situation, to be sure-but perhaps with observations like this from the Accrediting Commission, we have a stronger argument than ever to get adequate funding for our colleges. Carpe diem.