Pima's New Chancellor Talks Probation's Challenges, Opportunities

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Lee Lambert
  • Lee Lambert

A few months ago, after months of bad press, community discontent and administrative controversies, Pima Community College's accreditation was put on probation. The college has about a year to straighten itself out before submitting proof to the Higher Learning Commission that it deserves to remain accredited. Lee Lambert, PCC's new chancellor, has taken this responsibility upon himself. Lambert, who took over as chancellor of PCC on July 1, has an almost surprising online presence. Keep up with him on Twitter and on his blog.

What is the next chapter for Pima?

As I think about the first year, juxtaposed to the challenges that are before us , we’ve got to focus on two big things. One is accreditation. We’ve got to start to make sure we understand what is being expected of us as an institution. And then align ourselves according to that. That’s huge because there’s so much that weighs in the balance. Really what it is, is an opportunity for us to really self-examine what we’ve been doing and to understand it better and get better at what we’re doing. So, that’s one piece. I think the other piece is we have to become a place where employees start to trust each other and that we’re all here for the same reasons, we’re all good people, committed to teaching and learning and starting to come back together around that notion of why we’re here.

How do you go about instilling that trust in employees?

I think first of all it has to be modeled through me. I have to show and exhibit the values that are important to the institution. So, for example, just as simple a thing as treating people right. So, how I talk to people becomes important, that I’m willing to listen to people’s ideas becomes important. That’s different than "I’m going to do things because you want me to," but the fact that I will listen and try to take that in and integrate it into an outcome. If I do that, then the effect of that should be going all the way down the line. So, it starts with me. But, also, you have to put in place a system of clear expectations and then hold people accountable to those expectations. I want to bring this level of professionalism to the institution by creating a set of expectations that are clearly defined and then by being clear about our policies and procedures are, and then to make sure we’re following those.

So, we know student’s credits still transfer. But finishing general education credits at Pima takes two to three years. What do you tell people who are worried about starting at Pima during the probationary period?

If the college were to close a program down, we would have to have a plan to teach out. So, you couldn’t just say today, “Okay, I’m closing the program out at the end of the month, and all of you folks, you’re out of luck.” It doesn’t work exactly like that. So, what will happen is, once the decision is made to close something down, there’s a phase-out period that occurs, which allows the people who are currently in the pipeline to work their way through. Or, you work with other colleges to make sure there’s a teach-out process. So, there’s a design to minimize the impact to the students who are currently enrolled.

You’ve been at PCC for a few weeks now. What has occurred to you and what plans have you made since you’ve been here and gotten the temperature of the college?

I think there are a lot of people who care about PCC, both inside the college and outside the college. I think to let everybody know that there’s a lot of people who really want us to be successful. But, what that means might be different things to different people. So, how do you balance all of that out? But, there’s a lot of good people who care about this institution and want to see that we’re successful. What doesn’t help is to have too many folks coming and only thinking about the college from one little lens.

There was a lot of backlash from the community when the board started to move forward picking a chancellor—people didn’t feel that the board that was in place leading up to the college’s probation should pick the next chancellor. How did you decide it was the right decision to come?

Any group of employees or members of the community who would go and complain to the accreditation body must be a group of folks who really care deeply about the institution, because that step is a very bold step. Because, well, now you see the outcome of that. All of a sudden, you’re shining a spotlight on your institution, for better or for worse, and the worse being, of course, now we’re on probation. So, a group of folks who care that much? I want to work with them. Those groups, for the most part with very rare exceptions, they’re not trying to tell me how to run the college. They’re saying, “We’re here to help support you, you let us know what you need us to do, so Pima can be one of the shining stars in the country for community college education.” We’re going to need all of that as we move forward. What becomes difficult is when folks have ideas about what we should be doing and realizing Pima did not get into the situation it did overnight. It took a long time to get there and I always like to say this: For every year it took to get where we are, it may take a year to reverse course. It’s going to take a while. People who want quick fixes… it ain’t gonna happen that way. That’s not what happens in large-scale organizations. It’s going to take time.

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