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A College Divided

Pima Community College begins the process of mending while the community calls for an administrative overhaul



Lee Lambert, Pima Community College's new chancellor, stands out from the college's recent executives—an advantage, seeing as the report that ultimately landed the college on probation specifically said Pima needs a change in leadership.

Roy Flores held the chancellor position from 2003 until early 2012, when he retired citing health concerns. During his final days in office, Flores seemed reflective; pleased with his career and the institution he had run.

The rest of the college wasn't so satisfied. After Flores' departure, eight women who had worked at Pima came forward to accuse Flores of sexual harassment. Other employees began describing the college as a hostile work environment where people couldn't voice their opinions without fear of losing their jobs.

Pima's formerly quiet board meetings became standing-room-only events, each kicking off with two hours of heated public comment. Discontented community members wrote letters to Pima's accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission, detailing the problems at the college. Those letters led to an investigation and, eventually a two-year probationary period for the college, which will expire in 2015.

The investigation found that the "culture of fear" cultivated during Flores' reign stayed alive under his successor Suzanne Miles, who took over as interim chancellor. When she spoke in public, Miles came off lively and optimistic. However, the community rallied against having Miles, who had worked closely with Flores, lead Pima.

The HLC's report cited Miles specifically, saying information she provided about the college differed greatly from details given by the public. Days after the report came out, Miles stepped down from the chancellor's office, making room for Zelema Harris, a highly acclaimed educator from Chicago.

Harris spoke slowly, asking lots of questions and spending her time getting familiar with Tucson. The community responded well to Harris: Some people encouraged her to extend her interim period and stay until the college got a new governing board, who would then be able to pick a new permanent chancellor. Harris declined, expressing confidence about the college's future, the governing board and its ability to find a suitable chancellor quickly.

Now, under probation and surrounded by a concerned community, Pima is in the hands of Lambert. Lambert, who took over on July 1, comes off more business-oriented than his predecessors. He smiles and speaks with enthusiasm, but stays on point. He sees healing in the college's future.

"We have to become a place where employees start to trust each other and show 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," Lambert said.

Working Through Probation

The HLC's letter announcing Pima's probation laid out a long list of ways the college had failed to meet its expectations, including failing to investigate sexual harassment allegations quickly and abusing the college's HR practices. On Aug. 6, the HLC approved Pima's 73-page plan to improve operations at the college.

The college has to submit a self-study by July 2014 proving Pima has addressed all of the concerns and meets all Criteria for Accreditation. After that, the HLC will send a team to Pima to conduct a study in the Fall 2014 semester. In February 2015, the HLC's board will meet to decide whether Pima has taken the necessary steps to have its probation lifted. If not, the college risks having its accreditation revoked.

Pima has already started the 14 committees that will put together the self-study report. Those committees are made up of college faculty, adjunct faculty, administrators and members of the governing board. Pima students will join the committees once the fall semester begins.

Lambert sees the study as a chance for the college to get a close look at everything it needs to do to help Pima grow.

"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," Lambert said.

Brenda Even, the governing board chair, echoed Lambert's sentiments, saying that even though Pima has a lot at risk, the chance to closely evaluate it can really improve upon the college.

"Yes, it's a critical time but it's also a very exciting time and we hope that the community will join with all of us at the college and move ahead. Let's see what we can accomplish," Even said.

Many of the concerns listed in the HLC's report stem from unfair and unprofessional treatment of employees, and Lambert plans to make it obvious that in his college, the same rules apply to everyone.

"You have to put in place a system of clear expectations and then hold people accountable to those expectations," he said. "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 what our policies and procedures are, and then to make sure we're following those."

Lambert also acknowledges that, as the head of the college, he has a large part to play in making people feel comfortable.

"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," Lambert said. "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."

Community Involvement

Community discontent brought the HLC to Tucson to investigate problems at Pima and the group slammed the college for attacking its critics. There's no question in whether the organization values the public perception of the college, and having a positive local standing can only help Pima. The question becomes how to demonstrate to the public that the college is improving.

"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," Lambert said. "It took a long time to get here. 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."

Lambert says he views the community's passion for the cause as an asset to the future of the college. Lambert warns, however, that his willingness to listen to the community's concerns doesn't mean he'll blindly follow instructions. He's shooting for a more collaborative relationship.

"When you have that level of care for a fine institution like Pima, why wouldn't you want to be here? The other thing that's important about those groups, and part of my strategy going forward, is to reach out more to the community, better understand the community's needs," Lambert said. "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."

Sylvia Lee, the only member of the board elected after Flores left the college, thinks that Lambert has the understanding and the experience to get Pima through the obstacle course of accreditation probation. Lee was among the Pima representatives that traveled to Shoreline Community College­—where Lambert worked—before hiring him. She flew in a day earlier than Shoreline was expecting to get a more complete feel for the college.

"That's the day I got the most information," Lee said, adding that everyone she talked to was enthusiastic about the good Lambert had done for their college. "It was really heartwarming."

Lee, who became something of a figurehead for those rallying for change at Pima, says her supporters were unhappy with her for voting Lambert in as chancellor. They felt the board members who had been in charge of the college while the problems piled up should not choose the person to lead the charge correcting the issues. They wanted Lee to vote no as a sign of protest.

"I told them, 'You voted for me to do what's best for Pima, so I'm doing what's best for Pima. He's the right person. If I didn't feel that way, I'd have no problem voting no, but you have to trust my judgment. I'm not going to let this person go just because you feel this board shouldn't choose'," Lee said. Shrugging, she added, "They're still mad at me."

Lee and the four board members who served under Flores were the ones who made the final decision on Lambert, but they had help from the Chancellor Search Committee. The committee was made up of members of the community from both inside and outside the college.

Even and fellow board member David Longoria co-chaired the search committee, and she says it was the committee who identified Lambert as a frontrunner.

"We felt that he was not only a top candidate, but the one that we wanted, and that he would provide us with the leadership we thought was necessary."

The Activist

So, is community involvement on the search committee and Lee's endorsement enough to make everyone trust Lambert?

"Nah, not at all. Not at all."

Meet Joe McGrath. McGrath first came to Pima in August 2012, several months after Flores had left the college. McGrath, an army veteran, was homeless for a year before enrolling at Pima. He found a place to live the day after classes started and went immediately to the student government to see if they were politically active.

"They weren't, so I kept just trying to find ways to get involved on more than just the, you know, putting up posters level. The board of governors deal came up and I went and spoke and ever since then it's been like a snowball effect."

Going into the April 10 meeting, one week before Pima's probation was announced, no one knew who McGrath was. He was the last speaker, and the only current student, in a long line of community members and college employees. McGrath was candid that night, saying he felt moved by the speakers that had come before him, and was confident that the college needed new faces on the board. He warned that he'd be back, and he'd bring friends.

Hours before the next month's meeting, McGrath and about 150 others met at Burns Park and marched to the college's district office holding picket signs and chanting "B.O.G. has got to go." The ralliers wanted the board out before the new chancellor was chosen.

While McGrath says he can get behind the plans Lambert has laid out to get the college on the right track, he thinks the turmoil Lambert walked into would make it difficult to lead Pima once the accreditation issue is taken care of.

"I think if someone comes in with a long-term plan, to me that says there's politics involved, that they're trying to get something out of this," McGrath said. "I feel like I could trust someone a lot more if they came in and was like 'This is my job, this is what I'm gonna do, and then I'm gonna move on, get back to what I was doing before'."

Board Resignations

Calls for the resignation of board members who served under Flores come from employee groups, community groups and people who have been following along in the newspaper. Now, even though the new chancellor is in office, people are still campaigning for different faces on the board.

"I don't think anything else is a good enough answer. There's no other answer. We need new board members," McGrath said.

Each of the four board members in question—Marty Cortez, Brenda Even, David Longoria and Scott Stewart—said at their May meeting the day of the rally that they intended to stay with the college through the probation.

"I think in their own mind, they're doing what's best for Pima College, but they're wrong. They are wrong. It's time for a change, and they really should step down," Lee said.

Lee, being newly elected, is the only board member who hasn't been asked to resign. In fact, she was among the first to call for resignations from her colleagues.

"They've been so entrenched. What happens over a long period of time, when you're involved you become complacent," Lee said, adding that she thought Flores manipulated the board to get what he wanted. "I didn't ask for David Longoria to leave because he had only been on the board the shortest amount of time and he was never, in my mind, ever given a true orientation to what a board member's role is. I don't think he ever became complacent because he was so new, and that's the beauty of having new members."

"These are good people, I mean they really are good people, they care. I really believe they got conned by Flores," Lee said.

According to McGrath, that's not enough to let the board members continue in their roles. McGrath is involved with a local effort to push the senior board members out via recall elections, although that wouldn't take place until November 2014.

"It might be a little ways out and for me that was a big let down. I had this big hot air balloon and I was hyped up and ready to go and everybody was excited, the energy was high and that felt like it let a bunch of the air out of my balloon. I felt deflated."

Even, however, says that the board will continue to work toward getting the college off probation—there's no time to waste.

"I think our response has been that we need to keep going, we need to move on, that's in the past, we need to take a look at what can happen," Even said, noting that the college needs the board to continue functioning. "We needed a second interim, we needed a full time chancellor, I think we've got things that we need to do and that's what we're doing. We're moving on."

Compare and Contrast

Pima representatives have remained decidedly optimistic whenever talking about the future of the college's accreditation. While Lambert refers to probation as an opportunity for improvement, the reality is that Pima's accreditation is at risk. Accrediting bodies aren't afraid to cut ties to an institution. In July, City College in San Francisco was informed that its accreditation would be cut off on July 31, 2014.

City College's story isn't an exact copy of Pima's; the two institutions don't even share the same accreditor. City College's sanction was initially imposed because of structural problems at the college, mostly failing to function within its means. Yet, that college's major problems also stemmed from issues with administration. Lee points to City College as a warning, a reminder that Pima is not too big to fail.

It's worth noting that Pima does have programs that are performing well already. The aviation program sees nearly all of its graduates in a full-time position within a year. The college's in-state tuition, while on the rise every year, is the third lowest in Arizona. A year ago, the college introduced a "math emporium" to help students work through remedial math courses, in alignment with higher education Best Practices. For that matter, none of the HLC's concerns have to do with Pima's academics.

Everyone involved wants Pima to move forward, make changes and be open to provide professional and educational opportunities. The divide comes in deciding the method and who gets to be involved in making those decisions.

Hopefully everyone. As Lambert said, "a group of folks who care that much? I want to work with them."

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