Since 1969, Pima Community College has been a resource for Tucsonans trying to better themselves. Today, the college's online courses and six campuses let students fit education into their already hectic lives. Pima offers people who have been out of school for years an opportunity to re-acclimate to the world of academics and provides a place for Tucsonans, young and old, to learn new skills.
All told, there's a lot of love for PCC in Tucson ... though that's not obvious when looking at the last three years of headlines about the college.
The flood of negative press began in the days following Jan. 8, 2011, when Jared Loughner opened fire on a line of people outside a Safeway, shooting 19, killing six and severely wounding U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Pima was scrutinized by the nation over the way it handled disciplinary problems related to Loughner, who withdrew from the college about four months before the incident.
Then came the so-called "closing of admissions," when Chancellor Roy Flores spearheaded an idea to divide Pima students into two categories: those who were ready to take college-level courses and those who needed to catch up on their math, reading and/or writing skills.
The students in the latter category, those who tested below a seventh-grade competency level, were directed to a program to help prepare them to retake the placement tests. While inexpensive, the program could not be covered by financial aid and barred students from taking classes for college credit until they met the imposed standards. Community backlash was fierce, with many claiming that the move would disproportionally affect Hispanic and nontraditional (Read: older) students. The standards were lifted less than a year after being imposed.
Following that, complaints shifted to the administration itself, with particular scrutiny falling on Flores, who temporarily stepped away from the college to undergo heart surgery in October 2011. His absence kicked off a whirlwind six-month period, starting with a critical look at the college's contract with a "friend" of Flores and ending with eight female employees accusing Flores of sexual harassment and Flores' subsequent resignation from the college.
This emboldened other employees to speak up about manipulative behavior from Flores and other members of Pima's administration, and how they often feared for their jobs if they disagreed with the higher-ups. The community was unhappy that Pima's board of governors (who were said to have overlooked allegations of harassment and intimidation) had let such a culture develop, and started demanding apologies—and, eventually, resignations.
Displeased with the response they were getting from the governing board, incensed community members took their case to a higher authority. They wrote to the Higher Learning Commission, the organization that accredits the college, laying out their complaints. The commission responded by coming to Tucson and spending a few days with the board, the college administrators and anyone who wanted to make an appointment.
Based on the visit, Pima's accreditation was put on probation. While on probation, the college may look like it is functioning normally from a student's perspective. However, the college must also be making strides to meet the standards for accreditation.
While the college has been busy working on the issues the HLC pointed out, more challenges continue to surface.
Pima is currently in the middle of a 60-day suspension of its ability to enroll students who are eligible for veterans' benefits because of deficiencies in that program.
The state Department of Veterans Services found that the college did not meet certain standards, including failing to accurately and quickly report enrollment, tuition and fees; to alert the Veterans Administration of changes that affect payments to veterans; and to maintain a record of previous education and training of veterans so they can be granted appropriate credit. PCC was first alerted about these issues in 2012, when it says it developed a plan to fix the problems but did not implement it. Since the suspension, Pima has hired a team of specialists who are working to review the department's files before the next audit.
In early April, an administrator from Pima's Desert Vista campus was moved to a position at the district office while claims of "inappropriate behavior" with female employees were being investigated.
April marks one year since the college was placed on probation, and there has been progress. Today, the college has a new and increasingly popular chancellor. There's a new face on the college's governing board. Employees are able to anonymously report abuses of power. But the community is still campaigning for a recall election for the longest-serving members of the board. As recently as February, members of a community group wrote a 16-page letter to the HLC claiming that leaders of the college are uninterested in the critiques that community groups continue to send to Pima.
Pima's had problems, and everyone—concerned community members, representatives of the college, the people who wrote this article—says the college faces a long road to redemption. But Pima has also done some tremendous things for Tucson.
Community colleges fill a unique role. They have a hand, alongside four-year institutions, in helping people become successful. But community colleges do it in a way that is a bit less daunting.
Take tuition, for example. Pima just raised it for the fall semester. Including fees, it will cost local students taking 12 credit hours $912 per semester, or $1,824 per year. At the UA, in-state students will be paying $10,957 per year, although incoming freshman won't be subject to any tuition hikes during four years at the UA. The UA also charges students more per credit hour if they aren't attending full time.
While Pima is a great resource for students looking to jump-start their bachelor's degrees with two years of cheaper tuition, that's not the only kind of student Pima sees. The average Pima student is 27 years old, and more than 60 percent of students attend the school part time. More than 30 percent of enrollment is classified as "occupational or workforce." The college has 182 programs for students to chose from.
"PCC is an integral and major part of the economic engine in Pima County because at least 50,000 students take classes at PCC every year," said Sylvia Lee, a former Pima student and administrator who began serving on the governing board last year.
The college also employs 367 full-time instructors and 984 other full-time employees.
In March, Pima became one of 12 community colleges to partner with the AARP Foundation to sponsor a program for low-income, unemployed men and women age 50 and older. The program showed attendees how to update their personal marketing tools and networking strategies, target their employment search to in-demand jobs, get job leads and find resources that can help them stay strong while looking for full-time work.
The Higher Learning Commission is sending a team to Pima on Sept. 15 to evaluate the college and decide if the concerns laid out by the HLC last year have been resolved.
The college has had about 300 employees, students and community members working for months on a comprehensive self-examination of college policies, practices and goals for improvement that will be submitted to the HLC team before its visit.
Last summer, Pima got a new chancellor in Lee Lambert, who seems to have won support from community activists and from within Pima itself. Lambert also recruited Zelema Harris, the popular educator who served as Pima's interim chancellor before Lambert was hired, to serve as the college's acting provost until a replacement can be found. Harris sends monthly updates to college employees about the progress the college is making towards keeping accreditation.
Lambert and all five members of Pima's governing board attended the HLC's annual accreditation conference in Chicago earlier this month.
In a phone interview with the Weekly between sessions, board member Sylvia Lee said that she learned a lot and that the conference also made her feel confident about the progress Pima is making.
"I think it just reaffirms that we're on the right path," Lee said.
"The board adopted a brand-new governance model which involves evaluating ourselves as a board and setting in writing the limits of the chancellor. And it entails an annual evaluation of the chancellor. This is big because the board had not done this over the past 10 or more years," Lee said.
But trust is still a big issue. The college conducted an anonymous employee satisfaction survey at the end of the fall semester, and released the answers to the question "What other institutional goals do you think are important?" A few responders simply encouraged the college to continue focusing on getting off probation, and thanked those working to make it happen. However, many of the comments were similar to the response when the probation was still new.
Since we have an ongoing "Culture of Fear" that will not change without taking positive action to induce change within the college, a college-wide anti-bullying program would be very useful for all employees to attend and follow.
Stop treating some teachers (adjuncts) as second-class citizens.
Administrators need to be evaluated by faculty. Those administrators ... who do not meet the average qualifications, abilities, insights, leadership qualities, job skills, etc., must undergo a probationary period during which a number of faculty, staff, and administrators evaluate the improvement or the lack of improvement of that administrator.
Resolve the unhappiness and anger of past employees who had to leave Pima who continue to want to destroy the college for others.
"We still have our challenges. The community needs to know that it took 10 years to get PCC to the place of probation and it may take at least five years to bring us back to being an institution that has fully restored the public trust," Lee said.
The college has put together several groups and committees to help give people from within the college a stronger voice. One new committee has Lambert meeting with students and employees from throughout the college to discuss their needs and concerns.
Phil Lopes, one of the 25 faculty members who helped open Pima, is taking a different approach: He's campaigning for a recall election against the longest-serving members of Pima's board. Organizers have until the end of April to collect enough signatures to trigger a recall election.
"There is conversation out there in the community saying that if we recall the board, that we'll some how hinder the process (of keeping accreditation). We are absolutely convinced that the opposite of that is true," Lopes said.
If the recall effort is successful, the election will take place in November, two months after the HLC has checked on the college's progress in meeting accreditation standards. Lopes believes the promise of new leadership might be enough for the HLC to feel comfortable about the college's future.
"I'm not worried," Lopes said. "Ultimately, Pima is going to (keep its accreditation). I'm not concerned that it won't. I'm convinced that it will."
After all, the college has survived accreditation scares in the past; one in 1989 was brought about by allegations of misconduct by the college's board of governors and president. There were allegations of blackmail, affairs with student aides and misuse of funds.
The result was a figurative bloodbath: Four members of the governing board stepped down or were removed by the courts. The president was removed after it was determined that he fudged his credentials to get the gig. Probation was lifted after a new president was brought in to clean up the mess and spearhead reorganization.
Pima seems to be on that path. As noted earlier, Lee Lambert is a fairly popular chancellor, Zelma Harris is widely respected, and the probation appears to have gotten people's attention. One new member was elected to the board in 2012.
But given the mess that the college currently finds itself in, from the "culture of fear" to mismanagement of funds to an increasingly unpopular governing board, what happens if Pima loses its accreditation?
As Lambert said in a report to the community released this spring, the answer is simple: "No accreditation, no Pima."
If accreditation is revoked, Pima's students will no longer be considered eligible for financial aid and their credits will, in most all cases, not be accepted for transfer by four-year institutions.
However, the UA, ASU and NAU have all issued letters of support to Pima, noting that they plan to accept credits from Pima students through the probationary process.
UA's letter was indicative of Pima's status as the university's triple-A minor league team, to borrow sports terminology. It was cordial and UA President Ann Weaver Hart acknowledged that the nature of the probation had nothing to do with the quality of Pima's academic programs. "Because nothing has changed that affects the quality and integrity of the courses that PCC transfers to the University of Arizona, the transfer policies and procedures between PCC and the University of Arizona will remain unchanged as well," Hart wrote.
ASU was more cut-and-dried in its language: "It is important for students to know that as long as Pima Community College retains its accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, credits earned by students will continue to transfer to ASU."
But Pima is far from the only college to have ever faced accreditation concerns, and it's hard to overstate the value of its work in educating generations of Southern Arizonans in the work skills that help build a stronger economy.
What it all comes down to in the end is simple: money.
During the 2012-13 school year, Pima enrolled more than 53,000 students for a total of 558,348 credit hours. That year, PCC took in nearly $44 million in tuition alone.
PCC employs more than 350 full-time instructors, as well as hundreds of adjunct faculty, campus support staff and administrators. It spent nearly $73 million to pay for those instructors, as well as adjunct faculty. All told, the college budgeted more than $178 million in 2012-13 to instruct and support students and keep the place running.
Not all of that money directly benefits the state of Arizona. Educational supplies and technologies come from all over the country. But considering how much value the college has given Tucson and Pima County since its doors opened, a closure would be devastating.
A 2011 report found that the economic impact of the college on Pima County totaled $984 billion since it opened in 1969.
Nearly $1 trillion worth of value since the college opened its doors? Not bad.
So, what about the local groups that blew the whistle on Pima, potentially damaging our economy? Are they politically motivated? Are they disgruntled former employees looking to pull one over on their old bosses? Or are they passionate members of the community, acting as watchdogs and standing up for what they believe to be right?
The Pima Open Admissions Coalition has been fighting to change admission standards at the community college, with a belief that education is for everyone and that Pima's standards are exclusionary at best and borderline racist at worst, citing the difficulties in testing by non-native English speakers and Mexican-American students.
A number of organizations have sprung up looking to recall four of the five sitting board members. Scott Stewart, Brenda Even, Marty Cortez and David Longoria have, collectively, nearly 50 years of experience on Pima's governing board. Longoria is the relative newbie of the four, taking his seat in 2010, while Cortez has the longest tenure, having served since 1994. While there is something to be said for experience, the leaders of the recall groups have opined that the board members who sat through Flores' tenure have "lost the community's confidence and trust," and thus need to be replaced.
One of the biggest critics of Pima's actions has been the Coalition For Accountability, Integrity, Respect and Responsibility, or C-FAIRR. Chaired by Mario Gonzales, the group sees its purpose as simple: It wants to make sure that tax dollars are being spent wisely by ensuring that Pima considers filling top positions from within the school; that the college makes an effort to establish a relationship with Tucson's Mexican-American community; and that administrators hold themselves accountable for the mistakes made.
The organization is also known for having asked the Higher Learning Commission to investigate the allegations that led to the current probation. And Gonzales noted that members of his organization were around when Pima opened in 1969 and that many have taken classes or taught there.
With that in mind, you might wonder why the members of C-FAIRR effectively set the wheels in motion for the college's potential death sentence.
To Gonzales, there was no option. "What do you suggest (we do) when things that are so egregious (as the allegations against PCC) keep coming out? That we keep quiet? That we take the ostrich approach?
"I think that a lot of people don't report issues like this because of fear, because they don't want to leave their comfort zone, because they're scared of what they don't know. But is it the right thing to continue with this charade?"
To Gonzales, C-FAIRR is a watchdog for the community, trying to keep Pima on the straight and narrow and hoping that the current probation leads the college back to the path it followed during Pima's glory days. But even if the college doesn't survive the probationary process and its accreditation is revoked, Gonzales is confident that something will fill the vacuum.
"I think that this institution is worth saving, and that the only way it'll be saved is to get rid of those board members, to get people that will make the changes that need to be made ... and even if it does fail, I feel that something will take its place," he said.
"We know the college does a lot of good already ... but can you imagine how much more good can be done if these infractions didn't exist?"
A Word From the Weekly's Writers
We'd be remiss if we didn't note that both of us are former PCC students who know firsthand that the college is full of talented, kind and inspiring instructors who really care about their students. We appreciated the manageable tuition, the large selection of classes and the encouraging environment Pima offered.
We're hopeful that 20 years from now, Pima will still be around to help those who don't fit the traditional university mold find success in their field.
But our optimism is tempered by the straits that Pima currently finds itself in. Good intentions can only get the current administration so far. And the fact is, there are many holdovers from the previous chancellor's troubled administration still roaming the halls of Pima's campuses. There's a lot of good left for Pima to do. We just hope the end doesn't come too soon.