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Pima College in Flux 

Students speak up while Pima Community College looks toward the future

Marlena Hanlon, a professional organizational analyst taking classes at Pima Community College, is trying to make sure students don't get left out of the discussion as the college works to address issues threatening its accreditation.

"I had a personal experience on two occasions which I felt were not resolved well or fully," she said. Hanlon felt ignored by the college. After going to board meetings and seeing other students express concerns, she figured she probably wasn't alone. "I didn't feel like they were being sufficiently heard, nor did I feel like their comments were being sufficiently integrated."

Hanlon says she reached out to Pima's student newspaper, the Aztec Press, and was disappointed that the paper didn't accept more submissions from students outside the journalism program. She also reached out to community groups that support students and employees of the college, but found them busy addressing policy concerns about the college and unable to be the student ally she was looking for.

"The feedback loops that were present weren't very effective," Hanlon said. "There just didn't seem to be any outlets. There were all these problems, all these individual experiences that weren't being consolidated in a meaningful way, so it seemed clear that we needed some pathway of communication with each other and with administration, to carry more weight and to create some kind of organizational unity when we go to these meetings."

So she decided to start her own group. WikiPima is, at a glance, a PCC student club. However, instead of selling cookies and planning dances in the cafeteria, this club is giving Pima students a platform to share their grievances. On its website (wikipima.wordpress.com) and through social media, the club is soliciting stories from students who have run into obstacles at the college.

Hanlon says a couple of students have already submitted complaints about their experience with the college and the group has started the process of investigating the claims.

Joe McGrath, a student who has been an active voice for Pima's students, is calling for students to send a message another way: by helping collect signatures supporting a recall election for Pima's longest-standing board members.

Pima was placed on probation almost a year ago, after the Higher Learning Commission, which accredit colleges, received several complaints from Tucsonans concerned about operations at Pima. Investigation into the claims lead the HLC to say Pima had cultivated a "culture of fear" under the previous chancellor and failed to live up to HLC standards in other areas.

"Anyone who is a student at the college or who has been a student at the college should get informed and get involved," McGrath said.

Groups such as Citizens for PCC Integrity, which was created in response to discontent at the college, is leading an effort to replace the people who have been on Pima's board since the troubles started.

"We asked them to resign and they did not," Phil Lopes, a Tucsonan assisting with the recall effort, said of the board. "Even though recall is a serious decision, which should not be frivolous and should not be based on one decision, we felt since they lost the community's trust (and) they refused to resign, the only option we had was for recall."

The board has five members: Chairwoman Brenda Even, Scott Stewart, Marty Cortez, David Longoria and Sylvia Lee, who is new to the board and not being targeted in the recall effort.

Stewart, who was chairman of the board when most of the issues at the college came to light, and Cortez, who was re-elected in November 2012, are the only members the recall effort is currently targeting.

Even, if she decides to run again, will already be on November's ballot because her current term will be up at the end of the year. The recall website, fixpimacollege.com, lists events at which the organization will be at collecting signatures.

Longoria was not included in this initial push because the group feared it would be stretching itself too thin to go after all of the board members at once. It does, however, plan to target Longoria for recall "based on how these two go," Lopes said.

"We chose Cortez and Stewart because they've been on the board the longest and they should know better," he said.

If the group manages to collect enough signatures by late April, the two board members would have to win another election in November to stay on the board. The group needs a total of 15,000 signatures to push Stewart onto the ballot and 13,000 for Cortez.

Meanwhile, the college and the board have been focused on addressing the school's issues. In early January, PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert blogged about the progress the college has made since probation was announced last April, and talked about the challenges of helping the college grow while addressing the HLC's concerns.

"I often compare Pima Community College to an airplane that is being built while it is flying. Nowhere is that metaphor more apt than in our planning processes. PCC must constantly monitor its current operations and make adjustments quickly and decisively, while continually checking for storms and breaks in the clouds far out on the horizon."

The college hosted a summit Feb. 18 in which about 200 people—both Pima employees and members of the community— broke into small groups, discussed trends in education and talked about what Pima should do to continue growing in its service to the community.

"All flights land, eventually. But the process we are initiating will be ongoing," Lambert wrote.

Even said the feedback from the community echoed her feelings and the inclination of the board as far as what direction Pima needs to move in.

"I think it is going very well," Even said. "I think everyone has just worked like crazy to be sure we don't miss anything."

Pima's timeline to work through HLC issues and an itemized list of what each aspect of its response entails is available at pima.edu/about-pima under "PCC Addresses Probation."

Lopes says the community is happy with the new leadership from Lambert, Lee and Zelema Harris, the college's former interim chancellor who is back at Pima filling in at another administrative position. Despite that, it looks as though people will be keeping a close eye on operations at the college.

"The mantra that the school kept harping on was 'This is operational, this has nothing to do with student instruction,'" Hanlon said, noting that professional experience as an analyst made her skeptical of those claims. "I just know that it's impossible to have a pervasive culture such as the one they were describing, and not have that filter through every aspect."

More by Chelo Grubb

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