A College Divided 

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

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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."

More by Chelo Grubb

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