Degree Dilemma

The same group that took PCC to task with the Higher Learning Commission returns to question college’s policy on employee academic qualifications

Until this summer, things were going well for Oscar and his job at Pima Community College's veteran student services.

About a year ago, he spent weeks working overtime reviewing and correcting thousands of files to help Pima pass a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs audit over discrepancies in the college's bookkeeping of veteran students' case files (the VA suspended Pima from enrolling new vet students from March 2014 to May 2014 citing several violations). For that reason and many other qualifications, in May of this year Oscar, who asked his name not be published in the Tucson Weekly, applied for a PCC student service advanced specialist position. After he was encouraged by his supervisor—Director of Veterans Services Daniel Kester—to pursue at the position, and got through the pre-requisite screening, as well as two interviews, Oscar was confident he nailed it.

But a few days after his final interview in June, Oscar found out two other colleagues landed the promotion. The reason? Oscar, a Pima employee for nine years, did not have a college degree. And if he was offered the job, he says it would have been under the condition of getting an associate's degree by December 2015 and a bachelor's shortly after. One of his co-workers, whom the Weekly will refer to as Isabel, was also denied a similar promotion for not having a college degree.

"Being thrown these last-minute conditions was unacceptable (and) far from reasonable, considering the fact that I still need more than just one semester to get my associate's degree here at PCC ..." Oscar says in a letter obtained by the Weekly. He planned to enroll in college in the fall of 2014, "however, due to PCC's mismanagement of veterans benefits recipient records in the past," he says, work got crazy and he had to put his higher education on hold.

Like Oscar, more than 35 other PCC student service employees, many of whom have worked at the college for more than 10 years, have now been required by Pima to get a degree one level above what the institution offers, meaning academic advisors need a bachelor's degree. If they don't have one by September 2017, they could lose their jobs, without the option of being grandfathered in, according to the Tucson-based Coalition for Accountability, Integrity, Respect and Responsibility. C-FAIRR's been advocating for the group of employees, alongside The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—a local union that recently filed a grievance against PCC over the newly created degree requirements. (There are two grievances total: one on behalf of the two veteran resources employees, and another involving the 35-plus group, C-FAIRR says.)

"And human resources is nowhere to be found," says Mario Gonzales, chair of C-FAIRR. The group describes the situation as both a union-labor and civil rights issue, because "the overwhelming majority of the people affected are members of protected classes: women and Mexican Americans," according to Salomón R. Baldenegro, also a member of C-FAIRR. He says of the 37 employees affected at least 32 are women, and 28 are Mexican-American. On the labor side, in C-FAIRR's and the union's opinion, Pima abruptly went from requiring its employees to either have an associate's degree and/or experience, to demanding a bachelor's degree in a short timeframe.

What also bothers C-FAIRR is that Pima claims the new requirements are mandated by the college's accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission.

The HLC put Pima on probation in 2013 over the mishandling of sexual harassment complaints against former Chancellor Roy Flores among other administrative issues. In March, the agency removed Pima from probation, but the school remains "on notice" until 2017 to ensure it continues to be in compliance with what the HLC demanded they fix. The college has to file a report next summer, and one of the areas of concern it has to address involves the faculty and staff's training and experience for the position they hold.

C-FAIRR argues the HLC does not mandate student service employees have a bachelor's degree. Gonzales says this makes sense for faculty only—if they teach associate's degree-level courses, they should at least have a bachelor's. In an email Gonzales forwarded to the Weekly, the HLC's legal and governmental affairs coordinator Zach Waymer said "there is no mandate emanating from the Higher Learning Commission ... regarding your specific concern about student support services staff having a certain degree level by a certain date."

There is an HLC rule, however, that says a college needs to ensure staff membe rs providing support services, such as tutoring or academic advising are "appropriately qualified, trained and supported in their professional development," the email says. PCC's executive director for media relations, Libby Howell, agrees: There aren't guidelines specifically asking for a bachelor's degree.

"What they do require is that we compare ourselves to our peer institutions and look at their best practices and their common practices so that we are consistent," she says. "In our research, we found that most other institutions of our type do require bachelor's degrees for employees who interact directly with students ... tutoring, advising, and that sort of thing." The college is working with the National Academic Advising Association to determine what steps to take, she adds.

Howell says that Pima's administration, in an attempt to be transparent with employees, might have spoken before it should have. Truth is, the institution doesn't have a concrete answer about the new academic qualifications, and much less an idea of acaemic requirements might be affected. For now, one thing is certain, no one is going to lose their jobs, she assures.

Howell says the HLC hasn't been clear about grandfathering in (this means they would credit an employee's years working in Pima, and that would equate to having any degree). There are many employees who have "served successfully for so long even though they don't have a bachelor's degree, we feel there ought to be a mechanism to give them the credit. Once again, it is too early to know that," she says.

About the grievance filed by the AFSCME union, Howell calls it invalid because grievances can only be filed by employees, not groups the college consults with. But C-FAIRR and the union will continue to make lots of noise. The issue's been brought up at nearly every governing board meeting for the past two months.

"We are deeply disturbed by the college's behavior in this matter for this violates the rights of the employees in a fundamental way," Gonzales says in a letter he sent PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert and PCC Governing Board Chair Sylvia Lee. "Changing the educational attainment level for student service staff with significant service terms is not only unnecessary and unfair, we find no justification for this misguided action."