For nearly half a century, there's been a fountain of opportunity in our desert.
Pima Community College was founded in 1969, immediately opening the doors for Tucsonans who wanted to make something more of themselves. Over the years, the college has grown and evolved. Today, Pima offers a variety of standard educational programs and provides technical career training in industries ranging from nursing to aviation technology.
When it comes to student opportunities, there's no denying it, Pima is a beacon of hope. Internally, however, the years have been less kind to the college. Today, Pima is a few years into reforming itself after a period of neglect. Change never comes easy or, it would seem, without differing perspectives on what kind of change is needed.
THERE ARE CHALLENGES
"My mission is 'Never again.' Never again will the college be brought down by undiscovered weaknesses," board member Scott Stewart says. Stewart is the last remaining board member from what one might call the previous era of Pima. He's been on the board since 1999, and the last five or so years have been pretty rough.
Discontent was apparent at the college in late 2011: Board meetings meant hours of angry public comment and coalitions formed to lobby for change and new leadership. When they felt they weren't being heard, unhappy community members decided to reach out to Pima's accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission.
In January 2013 the HLC sent an investigative team to look into concerns at the college and what they found was troubling.
The investigators reported finding evidence of an intimidation-based work environment, unaddressed sexual harassment allegations against the former chancellor, and policies that conflicted with the mission of the college.
Pima's accreditation—and therefore the college's future—was put on a two-year probation. Pima remained fully functional from an education perspective, but was forced to start aggressively addressing problems. Last February, the college was shifted from probation to "on notice"—a sign from the HLC that Pima was moving in the right direction, but still a step removed from full confidence.
The issues the HLC found are deep seeded and complicated and, fittingly, so are the college's steps to correct them. Updates and details of the Accreditation Improvement Initiatives and other changes at the college are detailed on Pima's website, but here are the highlights:
• Pima recommitted itself to being an open-admissions, affordable institution
• Board meetings and study sessions are now taped, broadcast live and available on the website
• New committees were formed to watch and develop areas of the college that make been marked by the HLC with concern
• The college has had to reevaluate how it measures success, its enrollment plan and that plan's ties to the budget
• A human resources program was developed to allow employees to file complaints without fear of retaliation
While on notice, Pima is still working to repair the damage done to the college in previous years, and is still submitting reports about their progress to the HLC. The next report is due this July, and the HLC will be sending another team to evaluate the college in September.
But Pima's challenges don't end with the HLC's concerns.
In addition to the issues Pima has had to work to correct, the college has had a rough time recently in terms of finances.
Tuition remains a significant source of Pima's annual income and enrollment has been declining over the last five years, a trend that mirrors community colleges across the nation. To make matters worse: Pima's state funding was entirely eliminated last year, which immediately took $7 million away from Pima's budget.
Looking at this combined loss from tuition, expenditure limitations and state funds, Chancellor Lee Lambert says, "We've lost $30 million of spending capacity. So your primary funding sources are through this three-legged stool—state aid, tuition and fees and property tax—and all three are taking a hit. For the college not to adjust on the expense side to that new reality sets us up for a serious fall."
Pima did score one win: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's signed Senate Bill 1322, a bill that allows the college to spend money it collects through property tax based on enrollment in different programs.
Put simply, it costs more to educate a nursing student than an English major. This legislation calculates the college's expenditure limitation based on averages of past years' audited actual enrollments.
The college is also working to bring in more income by restructuring the tuition system.
In-state tuition will be increasing by 4 percent in the 2016-2017 school year, while non-resident, international and age 55+ students are all seeing a slight decreases in their per-credit costs. Students will now pay for a max of 15 credits per semester, even if they enroll in more courses.
Lambert says Pima is currently "financially healthy," but that they have to be mindful that the decisions that are made today will impact the financial health of the college in the long term.
His answer? Focus on the students. Focus on retention and Pima's image among prospective students. Be a college students want to attend.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE STUDENTS
Knowing I started the decade as a Pima student, Lambert asks, "Think about when you were a student. Was it easy for you to apply and pick your courses?" Easy enough, I suppose.
"It wasn't as easy as buying a plane ticket, was it? We have to make it that easy. So, why couldn't I, in less than five minutes, apply to be a student, select my courses and pay?"
Lambert makes the point that Pima has to make itself as accessible as possible. The college needs to be welcoming, of course, but also user friendly. There's no reason to make signing up for Pima a struggle.
"The world is different today," Lambert says. "People have options and when the options are more easily accessible, sometimes you might gravitate that way even though that's not what you might have wanted to do initially."
Beyond simplifying the signup process, Lambert is really looking at what it means to being an institution that is there for its students.
"We've got to really define what we mean by student success and so there's a lot of aspects to that," Lambert says. "Are we offering what people want at a time when they want it? Are we staying on top of it as things evolve over time? Do people get good support at the college in terms of advising?"
Lambert compares his goals for the college to the customer service relationship he has with his Starbucks barista. She remembers him, knows his order and knows what he likes. "That's what I want to get Pima to."
"At the end of the day, it's about us being humans to each other, and human beings should care about each other," Lambert says. "When you're standing in front of me, I need to be present and be there with you. We need to make sure that's consistent and that our systems support people being able to do that on a consistent basis."
And, of course, community colleges are uniquely situated to help people who need extra support from their college.
"We're the place of hope for a lot of people who maybe didn't have that first shot of going to a college or a university," Lambert says. "We're their hope, and so we are sometimes a person's second, third, fourth, final option—and that matters."
BUT PIMA NEEDS TO WORK WITH EMPLOYERS, TOO
If there's a group besides students the college is trying to court, it's employers—a group Stewart jokingly calls Pima County's most endangered species.
"We need to hear more business and industry voices at the college," Stewart says, noting Pima needs to be driven by the business community's needs, not "what we want to teach to."
Here, college leaders all seem to agree: Pima needs to make sure it is training students in a way that appeals to employers.
"We're part of transforming this community," Lambert says, adding he wants Pima "to become a magnet for people as well as business and industry because the quality of life is so high and people know when they come they have opportunities."
When that happens, Lambert says, "we're actually helping the city and this community move from being the fifth poorest community in the country for our size to be one of the leader communities that people look up to. That's what I really hope, that Pima plays a vital role in that."
According to someone who used to work with the potential employers who could make that happen for Tucson, Lambert's dream for Pima is exactly what the region needs.
"People have to leave because there aren't that many jobs in Tucson. You can find it if you're committed to staying here and it's been like that for years," says board member Martha Durkin.
In her work as an attorney with the city and county, she saw the impact Pima could have first hand.
"So, when we would talk to businesses saying 'Come to Tucson' or 'What's stopping you?' it almost always was the education of our workforce and our skills," Durkin says.
Durkin is impressed with the quality and variety of programs Pima offers. She names stand out programs at each campus, from computer assisted design to astronomy, and seems generally impressed with Pima's high tech programs. "High tech" and "variety" are good things when it comes to college programs—but they're also expensive.
"The college is not good at making choices to deal with their financial resources," Stewart says, suggesting that the college is trying to do too much. But, he says, it's difficult to measure which programs have the most economic impact.
Stewart points to the aviation technology program, one of his favorite programs the college offers. It's got a good reputation and lots of employment potential. How does one compare a program like that to one like, say, adult basic education which helps people improve their math and language skills earn a high school equivalency diploma? The latter program teaches skills that are more, well, basic, but impacts more people than the aviation program.
"Adult basic education could very well have a much larger economic impact," Stewart says, "but it's harder to measure."
Regardless of how hard it might be to measure that success, Stewart says it's challenging to get Pima to even look into that information.
"Getting the college to do that has been something I've been pushing for the entire time I've been on the board," Stewart says. With a laugh, he adds, "That's another great reason to replace me with someone who can get it done."
IT'S A BIG ELECTION YEAR FOR PIMA
Durkin and Demion Clinco are recent additions to the board: the two were appointed in August and December, respectively, after longtime members Marty Cortez and David Longoria stepped down.
Their two seats, in addition to Stewart's, are all up for a vote in November. Only two seats, held by Sylvia Lee and Mark Hanna, are guaranteed through next year.
For his part, Stewart says he'd love to see another private sector candidate run for his seat; someone interested in making tough but necessary decisions, someone who understands the economic potential of the college. No such candidate has emerged and, as a result, Stewart will likely run for a fourth term on the board.
Durkin and Clinco also intend to run to keep their seats—and their priorities don't seem too far removed from Stewart's.
Clinco, like his colleagues, expressed an interest in utilizing Pima as an economic powerhouse while maximizing the use of the college's resources.
"It's about really looking at the needs of the community, looking at the sectors that anticipate growth, where our students are physically located, and looking at what are the opportunities to sort of re-envision programs," Clinco says. "We need to be looking at which programs might be able to share resources in an effort to be more granular in how we use our resources."
He feels like the college is doing a good job of moving forward from the damage that got it in trouble in the first place.
"I was impressed and somewhat relieved to hear the systemic commitment to change," Clinco says, adding he agrees with the direction set forth by the Higher Learning Commission.
"I think it's the way the college needs to go to not only perform well and meet the needs of our students but also compete in an ever more competitive marketplace," he says.
Paul Diaz, the former mayor is South Tucson who was ousted in a recall election last November, is also running for the seat—though he has yet to make any public comments about his campaign.
Durkin says she dealt with problems similar to Pima's during her work as an attorney for the city of Tucson and the Tucson Unified School District.
In addition to her 30-year law career, Durkin taught at the college briefly in the '80s. She feels she can use the skills from her career in the public sector and her understanding of Pima's potential to utilize the college as a tool for Tucson.
"I had a lot of experience with these types of problems, so I thought I could bring that to (the board)," Durkin says. "Pima is so critically important and I think most of us didn't realize what was happening. We kept thinking Pima's great, Pima's great. We really came to realize how much we had taken it for granted."
But, she says, the college is hard at work to see itself through the challenges at hand.
"This year, I think we're going to be very successful. The next two or three years are very critical to get better, better, better."
Luis Gonzales, a candidate to take Durkin's seat, sighs when asked why he decided to run. "I've been concerned with Pima College for some time," Gonzales says.
Gonzales adds he is worried about the direction the college is moving in and whether the HR system can adequately address the college's internal problems. Generally, Gonzales feels that "something is wrong."
Durkin and Clinco have both been vocally supportive of Lambert's leadership at the college. As far as Gonzales is concerned, that's a problem.
"The bureaucracy is being followed by this board like a puppy," Gonzales said. "I'm not going to be a yes person for anyone."
A big concern of his is the above-mentioned recent hike in Pima's tuition rates.
Gonzales calls the in-state increase a "slap in the face to all our local students."
"I don't know where their priorities are," Gonzales says. "Will that lead to an increase in enrollment? I don't think so. It has to be system that will work with everyone. They don't seem to care about the system working for everybody."
Pima math and science instructor Francis Saitta is also running for the seat Durkin currently holds. His focus is more on the impact the college could have on people in need of a high school diploma.
"The community college is a unique educational institution serving the educational needs of the citizens of Pima County; whatever those educational needs happen to be," Saitta wrote in an email. He plans to spearhead this agenda if he's elected to the board.
Saitta emphasizes that his program would not be a GED program, rather one that expedites the process and is driven by each individual student's motivation.
"With the technology available, Students need NOT spend four years in satisfying the requirements for a high-school diploma," Saitta writes.
All in all, the candidates are all trying to ensure Pima is doing its part for the community.
"It's sort of disappointing to have opposition. I didn't want to argue with anyone. I'm sure [the other candidates] have the same goals," Durkin says. "They want Pima to succeed. There's no one on the other side, you know."
DON'T FORGET THE EMPLOYEES
It's true, despite the setbacks, there's always been a lot of love for Pima in the community. If there's any one group that exemplifies that, it's the employees that have been working at the college through the hullabaloo of the last few years.
That's not to say it's been easy. In the fall, a Pima faculty committee surveyed staff and found some concerns linked the low morale. If fact, 57 percent of the 263 completed surveys indicated faculty feeling unhappy at the college.
"We must adjust on the expense side, there's no way around that, and that's going to cause uneasiness," Lambert says. "People are going to be afraid, and rightfully so, for their jobs. I have said to people the way forward is to focus on student success and try to attract as many students as we can and keep the ones we have here."
So far, the college steered away from layoffs and has instead tried to cut the staff budget by eliminating vacant positions and restructuring existing jobs. Case in point: There used to be a president for each of Pima's six campuses. Today, there are three campus presidents in charge of two locations each. Changes like that may be why that staff survey reported staff feeling overworked and underappreciated.
"I think folks are naturally—and its not a bad thing—having a hard time with a change, and the mindset shift that has to happen is to understand that we must change," Lambert says. "I have to be part of helping shape that change in a positive way."
But, Lambert adds, it seems like the faculty is coming around to the changes.
At the April 13 board meeting, instructor Mays Imad delivered her monthly faculty report. She talked about the Faculty Senate commitment to helping students achieve their goals, saying the college has "exceptional, dedicated, passionate, selfless faculty that care immensely about the students."
Imad said that there are no "sides." The faculty, board and admin alike are all dedicated to the success of the college and their students. In her opinion, she added, the college is moving in the right direction.
"Communication is improving," she said, noting concerns she had previously brought up on behalf of the faculty had either been addressed or were currently being worked on. "So, I believe we are moving in the right direction."
For anyone still feeling uneasy, Lambert says the lines of communication are open.
"I think the approach I take is I'm willing to sit down with anybody, and listen to their concerns but also share my perspective and why my perspective is that way," he says. "I think just constantly doing that more and more is how I address that segment of the population."
Lambert says his message is pretty simple.
"I'm here to help shepherd the college back to that place where it puts students first and that means we have to take care of some not so pleasant stuff, and we are going to take care of that not so pleasant stuff, so that we can do what we're rightfully here to do," he says. "I'm committed to doing that, and you've seen me doing it already."