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Pima College finally released from sanctions by accreditors

After four years of being under varying levels of probation and review by national accreditors, Pima Community College has been released from "on notice" status by the Higher Learning Commission, officials said.

The HLC, which maintains standards for colleges across the country, had placed PCC on probation in April 2013 due to pervasive problems, including shortfalls in administrative oversight of finances, unreviewed policies and uninvestigated allegations of sexual harassment.

In December 2014, HLC reviewers noted progress made by the school, saying PCC should be taken off probation, but remain "on notice" while being improvements continued to be made in the school's administration. The commission placed Pima on that status in March 2015.

Thursday, in what Pima Chancellor Lee Lambert said was "wonderful news for current and prospective students," the HLC told the college that it would no longer be under such strict scrutiny.

"While we remained fully accredited as we sought to comply with HLC standards, removal from notice is a crystal-clear indication to students that their school is operating and will continue to operate at a high standard," Lambert said in a news release.

Loss of accreditation would have meant Pima students would no longer qualify for federal financial aid, and that credits earned at the college would not be transferable to other accredited schools.

Although the HLC restored Pima to normal accreditation status, the group did express a number of concerns about the college's progress in fulfilling commitments made in its announced plans to fix the problems pointed out four years ago. The HLC will require Pima to submit a future report on progress meeting those goals.

The HLC laid out a number of continuing issues, even as it took the college off "on notice" status, including:

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  • A plan to revamp remedial education for Pima students "remains in the implementation stage and its effectiveness has not yet been evaluated."
  • Pima "has not demonstrated that goals and measurable activities are clearly outlined and being conducted" regarding student assessments.
  • Despite multiple planning processes undertaken by Pima, the accreditors knocked the school, noting that "evidence of establishment of an effective planning structure and process was not yet available; achievement of goals and key performance indicators remains a challenging activity for the college."

Late last year, HLC reviewers had recommended that Pima remain "on notice" for another six months, as the college had yet to fill two positions focused on assessment of student learning. In the months between the site visit and a Feb. 23 meeting of HLC's Board of Trustees, the college hired staff for those posts.

Citing shortfalls in administrative oversight of finances, unreviewed policies and pointing to uninvestigated allegations of sexual harassment, the national accrediting body placed Pima on probation in April 2013. The accreditors outlined a two-year process for Pima to improve its operations and retain its accreditation.

The commission had investigated complaints about the school's administration earlier that year, and released a report finding that PCC "had "a culture of fear and retribution."

The school was placed at risk of losing its accreditation “because of concerns related to integrity, financial management, personnel policies and procedures, shared governance, (Governing) Board oversight of the institution, and systemic and integrated planning."

In addition to questioning whether a change in admission standards was an abandonment of its community mission, the report pointed to allegations that former college chief Roy Flores sexually harassed eight women, questioned Pima's awarding of high-dollar no-bid contracts, and described a culture of "fear and retribution" among campus faculty and staff.

Former PCC Governing Board member Scott Stewart was accused of having not called for an investigation of alleged sexual harassment by Flores. A woman who says the college head had harassed her sent an anonymous letter to Stewart, who did not share the accusations with other board members. Stewart acknowledged that he made an error in the case.

Pima was also admonished for changing its admission policies without adequate community involvement, although that factor did not rise to the level of being a cause for probation.

In a response to the 2013 report, Pima acknowledged "serious breaches of integrity" and outlined a plan to improve the school's administration in an attempt to stave off a vote to sanction PCC.

In late 2014, the HLC released a report, saying that the school had worked over 18 months to carry out "necessary changes to come into compliance" with accreditation standards, "while at the same time continuing to serve the educational needs of the community."

Staff with the HLC recommended in the review that the college be taken off probation, but that because work to implement administrative and organizational shifts was ongoing that PCC should be monitored to ensure that the changes "are effectively implemented in the long term."

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Accreditation review pending

As part of the routine 10-year accreditation process, PCC expects to undergo a comprehensive HLC evaluation of its operations in fall 2018 or spring 2019.

"We are turning our attention now to building on this recent hard work, focusing on continuous improvement, and strengthening the college to meet the changing needs of our students and community," said Dolores Durán-Cerda, acting provost.

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