Pima Community College Placed on Probation

Pima Community College Placed on Probation
We explore the reasons behind the recent probation of Pima Community College, and what the Arizona school plans to do to bring their credentials back up to par once again.

In the midst of major turnover from the top down, Pima Community College is now on probation. The Arizona school has been notified by its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, that it has two years to turn things around or lose its accreditation status. With an executive team in limbo and reports of poor – and even unethical – management in recent years, it looks like Pima has its work cut out for the next two probationary years.

Problems from the Top Down

Tucson News Now reports that top administration officials may have initiated the problems at Pima that resulted in probation. The publication specifically cites allegations of sexual harassment against Ray Flores, the former chancellor of the school, which were left unaddressed by school administrators for several years. The commission investigating the school also found a “hostile working environment,” reported by many community college staff members.

Other issues reported by the Arizona Daily Star include corrupt contracting practices. Executives of the school have been accused of approving expensive contracts without going through the appropriate bidding process. Throughout the accusations of mismanagement, there is a common thread of a culture cultivated of “fear and retribution” and an ineffective governing body that failed to address concerns or manage situations that made it challenging to work at the college.

This video reports on Pima Community College facing probation.

Report Specifics that Led to Probation

Inside Higher Ed reports that the four-member accreditation team from the Higher Learning Commission found complex issues with the community college that fell into nine major themes. Some of those themes included:

  • Alleged absentee governing board
  • An environment of fear throughout school staff
  • Accusations of sexual harassment against Flores
  • Tighter admission standards that excluded some students
  • Failure to notify the commission of policy changes
  • Management mistakes, past and present

The report was written after the accreditation team visited the college in January and interviewed 108 people regarding the school's work environment and general operations. Team members found a nearly universal concern for the culture at the school, of which the report stated, “An unhealthy college culture was established through the use of intimidation, fear and an abuse of executive power.”

Sexual Harassment Allegations: One Piece of the Puzzle

Many of the concerns seemed to stem from the fact that the accusations of sexual harassment regarding Flores went unheeded by the governing board. Flores took over as chancellor at Pima in 2003. Since that time, eight staff members came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against the chancellor. Several of the women stated that after refusing Flores's advances, they were demoted or transferred to different positions at the school.

The first anonymous complaints involving Flores made it to the school’s governing board in 2008. However, board members took no formal action to act on the complaints until 2011. Flores resigned from his position as chancellor last year, two years before his contract was set to expire. He cited health reasons as his reason for leaving.

Other Breaches Cites in Report

Sexual harassment wasn’t the only ethical breach involving Flores and other executives on the Pima staff. The accreditation team also found many at the school described a hostile working environment based on intimidation and fear. The assessment team determined that a “symbiotic” working relationship between Flores and governing board members made it difficult, if not impossible, for the board to take necessary action when the protocol or ethical standards were clearly breached.

The team also found that Pima had been pursuing four-year degree offerings, which changed how the executive team had been conducting operations at the school. Flores determined he only wanted to hire professors with PhDs and instituted a new admission policy requiring students to achieve a certain score on a standardized examination to be considered for enrollment. The test was the COMPASS, a placement test from ACT.

This new requirement directly conflicted with previous enrollment policies at community colleges nationwide that required only a high school diploma or GED for admittance. The accreditation team determined that the new requirement debunked the idea of education for the public good, a philosophy most community colleges continue to stand by. Executives for the school rebutted the claim, stating financial restrictions led to the need to focus on students with the greatest odds of college completion.

More Staff Changes on the Way

The Tucson Sentinel reports that in the midst of the probation ruling, the school is in the process of naming a new chancellor to take over the operations of the troubled school. Four candidates have made the final cut, and each will meet with Pima officials in the coming weeks as the selection process continues. Public interviews with the candidates will also be scheduled very shortly.

Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert issued an apology on behalf of PCC to the eight women whom the former chancellor sexually harassed. The video was made as part of a settlement with one of the victims.

At the same time, many are calling on the governing board members to resign their posts as well. However, while current board members have not given official statements on their status with the school, all are indicating they plan to stay on. However, Faculty Senate President Joe Labuda told the Tucson Sentinel it seems unlikely the school can move forward with the same governing body that is currently on the board. Faculty members have also asked that the search for a new chancellor be halted until a new governing board is named.

As Pima Community College begins its two-year probationary period, many questions remain about its health. As an institution that has been serving the community of Tucson since 1969, it appears there are many stakeholders in the process that are ready and willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure Pima remains a vital education source for Arizona residents.

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