It all started with a short but devastating letter. After three years of warnings and a stint on “probation,” Cuesta College received word in February that the institution had one final chance to prove to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) that the school deserved to exist and that grades earned at Cuesta should legitimately count at other colleges.
The school was placed on “show cause” status and was given eight months to show it had adequately addressed concerns about a lack of comprehensive, integrated planning with regard to technology resources, financial planning and stability, and institutional planning and assessment. Basically, the school needed to be clear on how it would plan for the future and how it would ensure those plans were followed.
The resulting workload was immense and required the prolonged, joint effort of dozens of college leaders in multiple departments. No fewer that 11 major plans were produced, some hundreds of pages long. Deborah Wulff, vice president of academic affairs, led the effort as co-chair of the college’s 20-person Accreditation Steering Committee.
“I really appreciate how my colleagues have pulled together on this,” she said. “They’ve done some outstanding work and should be proud.”
Wulff assumed the top position on accreditation in February, after president Gil Stork relieved the former committee leader. Wulff immediately ramped up the schedule so that members met once a week instead of twice per month. Committee work of some kind is a job requirement for full-time faculty members, Wulff said, so no one received any additional money for their extra efforts to save the school.
Signs of fatigue began to show as the spring semester came to a close. Minutes from the steering committee’s May 7 meeting revealed that participants were worn out.
“People are tired, too much work, and they cannot sustain these current efforts,” the minutes said. “Not many members signed up for committee next year.”
The committee had shrunk to 16 members after the summer break.
Barbara George, a current candidate for the Cuesta College Board of Trustees and the school’s former executive director of advancement, said in a phone interview that responsibility ultimately rests with the board to ensure department heads follow accreditation standards. She praised the campus community for coming together to address the issue and hopefully put it behind them.
“It’s heartbreaking, really,” George said. “Every waking moment is spent on two things: the budget and accreditation. There’s been no room for creativity.”
Her opponent, David Baldwin, couldn’t be reached as of press time.
If accreditation were to be revoked, federal funding would disappear, and the college would be forced to close. As such, the commission asked for two reports: a “show cause” report that would demonstrate how the school resolved its planning issues, and a closure report that would outline what would happen to faculty, staff, students, records, and facilities should the school be forced to shut down.
Both were sent to the commission before an Oct. 15 due date. The show cause report contains 205 pages of planning templates, detailed progress timelines, and assurances that all financial decisions will tie into long-term institutional goals. Included in the closure report is a promise to send 60-day lay-off notices to all classified employees by March 15 and provide letters of recommendation on request if accreditation goes away.
A follow-up team from the commission arrived on campus Oct. 29 for two days of interviews with 26 campus leaders of their choosing in an effort to ensure that the reports were accurate and that plans were adequately implemented throughout the college. President Stork said Cuesta spent roughly $2,000 to accommodate the six commission representatives at the Courtyard Marriott hotel in San Luis Obispo.
According to Stork, the interviews went well, and the visiting team members said they were impressed by Cuesta’s accomplishments and that their report would be very positive. One concern, however, was that the school has yet to complete a full planning cycle. Though the plans were put into motion in July, they cover the course of an entire year, and certain elements haven’t yet been triggered.
“How the commission will respond to that is still unknown,” Stork said.
The commission will review Cuesta’s reports and consider testimony from the visiting team in January. Stork said he plans to attend their meeting and provide further evidence that the college has stuck to its plans in the meantime.
“We all have our fingers crossed,” George said. “We’ll see how the accrediting commission views the work.”
Administrators won’t know until February 2013 whether they’ve convinced the commission to reaffirm Cuesta’s accreditation.
Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.