It’s been repeated in classrooms ad nauseum, but the administrators and staff at Cuesta College are just now beginning to follow the age-old math mantra: Show your work.
- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The school has been drafting plans and reports in response to its accreditation problems ever since the school’s status as an institution with transferrable courses first came under fire three years ago, but administrators haven’t done a good job organizing those reports or making them accessible to the public. Some documents available online were outdated. Others were buried in deep, dusty corners of the college’s website or scattered across several pages, making pertinent information difficult to find, said Deborah Wulf, a dean of academic affairs and the school’s new accreditation liaison officer.
She assumed the leadership role in this fight early February, when the school’s status was demoted once again and the entire accreditation steering committee was replaced in an effort to add a fresh perspective and “keep the same eyes from looking at the same problem.”
Cathleen Greiner held the post before.
Wulf’s first project was to consolidate all of the accreditation information into one handy-dandy web page, which was launched Feb. 23, with a link stamped front and center at the top of cuesta.edu.
“The public has a right to know about all of this,” Wulf said.
Included on the page are two tickers counting down deadlines for reports and inspection teams, a list of frequently asked questions, links to a cache of detailed documents, itemized tasks with timelines, and a historical account of the entire accreditation saga.
The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) oversees schools across California and Hawaii and is responsible for ensuring universities and employers in specialized industries like nursing and auto repair can trust that a student’s “A” in Chemistry 101 is actually worth something. The commission also keeps community colleges on track to perform in the future, so they don’t suddenly run out of money when buildings are falling apart and computers haven’t been updated since the ’90s. The commission provides an important service, but dealing with it is a bureaucratic nightmare.
The commission reviews schools every six years, and in October of 2008, representatives came to visit and inspect Cuesta. They found that the college needed to improve in nine areas and put the school on “warning” status, meaning Cuesta had to face follow-up inspections every year until it complied with the commission’s standards.
By October 2009, the school had responded adequately to four of the commission’s concerns, but still had deficiencies in five areas. The main complaint at the time was that the school lacked coherent long-term plans. Also, several higher ups jumped ship, leaving important positions staffed with temporary replacements. The commission moved to put Cuesta on “probation.”
There was little change in 2010 and 2011, so the commission sent a letter in February 2012, citing the school’s failure to respond in the areas of planning and assessment, technology resources, and institutional planning and evaluation. The commission demanded that Cuesta “show cause” (prove that it deserves to exist) by October or lose its accreditation and the state and federal funds that come with it. The response must include plans to close the institution if such an action is deemed necessary. Wulf said those plans won’t be drafted until summer.
To clarify, Cuesta College is currently accredited. All past courses and credits through the fall semester of 2012 can be transferred to other institutions. No work will be lost, but there’s still work to be done for the college to keep that accreditation in 2013 and beyond.
“We have to own up to our mistakes with the community, because we need their support behind us,” said Allison Merzon, president of the Cuesta College Federation of Teachers, a faculty union.
Merzon stressed that the quality of Cuesta’s teaching faculty has never been in question. She said that teachers are apprehensive of the ongoing accreditation problems and frustrated that they haven’t been properly addressed. Mostly, she said, they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it takes to move past the issue once and for all.
“The culture is changing,” Wulf said. “It’s amazing how many people have stepped up to volunteer on this.”
She estimated that about 50 people were working on accreditation and had signed up to address specific portions of the three areas Cuesta administrators still need to improve. The school has known about the deficiencies since 2009, and was even told in 2002 that it had a planning problem.
“We can’t just plan to pay our bills on time, and we can’t rely on the possibility of a future bond measure,” said Kevin Bontenbal, president of the academic senate. “We need specific plans here.”
Wulf admitted that progress has been slow, but she said substantial improvements have been made behind the scenes. In fact, a 20-page technology plan was approved by the Board of Trustees in February, just after the ACCJC inspection.
Wulf said important plans get bogged down by the “shared governance system.” Every plan—the college has several, such as the education master plan, strategic plan, enrollment plan, facilities plan, and fiscal plan—has to be drafted by a committee and approved by the academic senate (a group of teacher representatives), the planning and budget committee, and the college council (an amalgamation of staffers, faculty, and administrators). Input from every group is worked into subsequent drafts until everybody can agree, and the plan is adopted by the Board of Trustees and signed by the college president.
“We have to embrace that model,” Wulf said. “If we don’t all believe in the plan, it won’t work.”
These various committees and groups meet just once a month. Items have to be placed on agendas a week in advance, so quickly passing even the best plan can be difficult. Wulf said it will likely be necessary for the groups to meet more often in the coming months.
College leaders are also soliciting advice from accreditation experts like Eve Conrad. The integrative planning wiz recently helped two colleges in Orange County restore their accreditation, and she visited SLO in late February for three days of back-to-back meetings and a public forum that the college hopes will put it on the path to redemption.
“We won’t let the college fail,” Wulf said. “Everyone here is ready to do whatever it takes.”
Every year, roughly 12,000 residents rely on Cuesta College for undergraduate and vocational education.
Calendar Editor Nick Powell can be reached at email@example.com.