Cuesta College finds itself fighting to keep its accreditation because of years of volatile leadership, which resulted in a lack of high-level attention just as the standards got tougher.
That’s the conclusion drawn from interviews with more than a dozen past and present college administrators, faculty and staff.
The college has been without a long-term president for more than five years since Marie Rosenwasser was pressured to resign by the Board of Trustees in late 2006.
At the same time, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, pressured by the U.S. Department of Education to be more demanding, began a rigorous approach of assessing schools and focusing on learning outcomes.
Cuesta’s accreditation was reaffirmed in 2002 based on the prior standards, but it was advised to take heed of the looming changes. Colleges are evaluated by the accrediting commission once every six years.
“From 2005 to 2008 is when everything unraveled,” said Gil Stork, current president, noting that several vice presidents were asked to leave at the same time that Rosenwasser resigned.
It was then that the president’s seat became a revolving door.
The focus of accreditation was lost in the transitional leadership and suddenly the college once noted statewide for its superior planning found itself ill prepared to meet the new standards.
The college has until October to prove that it has improved in three key areas — planning and assessment, technology resources, and financial planning and stability.
It must also make preparations for closure, as required by the commission, because it is in the final stage of sanction.
However, closure is unlikely. There are no examples in California of community colleges that have lost accreditation and closed because of it. But there are examples of what happens when a college loses accreditation. Around 2006, Compton College failed accreditation and was then taken over by a neighboring district and turned into a satellite campus.
Cuesta’s accreditation remains intact while the college defends its status.
Despite several improvements made by Cuesta administrators and staff since the college was first told it was not meeting the accrediting commission’s standards, the college failed to completely appease the commission again in 2011 and is now making a final attempt to save its accreditation.
Cuesta’s main challenge now: to show it has sufficiently linked its key operating plans to future fiscal resources.
A technical adviser from the accrediting commission recently visited the college to pinpoint exactly where Cuesta College is falling short.
That adviser made it clear that, until now, Cuesta has spent a lot of time writing plans but not enough time actually planning, said Kevin Bontenbal, Academic Senate president.
“We need to close those loops by defining what integrated planning really is and how all the pieces are connected,” Bontenbal said. “It was helpful to have someone that hasn’t been so intimately involved point out the things that need (to be) done.”
Needing a leader
Bontenbal believes turn- over at the top has led to the college’s failures with its accreditation.
“To effectively address what the standards require, it takes institutional leadership from the top, and the person responsible for ensuring that all the key planning is in place is the president of the college,” he said. “With so much turnover all of the time, we didn’t have anyone at the helm guiding us.”
Cuesta College had a strong history of dedicated leadership until Rosenwasser’s departure in 2006 after seven years.
Each of the previous presidents had spent more than a decade in the seat — guiding the college through major endeavors such as adding the North County campus.
But a rift between the Board of Trustees and Rosenwasser, exacerbated by the failure of a $310 million bond measure, led to her resignation.
She was noted for her commitment to students and making sure that Cuesta garnered greater respect as an institution of learning, but she was also criticized for her perceived desire to control much of what happened on campus and inability to delegate.
Since her departure, the college has had little stability in the president’s office. Interim presidents and former President David Pelham, who departed after a tumultuous year, oversaw the college until the trustees hired Stork in November. Before that, Stork led the college on an interim basis for a year.
“The transition in leadership was a detriment to us,” said Bontenbal, who has taught at Cuesta College for 15 years. “Just as we were being asked to play the game differently by the standards, all of a sudden there is a transition in leadership, and it fell to the wayside in part.”
Barbara George, who worked at Cuesta College for 27 years before retiring in 2005 as the executive director of the Cuesta College Foundation, returned in 2010 to fill that post for a year on an interim basis.
She said she was surprised at the sheer number of recommendations to the college in 2008, and said that not enough was done to address them.
“Leadership all around just fell apart, and nothing happened,” George said. “It makes me angry that one of the nation’s most celebrated colleges would be in this state. It does not deserve to be there. The quality of instruction and the caliber of people who work there to assure student success at every level remains. This is not who this college is.”
The lack of stability from the top caused once-vital plans to become outdated, and pushed the focus from charting the college’s vision for the future to simply keeping it operating.
“There were a lot of in-and-out interim positions, which are not really meant to deal with long-term issues,” Stork said. “They are focused on dealing in the short-term with keeping things running until the next person comes in.”
As Stork inherited leadership of the college, he also became heir to its accreditation issues and a failing state economy.
It led to the perfect storm.
“I think that any time there is a lack of stability inside when there is a lack of stability outside, you have the real makings of chaos,” said Dianne Van Hook, chancellor of the Santa Clarita Community College District for 24 years.
“I don’t think this is a trend for Cuesta,” she said, adding that she has used past Cuesta plans as a resource for her own planning because they were done so well. “If you look at Cuesta’s history of planning, you would probably be blown away.”
The rising number of colleges that have faced sanctions from the accreditation commission since the standards changed in 2002 has caused concern among faculty groups throughout the state, which claim that the commission is overstepping its role.
Cuesta College is one of 44 colleges addressed or reviewed by the accrediting commission in January. Of those, only seven had their accreditation reaffirmed. The other 37 were placed on some level of sanction. College administrators, such as Van Hook, who have experienced the change in accreditation standards over the years, have learned how to stay ahead of the curve.
The college district that Van Hook oversees is much larger than Cuesta’s, and student enrollment has grown exponentially over the years.
“The only way you can accommodate that kind of growth is to plan,” Van Hook said. “You have to plan all the time and you have to work the plan.”
The college district has passed two bond measures under her tenure. Van Hook said maintaining a future focus is imperative, adding that the college plans for up to 10 years in advance.
Linking financial resources to those plans can be challenging in volatile economic times, she said, but it is possible.
“You do it with as much flexibility and responsiveness as you can,” Van Hook said.
She said administrators at her Los Angeles County district have used slower economic times — such as the recession in the 1990s — to focus on future planning, building a strong network between departments on campus and networking with other institutions.
“Everyone in education knows that we will go through dire times, and then all of a sudden we get to grow,” Van Hook said. “That is kind of hard unless you have everything ready to go.”
She said the accrediting commission’s shift to planning implementation that requires data-driven results is a positive change, but can be taxing on smaller colleges like Cuesta that do not have deep resources to support such efforts.
“I do know that they have had a strong culture of planning and very systematic planning,” Van Hook said. “We have all just found ourselves in four years of doom and gloom, and the practical reality is that unless you’ve done this a lot, it is not easy to convince people to plan when there is no money to implement it.”
Stork began his career with the college 43 years ago when he was recruited as an assistant football coach. He later taught mathematics, filled two dean positions and served as the vice president of student services for 14 years.
He has pledged to lead the college through its troubles — including rebuilding a positive institutional attitude that had broken down over the years and led to more finger-pointing than progress.
“There has been a lack of clarity as to who is responsible for what, and now it is becoming crystal clear at all levels,” Stork said. “Even though the board is ultimately responsible, the president must set the tone and have a confident administrative staff to carry out the provisions and requirements of the accreditation process.”
He added that “the work that we have done over the last two years has shown that the college is embracing a recommitment to each other and to the stability and longevity needed for the success of the college.”
Stork recently appointed Deborah Wulff, the dean of academic affairs, to take over accreditation duties from Cathleen Greiner, vice president of academic affairs. Wulff now serves as the accreditation liaison for Cuesta College.
Under Wulff’s guidance, Cuesta launched a website that makes the college’s accreditation process more transparent to the public and clearly outlines what is being done to fix deficiencies.
Stork said the accrediting commission’s focus on integrated planning and measurable outcomes is meant to stand the test of time and will prevent future breakdowns like what occurred at Cuesta because there will be a clear, outlined plan detailing where the college is headed.
Van Hook said she is confident that Cuesta will get there.
“I know the standards they aspire to and adhere to are very high,” Van Hook said. “These are challenging times, and the leadership there is committed, they are smart, and they will figure it out.”