Consultant is next step in Cuesta College accreditation crisis

Cuesta College administrators have hired a consultant to pinpoint exactly where they are falling short in meeting the necessary requirements for accreditation.

The college was notified last week that it needs to fix insufficiencies in three key areas: planning and assessment, technology resources, and financial planning and stability. Otherwise, its accreditation will be revoked, and Cuesta will face possible closure.

Following the news, college officials spent the week at a dizzying pace assuring employees and students that resolving the problems was their sole priority and that the school remains accredited despite the recent sanction.

“The biggest challenge for us right now is just convincing people not to lose confidence,” Cuesta President Gil Stork said. The college has been struggling to retain its accreditation since 2009, when it received an initial warning by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges that it was not meeting the required standards.

Significant improvements have been made since then, but these haven’t been enough to appease the accrediting commission. The panel gave Cuesta a “show cause” status, meaning the college must show it can meet the demands of accreditation.

The college must now prepare for possible closure, as required by the commission, should it fail to meet the requirements. That has sparked a level of anxiety among employees.

“There is a lot of fear and concern on campus right now,” said Kevin Bontenbal, Academic Senate president. “It is disconcerting and disheartening. This is a sad time in Cuesta’s history.”

Stork said the reaction was anticipated.

“We will deal with it as it comes,” Stork said. “We will work with those people who are upset and reassure them that we are moving forward and we have no intention of letting anything get in the way of the success and future of the college.”

Cuesta has until mid-October to respond to the commission’s findings. Stork said he has put a 90-day timeline on the response.

The consultant will be tasked with reviewing where Cuesta College is to date with the improvements it has made and determining what still needs to be done.

A staff member of the accrediting commission has also been asked to visit the college and advise staff on where it needs to improve.

“It is an opportunity to bring in someone with a lot of experience when we seem to be stuck in the spin cycle,” Stork said. “We have all of the pieces — it is just not connecting at this point.”

Both Stork and Pat Mullen, president of the college’s Board of Trustees, have said they were surprised at the commission’s findings.

“We are extremely disappointed in the commission’s report and action,” Mullen said. “On the other hand, we are not going to focus on why we think they took that action or make excuses. We are going to focus on whatever is necessary to absolutely resolve their concerns to their full satisfaction. That is our focus — that is what we owe to the community and what we owe to our students.”

Bontenbal has served on multiple committees in past years to address the accreditation shortfalls, including creating an updated strategic plan and the educational master plan.

“We have just failed to implement some of the plans that we have identified for ourselves and follow through (on) them, to be quite honest,” Bontenbal said. “We are rich with plans, awash with gold, but we really have not implemented certain things that we need to, according to the commission.”

Bontenbal said classroom instruction and the services students are receiving are not at issue.

“The college failed to implement certain plans and do what it said it was going to do,” Bontenbal said. “From a faculty perspective, these are administrative responsibilities.”

Rigorous process

Cuesta College is one of 44 colleges addressed by the accrediting commission in January. Of those, only seven had their accreditation reaffirmed.

The other 37 were placed on some level of sanction.

A revised set of rigorous requirements adopted by the commission several years ago has made it harder for community colleges to be reaccredited, critics of the new process say.

“There are definitely more regulations in the accreditation process than there used to be,” Stork said. “It is more exact and more stringent, and there are definitely less resources to work with to fulfill those.”

One other school — College of the Redwoods in Humboldt County — also is in the last stage of fighting to keep its accreditation.

The college, with about 4,700 full-time students, has been on and off accreditation warnings for the past five years. “Every institution has issues,” said Redwoods President Utpal Goswami. “We have issues also, but have been making progress, and we thought we were making good progress.”

Goswami said his college has a history of doing well to address the standards and then falling back again.“The commission is sending a signal that they want sustainable practices, and that message has been delivered to almost all institutions throughout California,” Goswami said.

“I have sympathy for many institutions because a show-cause status puts a dark mood on a college, and then it becomes an issue of how quickly you recover and believe that you can overcome this.”

Administrators at Redwoods are following many of the same steps Cuesta College has declared it is pursuing in an effort to move forward and resolve the issues.

Questions abound

As Cuesta faculty, students and the community struggle with the concept of the possible closure of the campus, they find themselves with many questions but few answers.

In California, the most recent community college to lose its accreditation was Compton College around 2006 because of embezzlement issues. It was then taken over by a neighboring district and turned into a satellite campus, but not shut down.

“One aspect of the closure report is to develop a plan advising students of what to do and where to go,” Stork said. “That will lead to some logical communication with Allan Hancock College. Whether or not they could accommodate our students is another question.”

Goswami likened the closure report to “planning your own funeral.”

“Everyone is in somewhat of a denial mode and certainly in shock,” Bontenbal said.

“We need to get truthful and honest with ourselves to identify who or what is keeping us from doing those things and address them.”