Southwestern College Trying To Maintain Accreditation
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges recently visited Southwestern College to check on the school's progress in its attempt to get off probation and maintain full accreditation. With us to discuss the college's latest efforts is the Interim President of Southwestern College Denise Whitaker, Nick Serrano, student body representative and Angie Stuart, Academic Senate president.
Angie Stuart, Academic Senate President for Southwestern Community College
Nick Serrano, Vice President for Public Relations for the Associated Student Organization at Southwestern Community College
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Southwester was founded 50 years ago, it's in Chula Vista, but its future hangs in the balance as it tries to recover from a period of rocky leadership, and a slew of reforms it must make before gets its accreditation renewed. Double all that, is a crippling budget to deal with. But Southwestern has new leadership and a committed faculty and students. So here to talk to us about what steps the college is taking to face all these challenges is the new interim president, superintendent Denise Whitaker. Denise thank you very much for coming in.
WHITAKER: Good morning Allison.
ST. JOHN: We also have Nick Serrano who is the student body president. Nick, great you were able to come.
SERRANO: Thank you for having me.
ST. JOHN: And Angie Stewart who's the president of the academic senate. Good to have you here.
STEWART: Thank you Alison.
ST. JOHN: So we've heard quite a lot about what's going on in Southwestern for quite some time, so it's really great to have all three of you in studio. So Denise, you've been the interim president since January right?
WHITAKER: That's correct.
ST. JOHN: After former president resigned, Southwestern college has had a rapid turnover in leadership in the last decade. But you have had quite a bit of experience helping colleges keep their accreditation. How challenging is this situation at Southwestern?
WHITAKER: Not anymore. I think we've passed through the most challenging period, which was to comply with the recommendations of the commission. Just to give you a little background, the WSAC, the western states accrediting commission, allows colleges two years to make up their deficits or to address the recommendations. And Southwestern received in January0 their ten recommendations for improvement in their given two years. I think the surprise came when I came is the college had done a tremendous amount of work in 2010, and they anticipated that they had the remainder of 2011 to really address all of the recommendations in order to meet the two-year compliance. But because I have significant background in accreditation, I think I surprised them by telling them, no, you really need to address all of the issues now and not take the full second year. We need to resolve all ten issues by the end of spring 2011. And demonstrate sustainability, and you know, accountability that when they -- when we do our next year report in October, and our next visit in November, that the accrediting commission will see that we've done everything rather than wait until October, and we wouldn't have the time to demonstrate sustainability. So we had about eight weeks in which to accomplish all ten -- you know, well, we nearly resolved, I think -- well, most of them are resolve said, and there's 2 or 3 left that we call nearly resolved.
THE COURT: Well, that's interesting because I wasn't sure if you had a deadline to meet, and you were still working towards that, Angie, or whether you feel like you're pretty much already there.
STEWART: We did a tremendous amount of work as Denise said, we're extremely proud of everybody at the campus. We all pulled together. Faculty, classified student, administrator alike. And we have worked so hard to address the recommendation it is. In fact, everyone -- in fact, well, the very first one is our mission statement. And we did that one, that really was the headway for everything else that we did, integrated manning, we did program review, SLO work. What else did we do, nick?
ST. JOHN: We'll have to talk -- we'll take you maybe one by one. But let's go back a little bit and fill people in as to why did Southwestern fall below the accreditation standards in the first place, do you think, Denise?
WHITAKER: That one's harder for me to it address because I don't have the history with the college to know quite why the recommendations had not been addressed previously. I have suspicions that I am the sixth president in eight years, and there have been 12 vice presidents in the same amount of time. When you have that kind of turn over in senior leadership, it's understandable how some things like addressing accreditation recommendations in off years slip through the cracks. And I think that it's a combination of that kind of change that really was detrimental to the institution.
ST. JOHN: And Angie, do you want to take a stab at that?
STEWART: Yes, if I may, well, first of all, I want to clarify that the college never has lost its accreditation. It's a fully accredited -- it's fully, a credited, it's still wonderful, the teachers issue the students have been working tremendously in the classroom. That was never in any way --
ST. JOHN: It was whether it would be renewed was the issue, yeah.
STEWART: Exactly. We call it a reaffirmation of our accreditation standard -- standing, rather. And I think it's very important that we that we note that during that time, there were a lot of people, the thee of us sitting here, were not in a seat of leadership at that time. I was in the classroom with my students. And Nick, you were in high school.
ST. JOHN: So Nick, I wanted to ask you, just how important is it to you as a student, this whole issue of accreditation.
SERRANO: The accreditation issue is -- it is huge to students, the reality is that a lot of students don't know about the accreditation standards. And normally, it's just the -- community college student will come to college and just assume that everything is copacetic. And then once it comes to be a threat, that's when their eyes really start to open. But as far as transfer and getting students the appropriate education, accreditation is huge, and especially now in our campus, our students are very aware of the accreditation threat.
ST. JOHN: Because if in fact the college wasn't accredited, all your working you might not get the credit of all your work once you graduated.
SERRANO: Well, historically, actually, with other colleges such as Compton college who actually lost their accreditation. They actually became a center of another college in the LA area. And so I don't believe that at any time our transferring units would have ever been in any type of jeopardy. And that was definitely the belief on the campus as well. That was -- that was what the students did believe in the beginning was that all of their hard work would have gone down the drain. But in fact that was actually not factual.
ST. JOHN: I see. So Denise, explain why this is such an important issue though for the college.
WHITAKER: Well, the integrity of what we do is always foremost in our mind. And the students and the community, and the campus employees want to have confidence that we are in full affirmation at the top level of accreditation. There are actually line levels of accreditation. And the first five there are -- the first one, the highest one is full affirmation with no follow up report, no letter, nothing. And then there's four others that might have a report, but it still isn't major. Then they go into sanctions. And there's four sanctions. Warning, probation, show cause, and termination. And so you definitely want to be at number one spot where it's full affirmation with no springs attached, because it demonstrates you are meeting all the standards without a glitch, and that the campus understands the requirements for accreditation.
ST. JOHN: Okay. And the relationship it's so superintendent is that it is the only community college in the southern part of San Diego, right?
WHITAKER: It is.
ST. JOHN: This is a stepping way. Into higher education.
STEWART: In the south bay, yes.
ST. JOHN: We'll come back and talk about how progress is being made on Southwestern campus. But first we're gonna talk a lot bit about how you can support this station.
ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. And we're talking about southwestern college, which is going through a bit of a transformation tonight, it seems. We have in studio, the interim superintendent president, Denise Whitaker, the academic senate presidents, Angie Stewart, and the student body representative, Nick Serrano. So all levels are here to talk to us about changes at the community college, which is the only community college in the southern part of San Diego, and therefore very important to all the residents down there. So we've been talking about how there was a threat that perhaps the accreditation was threatened, but it sounds, Denise, as though you're well on the way, in fact, ahead of the curve.
WHITAKER: We are.
ST. JOHN: In terms of addressing the concerns that the western association of schools and colleges had.
WHITAKER: That's correct.
ST. JOHN: Now, they visited your campus fairly recently, what did that have to say.
WHITAKER: Well, they visited us in April, as a follow-up, as a validation of the report this we sent in March. And honestly, when they left, I can't speak for them exactly, but they were smiling. They said that it is not the same campus that they visited last November. And that they were surprised by the amount of diligent work that had been completed in a relatively short amount of time. And I have to qualify that by saying the campus did a phenomenal amount of preparatory work all last year so that when we actually -- I talked to them about this is like a train with the engine running in a station. It is now time to release the brake and move, and so they were ready to take the next steps to implement everything that needed to be implemented regarding the ten recommendations. And so that's really what happened in the first quarter of the year. And the accrediting commission validated that they even said that even though we had said that there were some nearly resolved issues, they thought we had shorted ourselves, that more things had been resolved than we had recognized. So I believe that from my background in being on ark crediting team, the college no longer is in a position to warrant the probationary status. And we will know in June. The commission meets in June, and they will evaluate the team's recommendations, and we are optimistic that we will be removed from probation. There is a chance that they will leave us on probation because the original probation was for a two-year period, and they want to see sustainability. And so it's possible that even though we are far from -- we've got nearly everything resolved and will have everything resolved before May, when faculty leave.
ST. JOHN: Interesting.
WHITAKER: We will be in full demonstration that we are at sustainability, and running full operations in full standards when they visit us next November. And they may wait to remove the probationary status until they get a chance to see that. But I'm optimistic that they will remove it now.
ST. JOHN: Okay. We'd like to hear from you, if you happen to be either a student or faculty at southwestern college. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Have things really changed since last year? Now, I wanted to ask you, Julie, one of the biggest issues was the governance structure.
ST. JOHN: And shared governance and problems issue animosity, let's face it, between the faculty and the administration how would you say that has changed?
STEWART: I think it has changed drastically. Before really consultation really wasn't taking place. If you had collegial consultation, where you would -- our structure is the cc, the shared governance, the shared consultation council ask where we make our campus decisions. And I would say that faculty really didn't feel that their voice was heard. I feel in the past two months with leadership from Denise and changes on campus in our structure, we have a new shared planning and decision making handbook, which outlines what our structure is, how -- what our roles are, what our responsibilities and processes are. We really do have a lot more input. And basic really important committee, like the budget committee, the IT committee, these used to be only five people, and only one faculty voice. And that has changed significantly.
ST. JOHN: Can you give me an example of some issues, perhaps, where you felt like your voice was not being heard in the past?
STEWART: Yes, the biggest example is one of the issues that WSAC found itself, which was a technology plan. And it -- and at that point, faculty really weren't listened to. The technology needs for the classroom, software needs for the classroom, these were not being addressed at all. And we actually had a change in the structure. We had a work group that was actually, and another that was disbanded, and another tech team put in place, and these tech team were classified, were faculty, were hard students who worked diligently, how many hours do you think, Nick? I mean it was incredible.
SERRANO: It was over a hundred in the week.
ST. JOHN: They met -- in fact they committed to writing a new tech plan within a matter of a few -- I would say two weeks.
THE COURT: So Nick, do you get the feeling that the atmosphere on campus has changed dramatically.
SERRANO: Absolutely. I think the student body shared a lot of the same sentiments that the faculty did. We had a lot of issues with the student voice not being heard, and not even being considered.
ST. JOHN: There were some issues, weren't there, about the student newspaper was threatened to be shut down.
ST. JOHN: When it was critical of the administration. It was really sort of a battle going on.
SERRANO: Correct. There was definitely a battle, and even within the associated student organization whom I represent, we had a lot of issues where we were not asked to be serving to meetings, which per Ed code, we are supposed to be included in. And that was something that was -- seemed to be rather regular in previous administrations. But that is completely changed on the campus now. And any time where students do need to be consulted, they are consulted, and our voice has definitely been heard at a level that I personally believe has not been heard before.
ST. JOHN: So I mean, it's all very well to come up with a technology plan, but is there the money to put it into practice, I guess is the question. ? Do you feel confident that it will actually cult result in some cases to your technology? Angie?
STEWART: Yes, yes, I do. I believe that we're looking at things right now in the budget committee, and I'm not exactly sure how much money we'll have. But we want to be able to have money to fund some of the things that came from the tech plan, from the program review, which is the self study from each unit, and program, so that people feel that they have buy in. And that they're -- their voice is being heard. Again, these are things that have been done continually for the past feign years, but have not been funded.
ST. JOHN: Does it mean you'll have more computer access in the classroom? Can you give us a couple of specifics in the minute we have?
STEWART: We are looking right now at wireless access, more wireless access for students as well as for faculty in their classroom. So that's lab structures and that sort of thing.
ST. JOHN: Good, well, we're getting a pretty positive picture here, considering all the negative news stories that were coming out of southwestern last year. So we'll be back in just a few minutes to talk more about how this state budget that's barreling down the line is gonna be affecting southwestern. But first we're gonna talk about how to support this KPBS station.
ST. JOHN: I'm Alison St. John, and you're back here on These Days. We're talking about the southwestern college transformation that's happening in south bay. It's a change which we haven't heard very much about in the press. So -- we really are glad to have in studio president of southwestern college, Denise Whitaker. The academic senate president, Angie Stewart, and student body president Nick Serrano. We were talking about how things have changed since last year. And Nick, perhaps you can just tell us a little bit about how the experience is -- used to be. What was the feeling on campus last year compared to now.
SERRANO: Well, first I'm a vice president, but I'm also the atmosphere back in the past of southwestern college, it was -- it was an atmosphere that was lacking a lot of trust and respect. And that goes for a lot of the parties that were on campus. Students were included in that. And as far as I mentioned earlier, students weren't consulted in a lot of decisions that per California education code we were entitled to have some consultation in. And it was something that for a long time we had struggled with. And we had students -- just their voice wasn't heard, and it wasn't being considered on a lot of different issues that were directly affecting us. And it was frustrating, but you know, I think faculty shared a lot of the same sentiments at the same time like we did, but like we talked about earlier, there's been a dramatic change.
ST. JOHN: Okay. Let me just ask you, the interim president, Denise Whitaker here, what is the process that happens next? Do you have a deadline when you leave? Is there a new president being looked for and what's the situation?
WHITAKER: Thank you. The plan is is that the institution will do a national search, begin the search within the next few weeks, and then do interviews over the summer. They would like to have someone appointed the time frame by October, for a January start date. That may include some transition time with me, if the new superintendent president feels there needs to be a transition period. So we are optimistic that it allows for continuity for me to stay through the next accreditation section which is October report November visit, and to really make sure that this is pasts, and that the instruments and the wheels that are turning to make the operation work well are just -- are really fine tuned so that the new president can come on board and not have to deal with many of the issues that I faced.
ST. JOHN: So Julie, you've obviously -- Denise has made a big difference to the.
ST. JOHN: Sorry, yes.
STEWART: That's okay.
ST. JOHN: On campus. Are you concerned that you know, the leadership is really the key issue in taking forward this positive attitude that you have on campus?
STEWART: You know, when Denise came on, I think many of us were concerned and -- that it would be person driven. But I'm really confident that the process that we have put into place is not person driven. It's really about process now. We focus on what we do as a team. It's really building that team spirit. And I think that that has been probably most evident at a governing board meeting. When you go to a governing board meeting, it is not a solemn, very.
ST. JOHN: Redressed.
STEWART: Boring, on pressed. With maybe an hour's worth of people wanting to speak because they don't have their voices heard.
STEWART: Probably the biggest evidence I can give you is at the recent board meeting, there's only been 1 or 2 people who have wanted to speak. And that's not a bad thing. What that means is that their voices are being heard. Community, students, faculty alike. And that is it I big change. And the feeling in a governing board meeting is much more positive and I would say -- collaborative.
ST. JOHN: So Nick, you're nodding.
SERRANO: Yeah, I mean, you know, another example of what our new board has done is is they have actually added an associated student organization report, which is, I think, for the first time, it is the opportunity for the student representatives to come forth to the board and voice any type of concerns or opinions that they have, and also just let the governing board know, as the leaders of our shift what the associated students are doing on campus. And I don't think that that has ever been seen on southwestern college's campuses. Our student trustee has his own report which deals with what he is doing himself, but this is actually for the organization to report directly to the board.
ST. JOHN: Okay. The phone number is 1-888-895-5727 if you have any comments to make. But it sounds like we're getting a very positive story out of the three of us at a time when many educational institutions are really feeling very challenged. And I wanted to ask you next about the state budget. So Denise, I mean, what is the plan to meet the cuts? There's four hundred million for community cash registers around the state. What's your plan?
WHITAKER: We're feeling challenged of it's just that we're not feeling oppressed by the challenge because we are putting in place processes to collaboratively deal with the issues. For southwestern, there is an estimate of either a $4 million cut, an $8 million cut or nearly $12 million cut, depending upon either tax issues or funding of prop 98. We are as a budget committee would -- we have constituents issue we're deciding as a group, what is the main value. And the main value, every group came back with the same first value for funding, and the first value of funding was preserve jobs, and the second value for funding was preserve classes. And I think that gives an indication of the, you know, the need for recognizing that we need people to serve the students and to maintain the classes. Now, we've got some hard decisions to make. Cutting 12 million is what we are planning for, hoping that it's a little less.
ST. JOHN: Might you lose some faculty? Or staff?
WHITAKER: Well, we are not going to layoffs.
ST. JOHN: Okay.
WHITAKER: We have a early retirement incentive plan enacted right now that we hope to -- the way that works is you save about a million dollars, but then you don't back fill very many people. And so we can back fill faculty vacancies with part time faculty. When you start looking at classified and management vacancies, it means a reduction of service, or it means the consolidation of serve, and so there's going to be impact. I think the feeling is, we're going to weather this. And that classes are doing well, students are being educated, and that we're trying not to have the burden of the budget interfere in the classroom instruction.
ST. JOHN: Great, well, I'd like to thank you all three very much fiduciary coming in, and giving us that update.
STEWART: Thank you.
ST. JOHN: On what's going on at southwestern college.
WHITAKER: Thank you.
SERRANO: Thank you.
ST. JOHN: Denise Whitaker, interim superintendent president, Angie Stewart, academic senate president, thank you, and Nick Serrano who's vice president of public affairs.
STEWART: Thank you.
ST. JOHN: And stay with us, coming up in the next hour of These Days, we've got a new play opening at the La Jolla playhouse which is set in Scotland where a new golf course comes up against some Celtic tradition. That's it, and thanks for listening to These Days here on KPBS.