Whittaker is confident college will soon be off probation

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After a dramatic change in leadership and a tumultuous spring semester, Southwestern College is waiting for a decision about its future from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). In an April follow-up site visit to review SWC’s critical March 15 accreditation report, key college leaders met with the accreditation study team to review the often-frantic work college employees did to address 10 deficiencies that placed the college on probation last winter.

SWC representatives said they thought WASC visitors were impressed by the college’s progress.  WASC commissioners meet again in June to formally evaluate Southwestern.  Interim Superintendent Denise Whittaker said she hoped the probation will be lifted soon, but state community college experts said SWC could remain on probation until early 2012.

On April 11, the WASC site visit team interviewed campus representatives to verify the report.

Dr. Mink Stavenga, co-chair of the SWC Accreditation Oversight Committee, said WASC’s Dr. Gari Browning was not sure what kind of reception the team would receive after what it had reported about the college earlier. He said the first thing Browning said is this was now a completely different institution.

“Night and day are the words she used,” Stavenga said.

Stavinga said Browning told him it is just another example of how the accreditation commission should work.

“Fortunately, we as an institution responded in a positive way,” said Stavenga. “We did not argue over findings, we took the recommendations and worked on fixing them. It is a very good example of how accreditation benefits an institution”

The goal is to better the institution all for the benefit of students, said Stavenga.  None of the WASC criticisms dealt directly with teaching and learning.

“Once we have all of these recommendations resolved it gives us an opportunity to have a direct impact on teaching and learning and taking it to a higher level,” said Stavinga.  “We are at that point. It will be even more evident this fall.”

Whittaker said the accrediting commission might feel the college needs to demonstrate sustainability. She said even though SWC accomplished a phenomenal amount, it needed to prove that the lessons are taking hold before its next report in October.

“We think, from our perspective, we exceeded their expectations,” said Whittaker. “Based on my background with accreditation, in my opinion we are no longer at the status of probation.  Internally, we are going to be fully resolved before May 20 on all of the items.  And we will be at full sustainability from now on. I think we have accomplished it all.”

Whittaker said the site visit team made it very clear that the fate of SWC’s status now lies with the commission. She said a mid-May follow up letter gave her a good idea of how the site visit went, but she cannot disclose its contents until after the commission meets in June.

“And they mean that,” she said. “It is very awkward. It is almost better if they didn’t tell me anything than giving me a letter that I can’t share. It is because the commission ultimately has the final decision.”

Whittaker plans to speak to both Browning and WASC President Dr. Barbara A. Beno to determine whether it is necessary to go to the commission meeting in June to plead SWC’s case to be taken off probation.

“If I sense that they are going to leave us on probation I may want to go and plead on our behalf that we don’t deserve to stay on probation,” said Whittaker.  “I have to weigh that option carefully and talk to them about it.”

Stavenga said classified employee representative Michele Fenlon was the organizational brain behind the WASC visit, preparing more than 200 documents.  Fenlon said the theme for this visit seemed to focus on what the college has been doing and whether or not “we got it.”  WASC officials are interested in process as well as outcome, Fenlon explained.

“We have been living it so long we were very clear on what is going on,” said Fenlon. “My overall impression of the entire visit was that I felt very good at the end of it. I felt proud.”

Fenlon said this site visit was much more relaxed than the tumultuous October 2011 encounter.

“In the previous site visits everything was very rigid, controlled, confidential and dictated,” she said. “This time there was a lot more flexibility. They allowed us to have input on how things went and how the flow went.”

Stavenga, Fenlon and librarian Ron Vess, co-chair of the SWC Accreditation Oversight Committee, had several conversations with Bowman and Browning.

“The communication we had with them was in a much more positive vein,” said Stavenga. “They were much more open with us showcasing all of the work we had done.”

Vess met with both team members.

“We were really freaked out on how this visit was going to happen,” said Vess. “We felt we had been put on notice.  It was almost like a pastor coming and asking what is your last request.”

He said the meeting was relaxed and after reading all of the material, WASC representatives understood where the college was coming from.

“They understood that we got it and we understand where we have to go from this point,” said Vess. “We are at point J and working towards point Z. But we understand the road we are on, how we are going to get there and understand what is expected of us.”

Browning asked to see Fenlon and Vess, and asked them how the governing board was going to relate to the community and how the community was going to relate to the governing board. Topic of discussion was whether the governing board members were able to work as a collective policy-making body with all of their friends that helped get them there. Vess said it could be a very dangerous situation to have a governing board show favoritism to the faculty union or their friends on these committees. He said he thinks the governing board has a new attitude that is infectious to the campus.

“We talked about that for a bit and I am very sure that the governing board knows their role,” said Vess. “It has been hammered into them. We have made it very clear what their role is. We are having more impact with the community and less problems. I was very happy with our communications with the team.”

Fenlon said it is like raising a child and it the college has struggled with it. There have been learning curves where we are learning and improving as we are going, she said.

“I am so proud of what this campus has been able to accomplish,” said Fenlon. “From January to this site visit, we made a year’s worth of progress. That is a short amount of time.”

When the commission meets in June and makes a determination that the college is going to remain on probation, Fenlon said in her mind she knows that they are only looking at sustainability. During the two year process of accreditation you can move up or down in the different scales of levels.

“We really have moved mountains to get to where we are,” said Fenlon. “I won’t be offended, it will not surprise me. If we go to full reaffirmation in June that kind of will surprise me because a lot of what they are asking us to do is to integrate this thing and make it this well-oiled wheel that turns on its own no matter who is in charge, or what the leadership is.”

Stavenga said it depends on what kind of statement the commission wants to send.

“Do they want to send us a signal to reward us for our hard work or do they want to keep us on probation showing that this is a serious matter?” said Stavenga. “You need to keep your foot on the gas pedal and keep on moving.”

Former San Diego County college administrators with WASC experience warned the SWC community not to take anything for granted. They spoke to The Sun on the condition that their names would not be used.

“[Southwestern College] has done a lot of things well in the past four months,” said one administrator.  “But you did it all frantically at the last minute and WASC may frown on that.  They are very aware of process. Your process is herky-jerky and needs to be consistent.”

Another administrator said the SWC case “could go either way.”

“I hope you guys can get off probation this summer,” the administrator said. “But it could be fall or next year.  It took a while for Southwestern to dig itself into its hole. It will take a while to dig out.”

Fenlon said while the college waits it is still working. The systems set up are continuous. While attending a recent governing board meeting she said she was proud of the new board.

“I used to hang my head in shame in some of those contentious meetings,” said Fenlon. “It was refreshing to sit at the governing board and see the camaraderie and collegiality amongst them, it was not contentious like it had been for so long.”

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