The board of trustees of Feather River College received a one hour presentation Nov. 21 on its unique role in the accreditation process.
President of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), Dr. Richard Winn, spoke at the board’s request as part of its ongoing training. Winn focused on what accreditation does for a community college and, also, “the extremely important role of trustees” in that process.
The importance of accreditation
The ACCJC is an independent, nonprofit agency that provides impartial, rigorous evaluations of its member colleges. Accredited colleges receive federal and state financial aid, direct aid to students, grants, and loans. Accreditation also tells prospective students, parents, faculty, staff and donors that this is a quality institution.
“Accreditors make very consequential decisions” for a community college, said Winn. The best outcome is that the college has its accreditation reaffirmed for seven years. But, accreditors can reaffirm for a shorter term if there are compliance issues that need to be addressed.
If the issues are more serious, the ACCJC can issue a sanction, which is a warning to the college that they’re “sliding into non-compliance.” The next step is probation and, finally, the accreditors can issue a “show cause,” which means unless the college can “show cause,” their accreditation will be withdrawn. This is very rare, said Winn, but it’s “a weapon we can use.”
Board member Trent Saxton was very interested in the sanctioning process, and asked several probing questions.
“How long does that process take?” asked Saxton.
“It doesn’t have to be in sequence,” answered Winn. If there’s a critical issue, he noted, they can ratchet up the pressure accordingly.
Saxton also wanted to know how many California community colleges had “fallen into a warning.”
“If you go back to 2011, 24 percent,” answered Winn.
“Do most people recover?” Saxton asked.
“Yes, that’s the whole purpose,” said Winn. It’s a wake-up call, “It rallies resources … Here’s an outside voice saying, ‘Now, you have to pay attention.’” Importantly, Winn noted that in the past year and a half, while he’s been at the ACCJC’s helm, not one college has been sanctioned.
But, he said, that’s because of the commitment on the part of both the ACCJC and the colleges it oversees “to taking accreditation very seriously.”
Winn noted that accreditation is “all about relationships. We have to create and sustain relationships with mutual trust, respect, and openness so we’re seen as humane and caring about the institution thriving. You build a bridge of credibility,” he said, “because some day you might have to walk across that bridge.”
The board’s critical role
The accreditation team looks at 128 standards in seven categories that cover every area of a college’s activities. But, it all starts with the board, said Winn. “Does the board adopt and carry out the mission” of the college?
Evaluators look at effectiveness in student learning, financial stability, integrity (does the college give an accurate self-portrayal), operations, leadership, governance, and employee culture.
“All of these are board-level concerns,” Winn emphasized. Because the board is, ultimately, responsible for overseeing the health and viability of the college. “Accountability rests with the board,” Winn said.
For example, said Winn, if the accreditation team lets an institution know that, based on ACCJC’s “complex and reliable formula,” the college is in “financial distress, it’s up to the trustees to decide how to solve it.”
A very critical piece, said Winn, is that “trustees are elected, not appointed. Sometimes that works great, sometimes it can slide towards difficulty.” The key difficulty, he noted, is when a board member veers off course, either by thinking they represent a particular group or geographic region, rather than the whole, or by “intruding in daily operations.”
Winn gave the example of a board member who wanted to open an office and listen directly to complaints from the college community.“You have one employee,” said Winn, “the CEO.”
Saxton interjected with a question: “Would a college receive a warning?”
“There are ways the team can send a very specific message” about that, said Winn.
“Have you ever done that because of one trustee?” pressed Saxton.
“Yes,” Winn answered emphatically.
“What was the outcome?” said Saxton.
“It changed that trustee’s behavior,” said Winn, because that trustee understood he was jeopardizing the entire organization.
Later, when asked to elaborate, Winn wrote: “In the case I referenced, we had received a formal complaint about a trustee’s actions that were out of line. I wrote a detailed letter to the CEO, copied to the trustee, explaining the ways in which the actions were unacceptable and contrary to both ACCJC Standards and their own Board policy (which is a critical issue in itself). I explained that, should these actions continue, the Commission could well require a special report and campus visit to determine if the institution should receive a formal sanction. If so, in this way the actions of one person could jeopardize the accredited status of the institution.”
Continuing his line of questioning, Saxton asked, “If a trustee sees an issue, who would he go to?”
“If a trustee has a concern,” said Winn, “that must be addressed in the board itself. Part of what it has to do [is] operate as a board with a single voice.”
“I couldn’t find anything in there about one individual trustee causing a problem,” said Saxton, referencing the Community College League of California Trustee Handbook.
“Under Standard IV.C,” answered Winn. (Winn is referring to Standard IV.C Governing Board, which appears in the CCLC Trustee Handbook, Ch. 22, Accreditation and the Board’s Role, p. 90, no. 2). It reads: “The governing board acts as a collective entity. Once the board reaches a decision, all board members act in support of the decision.”
“By joining [the board] you say you’re going to abide by their laws and rules,” added Winn. He gave the example of an individual joining a baseball team who hits the ball and decides he’s going to skip a few bases to get to home faster. Once you join the team, you don’t get to make up your own rules, he explained. You have to abide by the rules of the game.
Winn listed several other problem areas that can come up with board members, including “not trusting the CEO (president) to manage,” failure to do integrated planning, failure to obtain and use data, and “using a top down, non-inclusive approach that ignores appropriate constituencies.”
He returned to the issue of micro-managing the CEO. “It’s an important concern,” Winn said. The average lifespan of a California community college CEO is 2.7 years. “They’ll acknowledge it’s because [they’re in] a setting where they’ve failed to be understood and supported by their board.”
The accreditation team always spends time with the board, said Winn, in order to make sure “it’s functioning effectively, [and] unitedly.”
Board member John Sheehan asked if not linking the budget to student achievement was an issue. Winn answered that it’s less important that it used to be, because they’ve done a lot of training with colleges on integrated planning. “That’s the value of accreditation,” said Winn. “It creates a learning community.”
Closed session treats issues regarding board member accountability
Following the accreditation discussion with Dr. Winn, and prior to going into closed session, Board President Dr. Dana Ware read the following statement to the public:
“The Board of Trustees is going into closed session. The agenda item is for closed session with legal counsel. The District has received communications regarding potential litigation over bidding and contracting procedures from a board member, and has also received communications regarding Brown Act procedures from a board member. These items form the basis for the closed session today.”
When the board came out of closed session, Ware reported that no action was taken.
FRC attorney and board president address potential liability issues
During the regular board meeting, FRC’s legal counsel, Tom Gauthier of Lozano Smith Attorneys at Law, made the following statement: “A board member has said things that have put them [the board] at risk of potential liability.”
This statement was amended in the printed version received by this newspaper to read: “This item comes up today because the Board of Trustees and the District have observed conduct by members of its Board of Trustees that exposes the District to potential litigation.”
Gauthier went on to remind board members that a board member who makes “statements outside a board meeting or other authorized proceeding of the Board of Trustees subject the board member and the District to potential liability.”
He then instructed Ware to read a statement, which asserted the board’s expectations of its members, including high ethical standards, adherence to the college’s policies, and respect for other board members, staff and community members.
“The board will not tolerate conduct which falls below the standards we have set,” she read. Further, she said if a board member, by action or statement, creates potential liability for the FRC community college district, “we shall seek indemnification and damages against such board member.”
Board member Trent Saxton appeals to his base
Prior to the board meeting, this newspaper was made aware of a statement made by board member Trent Saxton to a Facebook group called Plumas County Concerned Conservatives, of which he is a member. The original version read as follows:
“Pray for me today around 1:30 PM today … I am fighting against people that do not wish to be exposed at Feather River College Just like Trump … As a Trustee, I am pushing back and exposing their swamp. Below is my letter to the editor, responding to their Staff writer who clearly takes the president of the college and his view … he would like to control the Trustees at all time. It’s a 4-1 Board, I am the one conservative one, the rest just rubber stamp everything. Much more to come in the future on this issue.”
Saxton signed the letter, “Dr. Trent Saxton, FRC Trustee, District 1.”
After the board meeting, Saxton amended his Facebook post, removing some of the language, but leaving the substance essentially the same.
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