Jacqueline Claunch, the founding president of Northwest Vista College, one of five schools in San Antonio’s Alamo Community College District, said that for the first time in her life, she feels as if she’s engaging in a protest.
Earlier this month, despite an effort by Claunch and about 130 members of her faculty, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved a major change to the core curriculum for the district's colleges, calling for them to swap out one of their two currently required humanities courses for a mandatory “Learning Frameworks” course that was developed in association with FranklinCovey, a private training firm.
Bruce Leslie, the chancellor of the district, which serves more than 108,000 students, pushed for the new course. He said it is part of a broader effort to align students’ education with workforce needs. But others, including Claunch, have raised questions about the lack of faculty input in the matter before it was sent to the state for approval, which they believe skirted the standard approval process for such changes.
The dispute recently attracted the attention of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which accredits four of the district’s five schools. In mid-March, it sent letters to the four presidents, including Claunch, with questions and concerns.
It’s not the first time a business-minded effort in Texas higher education, which policymakers are pushing to be more aligned with the state's workforce, has drawn a sideways glance from academia’s standard bearers. In 2010, for example, the chairman of the Association of American Universities, a group of the nation's leading research universities, warned Texas A&M University to resist “ill-conceived” reforms that sought to make the university more customer service-oriented.
The accreditor’s letter to the community colleges is less a warning and more an inquiry, sparked by media reports of a controversial plan to mandate a course based on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Leslie said that aspect of the course has been overblown. “It’s mostly about how to learn, how to study, how to select your career, how to prepare for transfer, how to prepare for employment,” he said. “The 7 Habits is just a small part of that.”
The accreditors asked that each college prepare a report by April 15 addressing questions such as how the new curriculum satisfied a core accreditation requirement that the school provide a general education component that ensures a “breadth of knowledge” and is based on “coherent rationale.”
They also asked for information on how the institution “places primary responsibility for curricular content and quality with its faculty” as well as “evidence of faculty approval of the change to the general education program at the institution, as well as institutional policies were followed.”
Claunch said she believes that the responses currently being prepared by the college presidents will convince the accreditors that the curriculum meets the core requirement. But she indicated that they may have a challenge making the case that faculty had adequate input on the schools’ new addition to the mandatory curriculum.
“The big issue,” she said, “and I agree with this as an issue, is the process by which this course was placed in the core and that the faculty were not a part of that process. The fact is, the process that goes through our curriculum committees did not happen. So is that okay or not?”
She said it will be up to the accreditors to decide if the process used is in compliance with their standards.
Her sentiment was echoed by faculty. In an email to The Texas Tribune, Craig Coroneos, a humanities professor at Northwest Vista wrote in an email: “Faculty from across the independently accredited colleges worked hard to develop a cross-college curriculum review process. We are disappointed to see this process completely ignored during the current attempt by district administration to revise the core.”
Leslie said that if the accreditors determine there were some issues, the college may have to take some corrective actions.
"But at this point, it has been our opinion that we have followed the guidelines," he said.
He said that he had consulted with local employers before making the curriculum change and found that many of them felt that students needed more understanding about how to operate effectively in a work environment.
“The board has established policy that calls for us to prepare students to be successful in the community, particularly employment,” Leslie said. “People unfortunately refer to that as the soft-skill side of things, but they are more and more referring to them as essential skills.”
The new course was added to the core curriculum, he said, to ensure that the credits students earned for it would transfer to a university. Such a new course might not transfer as easily as an elective, he said.
“One of the big issues that community college students have is with universities not accepting the courses they’ve completed for transfer,” he said. He added that he understood faculty concerns that students might opt not to take a second humanities course once its no longer required, but he noted such courses were more likely to transfer as electives.
Another issue is the separate accreditation for the colleges within the district. The letter from SACS said the top-down curriculum change raised “concerns” about whether it might make more sense to accredit the district as a single entity. In 2009, Leslie’s push for single accreditation — which he ultimately dropped — earned him a vote of “no confidence” from faculties at three of the colleges.
Of independent accreditation, he said: “It is more difficult, it is more complex, and it is more expensive to the taxpayer to have this model, but that was our decision. But as you can see from the letter, even SACS is raising the question.”
As the SACS representatives await the presidents’ reports before beginning their review, Claunch is also preparing for another milestone. She plans to retire this summer after 16 years on the job.
Referring to the letter to the coordinating board she and other faculty signed earlier this year in their unsuccessful attempt to thwart approval for the curriculum change, Claunch said: “Nothing like signing a letter of protest and announcing your retirement on the same day. Kind of poetic, isn’t it?”