In the midst of a crucial accreditation review, the South Orange County Community College District has been gently slapped by the accreditation agency, which said it is tightening its oversight until the district resolves financial uncertainty and administrative strife.
Warning that the district may be failing to provide "good stewardship" of its colleges, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges said in a June 19 special progress report that administrative changes have left the district in "some disarray," with officials working in conditions that are "uncertain and politically charged."
Accreditation officials on Tuesday could not say whether the district, which operates Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Irvine Valley College in Irvine, stands to lose its accreditation, scheduled to be decided in January.
Normally, it takes many years before accreditation is lost, they said.
However, officials of the agency said they intended the June 19 report as a warning to district trustees, who have been racked by controversy on several fronts for more than a year.
"Because the colleges are being reviewed, in effect, we're really trying to speak to the board to say 'Don't mess up your colleges,' " said Judith Watkins, the accrediting agency's associate director. "We wanted to say, 'You have some decisions to make. If you make them the wrong way, the issue of public trust is at stake.' "
David B. Wolf, executive director of the commission, said in a letter to Kathleen O'Connell Hodge, acting chancellor of the 33,000-student district, that financial conditions have begun improving. But he said problems from last July's administrative reorganization haven't been worked out.
Wolf said two key issues of concern were last summer's administrative shake-up and a new administrative hiring policy, which concentrates decision-making in the hands of trustees.
Both issues are at the center of shouting matches between trustees and disgruntled faculty and administrators. Trustees accuse some professors of trying to preserve outdated perks, while students, faculty and administrators have accused trustees of hoarding power.
Saying the accrediting commission is "very concerned" about the district, Wolf asked the colleges to work out a plan to address the issue to be submitted by September. The deadline is critical, coming just before the colleges face a comprehensive visit in October by the team that will make recommendations that will be used to decide on its accreditation.
Among criticisms, the special progress report expressed alarm that the administrative overhaul was done "without a reasoned assessment" of college needs.
In fact, many decisions on policies have been made by trustees on an ad hoc basis without support from any planning process, the report noted critically.
Hodge, the acting chancellor, said the district is not happy with criticism from the accreditation agency but will address it.
"It's important that they are not making a value judgment on the actions of the board, but are cautioning the board to carefully evaluate those actions they do take," Hodge said.
The special progress report didn't mention the deep split on the seven-member board of trustees, with a majority of four members favoring the controversial changes and three members consistently opposing them.
The state chancellor's office of California Community Colleges is investigating the district for possible violations of state education regulations for failing to observe "shared governance" procedures at the district and on campuses.
That investigation grew out of concern voiced in May by the statewide faculty Academic Senate, prompted by votes of "no confidence" in district leadership by faculties at Saddleback and Irvine Valley colleges.