In harsh terms, accreditation teams examining the controversy-ridden South Orange County Community College District's two campuses warned Thursday of deep divisions and conflicts they said are eroding service to students.
The criticism, which lends credence to complaints from critics of the district's leaders, came in brief oral reports by separate accreditation teams who spent several days at Irvine Valley College in Irvine and Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.
While in no immediate danger of losing their accreditation, the colleges could receive warnings or be placed under special conditions when final decisions on accreditation are made in January. Accreditation affects a college's ability to win federal grants and foundation funds, and to transfer student course credits.
The criticism from the review teams, which are composed of community college educators statewide, comes near the climax of a heated political campaign that will decide the future control of the 33,000-student district.
Three of seven seats on the district's Board of Trustees are open, and the outcome of the election Tuesday could shift control away from a four-member majority that has made a series of changes that have outraged teachers and students. The changes have included administrative reshuffling and faculty reorganization on both campuses.
The majority includes Trustee Steven J. Frogue, the target of a recall campaign. He is not among those seeking reelection next week because his term is not up until 2000.
The accrediting teams were more critical of Irvine Valley College, the smaller of the two campuses, where students protest almost weekly against a president appointed last year on a split board vote over the objection of students and faculty groups.
"As outsiders, frankly and candidly, we did not anticipate the deep and painful divisions that we witnessed," said Stephen M. Epler, president and superintendent of Yuba College north of Sacramento, who chaired the 12-member team examining Irvine Valley College.
"These are divisions between faculty and administration, divisions between . . . trustee factions, divisions between factions of faculty and divisions between trustees and staff.
"We were, frankly, stunned."
Epler said that the college is regaining its financial health after depleting its reserves last year, but conflicts stemming from a breakdown in academic governance--one of 10 areas examined by the team--would account for the bulk of a written report to be delivered in December to the national Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.
"These divisions have paralyzed processes and shattered collegiality and are negatively affecting students, current and future," Epler said.
The team at Saddleback College was less blistering in its criticism, saying students generally are being "served well." But the examiners warned of divisiveness there too, and said that trustees should play only an oversight role and leave day-to-day operations to campus administrators.
"We have deep concerns about the divisiveness and the disharmony on this campus," said Pamila Fisher, chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District and chair of the Saddleback team.
"We are concerned, and have observed, that that polarization is already affecting students, and if it is not dealt with in a constructive fashion in the immediate future it will affect students even more so."
On other issues, the Saddleback team also expressed concern that five of nine top administrators are temporary appointments; and that, while the college has made strides in increasing ethnic diversity among students, it has not done the same among faculty.
Both colleges were criticized for a lack of planning.
Saddleback President Dixie Bullock spoke up for her staff, though, saying, "When you're putting out lots of small fires you can't really look ahead."
Cedric Sampson, the district chancellor who oversees both colleges, said administrators will await the accrediting commission's full reports early next year before taking any action. He did not dispute the tentative findings. In fact, he said he said he was not surprised by the severity of the criticism. Yet he defended the schools.
"I believe the educational programs of the college are still sound," Sampson said. "The students are still being served. The community is being served."
District critics, meanwhile, said they found the examiners' report "shocking."
"I'm surprised they were as candid as they were," said Kate Clark, an Irvine Valley College instructor and head of the school's Academic Senate. "It does validate our impression that the way things are currently run are inappropriate."
The college district's seven trustees have been bombarded by criticism since instituting the unpopular reorganizations, which were adopted on split votes.