On February 5, The Sun, Southwestern College’s newspaper, reported that the school had been “slapped with a warning by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).”
In 2010 Southwestern Community College was in crisis. Faculty and staff had lost confidence in then-president Raj Chopra and Nicholas Alioto, vice president of business affairs. Both were indicted as a result of a pay-to play investigation. The 2010 campus was rife with suspicion; Alioto had even signed a contract with the public relations firm Focuscom and tasked them to isolate and expose extremists.
Looming larger than the scandals was the serious threat the college would lose its accreditation from Western Association of Schools and Colleges. In 2010 the school was placed on academic probation, but in 2011, with new leadership, the college was accredited again.
Now the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, a branch of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, has issued a warning to the college. According to the letter sent February 5 to Southwestern’s superintendent/president, Melinda Nish, “the warning indicates that an institution does not meet one or more standards and reaffirmation [of accreditation] is not warranted.”
The college has until March of 2017 to correct the “deficiencies,” but it is the particulars of the 73-page report that are concerning.
For example, the section that evaluates the college on fiscal health concludes:
“There is at the college a sense of mistrust for the finance office and also possibly for upper level management in terms of the budget and financial planning. The finance office appears to have reduced its planning to a short-term view [only a one year budget] and this may be jeopardizing the financial integrity of the college and the ability to maintain sound business practices. The lack of long term or integrated short term planning and the lack of having a multi-year projected budget make it difficult for the college to operate in an environment of trust with constituency groups and the campus community.”
As a supporting detail of the above assertion, the report states, “There is no evidence that information about the $6 million structural deficit was shared with constituency groups or the budget committee during the spring 2015 budget process.”
Though the budget posed the gravest concern, there were observations in the report that pertain to students. For example, the college has a YELP page, but the report states there were no responses by the institution addressing any of the issues noted by students.
The report also stated that student services such as financial aid “are woefully understaffed and this understaffing contributes to delayed processing of awards, distribution of aid, and information regarding the financial process in a timely manner.”
The commission laced the report with examples of things done right at Southwestern and gave special commendations to the students, the Academic Support Service, the library faculty and staff, and others.
When Nish was contacted February 9 for comment about the commission’s budget assertions she stated, “I do not think that is an accurate statement of the college at the time of the visit or now. I do think this was the case following the pay-for-play issues associated with former executive administrators.
“We have been doing multi-year budgeting for several years. Our adopted budget is for only one year (which is the norm) but we run simulations each year for three to five years out. We have been sharing these with our Planning and Budget Committee and our Governing Board.”
Nish also noted that the college has already held two forums to discuss the Accrediting Commission’s report and asked that the Reader note that some of the commission’s recommendations have already been “pulled back and the commission has decided that these (8-12) are NOT deficiencies, but only areas for continued improvement.”
Nish is one of five finalists for the position of chancellor of the North Orange County Community College District.
When asked if becoming chancellor would have any effect on the college's attempt to solidify accreditation, Nish replied, “No, I do not think it will have a negative effect. No one person is irreplaceable in our organization. We are a team and we work to build, reinforce and improve the foundations we stand upon so that the next person that is in our position has the benefit of our good work.”