Maricopa Colleges faculty accuse governing board of playing politics, discrimination

Maricopa County Community College District faculty have filed a complaint with the colleges’ accreditor, accusing the governing board of partisan politics, racial discrimination and retaliation. 

The 13-page complaint filed by the Maricopa Community Colleges Faculty Association asks the Higher Learning Commission to send a team to investigate alleged violations of accrediting standards. 

One allegation accuses two board members of violating standards of freedom of expression and diversity when they pushed administrators to nix a student trip to a San Diego cultural park because the park has “anti-Trump stuff.” A board member suggested the students instead go to the libraries of former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. 

The complaint alleges a “confluence of recent events” have mired the state’s largest community college system in “disarray and dysfunction, resulting in a number of serious accreditation violations.”

“We take this action very reluctantly,” faculty association President John Schampel said in a statement.

Schampel said records obtained under the Arizona Public Records Law by the faculty association “clearly show an ongoing pattern of behavior that we believe violates accrediting standards and puts our students at risk.”

The faculty association announced the complaint at Tuesday evening’s governing board meeting.

Board President Laurin Hendrix was not at the meeting and unavailable for comment. Board member Johanna Haver, who was filling in for Hendrix, responded to questions from The Arizona Republic via email after reviewing the complaint.

She said the board is a diverse group with a variety of opinions. “It is absolutely wrong to accuse our Board members of ‘prioritization of political and electoral gains over the interest of the colleges and their students,’” she said.

She added the board has approved many items that are considered “liberal,” including providing legal assistance to college students who are in Arizona under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

The Higher Learning Commission, based in Chicago, is among the gold standard college accreditors. Institutions accredited by the group agree to follow standards and, in return, their students are eligible for federal financial aid and have an easier time transferring college credits among institutions. 

It was not immediately clear whether the Higher Learning Commission will take action. The commission has received the complaint and is reviewing it, said Steve Kauffman, a commission spokesman.

The complaint is the latest salvo in what has been a tense relationship between the governing board and the faculty association, which represents full-time Maricopa college employees.

In the spring, the board took the controversial step of ending a decades-long process used to negotiate salaries and working conditions called “meet and confer.” More recently, faculty has been upset by the district’s struggles to fix a payroll system that has resulted in faculty being overpaid or underpaid, some by thousands of dollars.

The rhetoric is expected to intensify this fall as four seats are open on the seven-member governing board in the Nov. 6 election, with only one incumbent board member, Jean McGrath, on the ballot. 

Concern: Board members opposed ‘left-leaning’ student trip

The complaint says accreditation standards require colleges to honor freedom of expression and diversity and alleges “these standards have been openly and repeatedly violated by certain members of the Governing Board.” 

The complaint gives the example of two board members who expressed concern over a  student trip from Mesa Community College to Chicano Park, which is known for its colorful murals in downtown San Diego. 

In an Oct. 25, 2017, email, board member Johanna Haver wrote to board member McGrath that “Chicano Park is a highly controversial park with murals and anti-Trump stuff. Our students have no business going there. This is a trip to convert students to the ultra-left.”

In other emails, Haver and McGrath ask the chancellor and college to stop funding the “Cultural Bridges Tour” designed to teach students about Southwest history through lectures and trips to places such as Chicano Park. 

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Haver calls the speakers and places visited on the tour “very left leaning — something I do not believe is appropriate at a publicly funded college.”

In other emails, Haver calls the trip “highly political” and suggests that “maybe we should ask (the professor) about taking the students to visit Reagan and Nixon’s libraries. I have been to both and found them to be very worthwhile. However, even at that, the students should pay — not us.” 

Haver told The Republic that she questioned the trip under the belief that many parents would not approve if they understood the details.

She added that the trip has not been discontinued. Board members have the right and  obligation, she said, to express their opinions on the appropriateness of college-sponsored activities.

 

Concern: Board member tells legislators state funding isn’t needed

The complaint states that student learning must be a primary focus and educational institutions must avoid “undue influence” that is personal, financial or political. 

The faculty association alleges that “certain members of the college’s current governing board appear to be substantially motivated by ideological or political interests.” The complaint says some board members act on those interests “even when doing so does not benefit students or support the educational mission of the colleges.”

As an example, the complaint says Governing Board member McGrath emailed state legislators in spring 2017 to oppose state funding for the colleges while district officials were requesting that state funding to the colleges be restored. The Arizona Legislature began cutting state funding to the Maricopa Community Colleges during the recession and eliminated funding the colleges from the state general fund in 2016.

McGrath wrote an email to legislators on March 27, 2017, stating the reason the district is asking for money is that “they are miffed at being left out of the budget.” The email details the millions of dollars the college district receives from tuition, property taxes and other sources. 

“Please spend the state’s money where it is needed, not at the community college district in Maricopa County,” the email says.

McGrath is running for re-election on a platform of reducing tuition and lowering taxes. She states on her campaign website that foregoing state funding for the community colleges “allows the state to increase support for K-12 education.”

Concern: Refusal to collaborate, retaliation

The complaint alleges board members aren’t collaborating with faculty as required by board policies.

They provide as an example a March 2017 position paper written by Jeffrey Darbut, vice president of administrative services at Mesa Community College, that offered several recommendations to transform the 10-college Maricopa system into a national leader in higher education.

The document has become known by critics as the “Darbut manifesto” because the governing board has already implemented some recommendations.

The complaint alleges that decisions have been made based on the document that “conflict with or ignore existing processes for obtaining input from stakeholders.” Examples include the administration’s controversial decision to eliminate football after the 2018 season, and a governing board vote to end the “meet and confer” process used to negotiate faculty salaries and working conditions.

Haver told The Republic that the state universities don’t use a “meet and confer” process and cancelling such a policy at the community colleges will increase faculty accountability. That, in turn, is good for students, she said. 

The complaint also accuses the governing board of retaliating against employees.

The example given is a decision to dissolve the Classified Staff Council, which represented college staff, after the group’s president, Kris Bliss, brought concerns to the governing board in February 2017, alleging the council’s email was monitored and that policy documents were forged. A subsequent investigation by an outside law firm hired by the district found no evidence of email monitoring or forgery. 

Haver said she doesn’t believe the governing board has overstepped its bounds. 

‘Serious concerns’ about colleges’ functioning

Taken together, the faculty association’s complaint says the allegations “raise serious concerns about the functioning of the Maricopa Community Colleges” and its compliance with accreditation standards. 

It was not immediately clear whether the Higher Learning Commission will investigate, and if it does, what actions could result. 

The group’s website says complaints are forwarded to an institution for a response only if the commission determines the allegations represent “substantive problems.” 

The commission may require the college to do a follow-up report, schedule an evaluation or put the institution on “special monitoring.” These reviews could lead to sanctions, such as a notice that the university is at risk of being out of compliance, or to probation when an institution is out of compliance.

In a worst-case scenario and rare scenario, the commission can move to revoke accreditation if problems aren’t corrected.

Institutions that lose their accreditation risk losing federal funds, and their students may no longer be eligible for federal student loans and grants. 

Reach the reporter at anne.ryman@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8072. 

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