Alamo Colleges Barely Passed Its Own Accountability Test

After months of passionate protest, petitions and public forums, faculty, students and administration of the five Alamo Community Colleges let out a sigh of relief early last week when Chancellor Bruce Leslie rescinded his proposal to require all students enroll in EDUC 1300, largely based on Stephen Covey’s self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and seen by opponents as devoid of college-level critical thinking. The faculty-led furor elicited a formal accreditation review, attention from national higher education publications and an internal investigation from a campus legal association. While the faculty opponents eventually won this battle, their concerns over Leslie’s leadership and transparency remain.

Touted by Leslie as a way to better prepare students for the business world, the leadership skills-focused EDUC 1300 was to be included as a core course, to replace humanities subjects for the students enrolled in Palo Alto, St. Philips, Northeast Lakeview, San Antonio College and Northwest Vista.

If the change had gone through, students would be required to swap three of their required six hours of humanities courses in subject areas like logic, ethics, world civilization, Mexican-American studies, philosophy and peace and conflict with the 7 Habits-based course.

The EDUC 1300 Learning Frameworks course is described as an “introduction to psychological theories of learning, cognition and motivation” and is sold as a way to promote student success and “principle-centered leadership.” Leslie explains in a February 5 letter to the faculty that the course is a response to “employer demands for greater employee leadership skills.” He recounts a 2012 meeting with local business leaders, called jointly by Mayor Julián Castro and the Alamo Colleges, to incorporate employer demands and leadership skills in education. He says the employer community “overwhelmingly” endorsed the 7 Habits framework.

District 9 Alamo Colleges board of trustees member James Rindfuss, a supporter of EDUC 1300, verifies this perspective.

“The course was developed because of a high demand from businesses and employers [for instruction] that will allow more students to become employable,” says Rindfuss. (Full disclosure: His son, Bryan, serves as the Current’s associate editor).

“We are under a lot of pressure to produce well-qualified students and get a better success rate,” he says. “So we have to change the model somehow to provide the results that businesses and employers want.”

While some faculty members openly criticized the material as lacking the rigor one would expect in higher education, others say the substance of the course isn’t all bad, but why it should have replaced a humanities courses is beyond them.

“It’s not that it’s going to be necessarily harmful material, but it’s not going to be challenging or engaging to students on a college level,” says Northwest Vista humanities professor Neil Lewis, who considers EDUC 1300 as an offering of a “corporate” and “less diverse” outlook on life.



Absent Students and Faculty

This disconnect between faculty’s educational values and the chancellor’s attempt to ensure hirable graduates set the stage for an arguably more important organizational dispute. While not inclined to support EDUC 1300 to begin with, faculty and students claim they were “blindsided” by efforts to include it among ACC’s core courses.

“Ordinary procedures were not followed,” Charles Hinkley, chair of the humanities department at Northwest Vista tells the Current. “We have curriculum teams on each campus that discuss curriculum changes; these processes were simply circumvented.”

According to the Colleges’ 2013 core course selection process handbook, aspects like objectives and student outcomes must be met and the course’s strengths and deficiencies debated openly—there’s even a two-page rubric involved. For starters, the Alamo College Curriculum Council, or ACCC, comprised of the chief academic officer of each college and three representatives from each college’s curriculum committee (at least two of whom must be faculty), must sign off on the changes.

“When a course or program is introduced or revised, the discipline team first agrees on the proposed item. Those curriculum proposals are vetted through each college’s curriculum committee. …” the review process states. The ACCC then recommends the courses to the chancellor’s cabinet of presidents and vice chancellors for approval.

But that didn’t happen, say faculty, who claim they were only alerted to the change after the fact.

Lewis says, “We were really surprised, the more you talked with people—from the president to the vice president to anyone on campus—the more you realized no one knew about this. At the very top of the organization, there was no information shared ... We were really blindsided.”

While procedurally speaking, faculty—not students—are required to be part of the core curriculum review process, students have certainly sounded off about feeling shut out from the discussion as well, resulting in some tense exchanges between Leslie and student representatives.

“We’ve had multiple forums with our administration to understand the process it took. Students say they weren’t first consulted or … didn’t seem to have … input,” Andrew Hubbard, president of the Student Government Association at SAC and chair of the Alamo Colleges Student Council, tells the Current.

A February SGA survey asked students, “Did you agree that college credit of humanities should be replaced by college credit courses based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?” Of those polled, 18 percent said yes; 40 percent said no and 41 percent were not sure. Hubbard says the results signify most students were either opposed or so removed from the process they weren’t able to respond.

On the faculty side, the only information they were getting, says Lewis, is when professors picked up the San Antonio College newspaper or called the state coordinating board themselves to understand the details.

Meeting minutes back up their assertions.

From October to early January, EDUC 1300 failed to appear on the ACCC meeting agenda, according to documents obtained by the Current. A January 27 agenda item lists a discussion on the chancellor’s decision to “bypass” the process. The same day, EDUC 1300 was submitted for review by the ACCC—however, it was days after Leslie had already submitted the proposal to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. ACCC did not approve the course, but by then it was too late.

While the 2014 core selection proposal indicates that the ACCC reviewed the proposals, worked with the discipline teams and subsequently recommended the final listing of core courses to the chancellor, faculty question the veracity of these claims.

On November 21, 2013, the vice presidents of academic success (the colleges’ chief academic officers) and the Vice Presidents of Student Success of the five colleges went on record against including EDUC 1300 in the core, and in late December 2013 the five college presidents “were told by Chancellor Leslie that he had made the decision and a vote among college presidents was not taken on the matter.” The process and policies set forth by the district were not followed, the letter reads.

The dismissal of standard operating procedure prompted faculty, initiated by Lewis, to protest via petition. But it wasn’t just faculty who expressed their disappointment—more than 130 Northwest Vista professors, staff and upper administration members penned an open letter, dated January 29, addressed to Dr. Rex Peebles at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, calling on the THECB to reject the core curriculum proposal.

Signed by the NVC faculty senate, seven of the eight academic chairs, 117 full-time faculty, three deans, the president of student success and the NVC president Jackie Claunch, the letter underscored the issue as an overwhelming complaint, pervasive among all ranks of Alamo Colleges academia, not just a strictly “faculty issue” or an “administration problem.”

Yet, the appeal to THECB didn’t produce the desired results and by early March the state coordinating board notified the college of its approval of the core change. Peebles, assistant commissioner of workforce, academic affairs and research, tells the Current the THECB received and read the letter, but insists ensuring the curriculum review process at individual colleges doesn’t fall under the board’s purview.

“[We] approve courses for the core curriculum and [the faculty’s] discontent is not necessarily with the course itself but with the process ….” says Peebles. “While we certainly encourage faculty involvement in these decisions, ultimately, it is left to the college itself to determine how they’re going to make those decisions.”

In short: “We don’t have authority to tell an institution how to involve faculty.”

However, the board does state faculty input is typically a factor in core changes. According to the Fall 2014 THECB FAQ for Faculty and Administration in Preparing their New Core Curriculum, “Each institution will determine its own process and procedures for course approval, but best practices and accreditation guidelines generally place the faculty in a position of responsibility for curricular decisions.”

Peebles says, “I think the chancellor is well aware of this [issue]; he got the same letter I got. There is certainly some kind of dialogue internally, at least, at Alamo Colleges about this.”

Indeed, Leslie received an additional copy of the request and responded with a sprawling 11-page letter, in which he admits he took matters into his own hands.

“I indicated that I understood faculty would oppose this decision, knew it was a difficult one but in order to initiate the course in 2014 and in the best interest of the students, I was making the decision to include it in the core and ask the group to support the decision,” writes Leslie. “The presidents are expected to communicate decisions made at the PVC (presidents and vice chancellors council) with their leadership, faculty and staff, and there was no reason to expect otherwise about this particular decision.”

Leslie acknowledges the faculty’s longstanding opposition, writing,

“[W]e have had the voice of the faculty consistently expressed over several years of their opposition to changing our humanities requirement.”

For Lewis, the response is an admittance that the chancellor dodged faculty involvement because he saw the writing on the wall.

“He’s saying: ‘I knew there would be faculty pushback, I knew you wouldn’t want this to happen, so therefore that counts as faculty input’—that’s his rationale for it, he felt it was something we couldn’t decide on so he would decide for us.”

Rindfuss has a different perspective and treats the decision as a balancing act between meeting external business demands and time.

“It’s not something that just popped up, some faculty have been involved but … people just do not like change,” he says. “So at some point we’ve got to say, ‘We got a deadline here and we gotta do it.’”

A Reversal Of (Core)Course

Despite his earlier efforts, in an e-mail message issued to the Alamo Colleges last Tuesday, Leslie put a short-term end to the complaints by announcing he would remove EDUC 1300 from the core curriculum and instead offer it as an elective.

“While it troubles me to write this, I have decided that it is in the best interests of the Alamo Colleges to redirect our efforts to place the EDUC 1300 course as part of the core. The controversy and divisiveness surrounding this issue have simply outweighed the necessity to push ahead at this time.”

Rindfuss can’t predict the next steps, but says it was heated opposition that led to Leslie’s decision.

“Because of the dissension over this, they decided to reverse course at this point. Other than that, I don’t know what will happen next year,” he says. “I think they wanted everyone to understand more about it before they rolled it out.”

For students, a tone shift has taken place, says Hubbard.

“I believe it shows that the district administration understands that there does need to be some more time as far as how things were rolled out. For students, the procedure was a little too fast for comfort,” he says. “Moving forward the conversation is what students have been pushing for. They’ve been feeling like they’re just speaking in a vacuum and no one is listening.”

He continues, “So I think, we’re entering a new era of student involvement, it’s very promising.”

Craig Coroneos, instructor of humanities at Northwest Vista and Alamo Colleges Democracy Commitment campus coordinator tells the Current the mood among faculty is “cautiously optimistic.”

“The decision signals a return to process-based decision-making, that’s what we want to result from all of this. We want a move away from this model where one person is making arbitrary decisions that everyone has to follow.”

Hinkley says he was “partly surprised and happy” to learn of the reversal. However, he believes this may just be a temporary setback for the chancellor.

Moreover, both Coroneos and Hinkley feel Leslie’s response fell short of any recognition of wrongdoing.

“Part of being a good leader is that you’re willing to acknowledge when you make mistakes and I don’t hear any of that from the chancellor, and that’s not a good thing,” Hinkey says. “It looks like he made the change for political reasons not from the rationality of the arguments levied against him, this does not bode well.”

Coroneos, too, hoped to receive a direct admittance that procedure was violated.

“We would have liked to see recognition that the process was not followed and any indication that we would return to established process. But that didn’t happen, so it was a little disappointing,” he says.

“What I did hear was that ‘I’ decided, so it seems as though he still envisions himself as the role of lone decider—and that’s why we’re merely cautiously hopeful at this time.”

How Effective is Bruce Leslie?

The core change debacle isn’t the first time Leslie has come under fire from faculty. In 2010, the chancellor received a near-unanimous vote of ‘no confidence’ from faculty across the district, dissatisfied with his leadership style, for refusing transparent dialogue with faculty and staff and creating an environment that kept them deliberately “unaware and uninformed,” the Current previously reported. Leslie’s professional past is also marked by controversy among other administrations—in 1999 he exited the Connecticut Community College System when campus presidents resisted his attempts to standardize the curriculum, and he resigned from the Houston Community College System in 2006 due to disagreements with trustees.

Leslie did not return calls for comment.

Last month a college accreditation committee slapped the institution on the wrist by lodging a formal investigation into the curriculum change process. In a notice first sent to Northwest Vista’s Claunch, the Southern Associations of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, triggered by recent national higher-ed-based media reports, asked Alamo to defend EDUC 1300 and show it meets accreditation compliance. (They added, “Please pay special attention to parts of the requirement that speak in terms of ‘ensures breadth of knowledge,’ ‘is based on a coherent rationale.’”)

The homework assignment additionally requested evidence of faculty approval and indication institutional policies were followed. It notes the “strong faculty opposition” and asked the College to address how it places faculty with primary responsibility for approving curriculum. Letters were subsequently sent to the three other accredited colleges. (Northeast Lakeview has yet to receive accreditation.)

Claunch tells the Current that even after Leslie’s reversal, Northwest Vista must still respond to the request. In the process of writing the letter to the accreditation commission, Claunch has revised the first draft as a result of the news. The problem of faculty involvement will not be as pronounced as it was before.

“Even though it was done outside of normal channels, I believe faculty voices ultimately got heard and I think that’s good,” says Claunch.

She expressed “relief” at having more time to research the course and more acutely consider its worth. For her, the whole ordeal is an opportunity to rebuild.

“Hopefully it will allow us to move forward in a collaborative way—this has the potential to make us stronger,” she said.

But when asked if she believes confidence in Leslie’s decision-making had diminished as a result of the controversy, Claunch replies guardedly: “I think that the facts of what happened following the decision pretty much speak for themselves.”

In the end, it appears that while the reversal of course quelled immediate concerns, it did little to bolster opponents’ faith in Leslie’s leadership style.

As Hinkely bluntly puts it, “Confidence in Bruce Leslie is at an all-time low.”

(After)Math 101

As the dust settles, some faculty continue to wonder about a potential profit motive, asking which parties stand to benefit most from the alliance.

The for-profit Franklin Covey has found a partner in Pearson Education, regarded as Texas’ main public school textbook and testing provider. In 2010, the two publicly traded corporations agreed to a publishing deal to create The 7 Habits of Highly Effective College Students, as a college textbook and multimedia courseware. Now, a faculty group wants more details on the relationship between the district, Franklin Covey and Pearson.

An attorney with the Alamo Community College District Faculty Legal Association filed an open records act request on behalf the organization to uncover more information about the price tag behind Franklin Covey textbook material. So far, the district has spent some $3.5 million on training for staff, The Ranger reported. A five-day training and certification session for the 7 Habits lesson costs $2,500 for each employee, according to the school’s contract with Covey. The faculty legal group is also seeking to find out if the materials the district paid to develop will be sold to other colleges.

“We’re basically privatizing our curriculum and private interests are deciding what we’re doing in the classroom,” Gerald Busald, math professor and president of the legal association tells the Current. “We would like to know exactly what is driving these decisions; is it financial?”

A small glimmer of Leslie’s attitude toward the for-profit sector arises in a 2013 blog for the Huffington Post. Leslie delivers what is at first a thoughtful ode to his students. An excerpt reads, “[students] are not just revenues or FTEs; they are human beings with feelings like our own.” But the piece then takes a nuanced turn, as Leslie confesses to pressures from outside stakeholders, writing, “[p]ublic higher education must operate as a business and it is time to accept the responsibility to lead our colleges effectively, efficiently and relevantly. Acknowledging this requires us to operate like every successful business: to focus on our customers, internal and external.”

He ends by writing, “[t]rust must be earned and educators at all levels must appreciate our collective responsibility to rise above our internal political issues and focus all our efforts on student success.”

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.