After Edel Alonso won election to the College of the Canyons board of trustees in 2016, she said she noticed that the board’s policy is to conduct annual self-evaluations. In looking at past meeting agendas and minutes, she found the board had not performed them seven times since 2004.
“The timing, I think, is off,” she said. “If we have a board policy that says it should be done, annually, I’m very uncomfortable when we don’t do it annually. If there’s a rule, we should follow it.”
Documents the Gazette obtained and interviews with various board members show no self-evaluation took place in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2014-17, although the 2013 evaluation was completed in 2014.
Board self-evaluations are one of many factors in determining a college’s accreditation. Although Canyons has always earned full accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and College’s Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), there is some concern that could change in the next accreditation cycle, in 2022.
“In our accreditation documents, (the ACCJC has) cited the board for not having appropriate, scheduled and authentic evaluations on a regular basis, but then another accreditation cycle comes through and they haven’t remedied it yet,” faculty president Wendy Brill-Wynkoop said. “The accreditation has a standard that the board needs to maintain, independent of the administration.”
The ACCJC’s Standard IV.C.10 requires colleges to have board self-evaluation policies and procedures as a prerequisite for accreditation. As COC board member Joan MacGregor explained it, “We make the decisions on how the (public) money is spent. We are the final decision-making body for the budget, for personnel, for facilities, for the various things that are going to affect the students in the classroom. The board needs to make sure that we have our goals set.”
The nonprofit Community College League of California’s trustee handbook says boards must have “regular” evaluations. COC’s Board Policy 2745 reads, “The Board is committed to assessing its own performance as a board in order to identify its strengths and areas in which it may improve its functioning and will do so on an annual basis.”
There are no rules that state where meetings must take place, but they must be public and properly posted, per the Brown Act. In the past, documents show, evaluation meetings have occurred on campus but also at board member Michael Berger’s house, Newhall Land and Farming and the Oaks Club of Valencia when it was called TPC Valencia. (Berger declined comment, citing unrelated union negotiations that have reached an impasse.)
To earn accreditation, which lasts six years, the ACCJC requires member colleges to carry out a self-study, compose a report, and undergo peer review. In short, the ACCJC process consists of two elements: the college evaluating itself and the ACCJC evaluating the college. Self-study differs from self-evaluation in that the entire college – all departments and programs – examines itself in the context of the ACCJC’s policies, eligibility requirements and standards. After the college writes the report, a team of educators visits the school, conducts interviews with various people, including the board, and examines evidence.
Based on all information gathered, the visiting team takes action by writing a report and determining accreditation. It can make recommendations or issue sanctions. Recommendations require attention or risk future sanctions, which don’t cost a school its accreditation, but the ACCJC withholds reaffirmation until it’s satisfied the college has adequately addressed the issues that caused the sanction in the first place.
This happened at The Master’s University last year, when the Western Association put the accreditation on probation because of a “pervasive culture and climate of fear, intimidation, bullying, and uncertainty among significant numbers of faculty and staff,” “a pattern of seemingly arbitrary personnel actions … with a lack of due process and in violation of existing (school) Employee and Faculty Handbooks” and too-cozy relationships between board members and the college president, according to the report.
COC has never been sanctioned, but it received recommendations pertaining to its irregular board self-evaluations in 2002, 2008 and 2013, documents show.
It is the 2013 episode that most alarms Brill-Wynkoop and MacGregor.
The accreditation team noted that meetings in June, September and October mention discussions but no proof of any goals or action plans.
“Concerning the Board’s self-evaluation process, the Board has not fully benefitted from the guidance received in 2002 and 2008 visiting teams, and would benefit from specific improvements in its process,” the report said. “In order to increase institutional effectiveness, the team recommends that the Board formalize and adhere to a regular cycle of review for Board policies.”
Following this, then-board president Michele Jenkins wrote to the visiting team chairman that the board held eight self-evaluation meetings between 2008 and Oct. 14, 2014, the date of her letter. Brill-Wynkoop and MacGregor believe that was a lie.
Still, after Jenkins’ letter, the ACCJC reaffirmed the school’s accreditation and disregarded the recommendation. “The Commission noted that the policies are in fact reviewed annually by the College Executive Cabinet and forwarded to the board only when revisions are needed,” a letter from the ACCJC to the college President Dianne Van Hook dated Feb. 6, 2015 said. “Therefore, the Commission acted to set aside this team recommendation.”
“If you read the whole visiting-team report, which is almost 80 pages, and you read the final letter, which again are both public, it’s hard to reconcile the two because there’s problems that just disappeared between the two,” Brill-Wynkoop said. “And then they (visiting team) jump in their car and they go away, and then a week later Michele Jenkins writes this letter saying, ‘Whoops I misspoke, we really are doing them and here is all the evidence,’ but there isn’t any evidence.”
MacGregor said she told Jenkins publicly that she thought Jenkins had lied.
“If you read the letter and then you look back at the minutes, we did not have a board evaluation. We didn’t have the things that were stated,” MacGregor said. “Lying is a hard word, but definitely not truthful, not completely truthful in that letter. I never had the chance to see the letter to the accreditation committee.”
Jenkins said she recalled the letter when parts were read to her. “We’ve done self-evaluations. I don’t know if we’ve done them every year. We do do them,” she said.
She then asked who’s requiring annual board evaluations. Told it’s Board Policy 2745, she responded, “If it actually says we’re gonna do it on an annual basis, we need to decide are we really going to do it on an annual basis or modify policy?”
ACCJC President Richard Winn said writing such a letter is rare. A school also is allowed to challenge the report by showing new evidence that could lead to a different conclusion.
“You have evidence that those board evaluations didn’t really happen? It’s entirely possible that that evidence was not known to either the commission or the team at the time the decision was taken,” Winn said. “Accreditation is a human enterprise. We do the best we can.”
The ACCJC underwent controversy of its own during this time after it threatened in 2012 to revoke accreditation to City College of San Francisco, citing problems with fiscal management, governance, student services and technology. What ensued were two lawsuits, a state audit, a federal reprimand and the retirement of the ACCJC president.
Winn declined to speculate a link between the ACCJC’s turmoil and the COC accreditation report’s irregularities.
“The team deals only with recommendations. It does not determine the final action taken by the commission,” he said. “The commission will often weigh the significance of a finding, they will calibrate it with decisions they’ve made on other institutions where similar issues have arisen.”
After years of no self-evaluation, the board completed one in 2018. Alonso said the board used a 62-question survey in which each board member rated himself/herself and the board as a whole on a five-point scale. She said she objected to this instrument because she found the definitions of each rating point (unsatisfactory, below average, average, above average, excellent) unclear. Plus, she wanted all questions to reflect the three authorities that govern the board: its policies, the state Education Code and the ACCJC standards.
MacGregor said the evaluation lacked specific goals.
“There should be an evaluation instrument that was used to (determine) how are we going to improve our interaction and communication,” she said, “but also how are we going to improve the actual meetings themselves to make them more productive? What are the committee assignments? Where is our budget? What are we doing to expand our networking and advocacy abilities?”
The board has not yet undertaken its self-evaluation for 2019, but Brill-Wynkoop said she knows what she wants to see.
“The board needs to maintain independence and transparency so that as a public institution, we know that our tax dollars are being spent appropriately,” she said, “and I think this is an example of where there isn’t transparency.”