HLC Places ASU on Academic Probation

BY WATCHING ADAMS STAFF – 3/14/16HLCLogo

On Monday, March 7th, Adams State University (ASU) President Beverlee McClure emailed faculty and staff. She wrote, “as many of you are aware, Adams State University’s online courses in Extended Studies were mentioned in a December 30, 2014 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. That article led to a series of actions on the part of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). While all of our programs are still accredited, HLC has placed all of our academic programs on probation. We believe this action to be a far-reaching action in order to make a political statement.”

Beginning in January of 2015, the HLC began to correspond with ASU’s then-president Dr. David Svaldi about concerns raised from the Chronicle article, “Confessions of a Fixer” in which an anonymous individual named “Mr. White” was fraudulently using ASU’s Extended Studies program coursework to boost the grades of athletes at other institutions. The HLC cited a number of concerns “about the academic integrity, rigor and currency of your on-line and correspondence courses; the type and level of evaluation of students in these courses; and the reputation these courses have for poor academic quality and outcomes, which has led them to be difficult or impossible for students to transfer to other regionally accredited institutions.”

Throughout 2015, the university corresponded with the HLC with multiple reports to address these concerns, particularly those outlined in the HLC’s Criterion Two (Integrity: Ethical and Responsible Conduct). President Svaldi stated that he was committed to resolving the matter before his retirement in June 2015.

A site visit was performed at ASU on September 14th and 15th of 2015. The HLC evaluation was conducted by Dr. Susan Murphy of Central New Mexico Community College and Dr. Cheryl Ann Murphy of University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The stated focus of the site visit was “to review the institution’s compliance with the following Criteria for Accreditation, Assumed Practice, and Federal Compliance: Criterion Two, Core Components 2.A, 2.B, and 2.E, and Assumed Practice B, and Commission Policies on Assignment of Credits, Program Length, and Tuition and Practices for Verification of Student Identity.”

On January 7th 2016, the HLC released a report of its findings, summarizing “The evaluation team determined that the College does not currently meet Core Component 2.A related to issues of compliance with the U.S. Department of Education federal regulations that address correspondence and distance education. In addition, the evaluation team determined that the College meets Core Component 2.E but with concerns and also meets Assumed Practices Part B but noted some weaknesses in this respect.”

The letter concluded, “Because the team found that one or more Core Components are not met, the Board will consider imposing the sanction of Probation. The Board may also consider the sanction of Notice if the Board concludes that Core Component 2. A is met with concerns.” The HLC stated that ASU would have until January 22nd to respond with any errors the university believed were in the report prior to issuing the sanction.

On January 26th 2016, President McClure issued a response to the HLC. She expressed dismay over the recommendation for sanctions and requested that the university “should undergo continued monitoring or be put on notice and not placed on probation.” President McClure took issue with the scope of the HLC evaluation, which extended beyond the identity verification issue as originally raised by the Chronicle article and focused on multiple academic integrity issues. She reiterated her request not to be placed on academic probation.

On February 23rd, ASU published an article on its website proclaiming, “Adams State online programs ranked among the best in Colorado” according to TheBestSchools.org, described as “a leading resource for prospective students seeking a college or university degree.”  TheBestSchools.org notes “Adams State University is regionally accredited by The Higher Learning Commission (HLC).”

On February 25th, the HLC served a Public Disclosure Notice on Adams State University, imposing the sanction of academic probation. Further explanation of the sanction was provided in a March 3rd letter that outlined multiple deficiencies in ASU’s compliance with Criterion Two. They were:

  • many online courses do not reflect the University’s Hybrid and Online Course Credit Hour Assignment for Undergraduate Courses policy
  • the review of over 60 Extended Studies courses found a lack of interaction or set due dates for their online courses and no visible student-instructor interaction in numerous semester-based courses
  • course enrollments ranging from 450-600 students in individual online sections and are peculiar to the freshman sequence of English and math instruction, often taught by faculty already teaching a full load
  • non-compliance with U.S. Department of Education’s Electronic Code of Federal Regulations mandating “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor,” finding insufficient faculty-staff interaction for these courses to be classified as distance education courses under this regulation.

The HLC stated that some courses “deviated substantially from the adopted standards and some courses reviewed ignored the standard elements altogether,” that “a smaller number of courses were egregiously out of compliance, and the sheer number of documented non-compliant courses is evidence of a pervasive lack of policy communication, understanding, or enforcement.” Additionally, “personnel responsible for performing course reviews lacked the authority to enforce compliance, and Department chairs had been unable to resolve the quality issues.”

On March 7th, President McClure issued an open letter in response, stating of the probationary status, “we are left feeling like HLC’s whipping boy, with none of the benefits of HLC membership.” McClure stated the sanction “seems like a calculated move to undermine the university.”  She invoked what could be considered a theory of victimhood, stating “we obviously have been chosen by the HLC to make some sort of political statement.” President McClure went on to question the integrity of the HLC itself, writing “we are left wondering whether HLC is a regulatory body or an advocacy group for students and higher education.”

Further, President McClure expressed dismay that the notice of academic probation was simultaneously sent to the U.S. Department of Education, the Colorado Department of Higher Education, and outside accrediting agencies. She stated her belief that the issues raised by the HLC had already been addressed and that she had no opportunity for a response prior to the imposition of the sanction. She did not make mention of her January 26th response already on file with the HLC.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, President McClure continued to vocalize her displeasure with this decision: “Ms. McClure said the accreditor seemed to be taking a hard line on Adams State to make itself look good for the Education Department. Instead, she said, accreditation should be a ‘two-way street,’ with the accreditor serving not just as a regulatory agency but also an advocate for its member institutions, helping them to meet the standards.”

In the March 7th Faculty Senate meeting, after asking if the meeting was being recorded, Faculty Trustee Dr. Rob Benson summarized by stating, “The President is pissed.”

One employee observed, “I don’t believe that HLC claims it serves in an advocacy role for individual member institutions; rather, it advocates more generally for higher education quality assurance via higher learning standards.”

According to the HLC, their mission is “serving the common good by assuring and advancing the quality of higher learning.” In terms of advocacy, HLC’s strategic plan’s strategic direction #5 states that it serves to “advocate quality assurance and advancement to the federal government, states and other organizations on behalf of higher education and regional accreditation for the 1,000 members of HLC.”

Steven Mumme, co-president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Colorado Conference, explained the implications of academic probation:

Accreditation probation is a serious blow to a university’s public credibility.  That is likely to warn off some prospective students. It will complicate faculty recruitment as it casts doubt on an institution’s long term viability. If the university loses accreditation it is no longer eligible for federal funds including student aid, which would very likely prove the death knell for Adams State University.”

Since the March 7th announcement, there have been multiple reports of students concerned with credits that will not transfer, degrees that will not be completed, or a degree that will be devalued based on the perception that ASU doesn’t maintain rigorous academic standards. Some students have discussed the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the university.

One faculty member said, “I was surprised at how quiet things were this past week. I don’t know if students weren’t aware or if it’s the culture of Adams to not say much but that was my observation. One student asked me before the article came out, ‘what do you know about what’s going on with the HLC?’ and it was before I knew about the academic probation.”

The faculty member continued, “I don’t think that the HLC does anything haphazardly. I don’t like what’s going on but I do think that, from what I’ve read and the way I understand it, it was a sound decision. It was done with a lot of thought; there were things that happened that led to that decision.”

Upon learning this, one staff member said, “My friend and I were just talking about this! She is set to graduate next May and she’s like, ‘what does that mean for my degree?’ Lots of confusion and zero information from the President – just finger pointing and blaming.”

In the aftermath, the university issued a press release expressing its disagreement with the HLC sanction and concluded “We are stunned by this action. We have been proactive in identifying and addressing concerns in a manner that demonstrates continuous improvement.  It appears the HLC had already determined the outcome of this review and completely disregarded the actions we took to correct the situation. Prior to the HLC action, I made several requests to address the HLC Board directly and to speak with its president. Those requests were ignored. We have requested that HLC review all the information we had submitted, which I believe will lead to a reversal of this onerous decision.”

In an interview with 9 News KUSA-TV, President McClure said, “the enrollment issue and faculty load issue won’t be addressed until the end of the semester. That said, is that enough to put the entire institution on probation? We think not… we think they have ignored our responses.” HLC spokesperson John Hausaman responded by stating, “when there are deficiencies found, it’s in regard to the entire institution. We don’t accredit by the program or degree level… if there are deficiencies found, it is something that is considered to be affecting the entire institution.”

On March 11th, Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Garcia pledged his support for Adams State in a letter affirming that the “Colorado Department of Higher Education will continue to offer advice and support to ASU as its administration and governing board moves forward to resolve the issue.” ASU further reaffirmed its commitment to complying with Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Fair Labor Laws with regard to full-time / part-time faculty distinction in teaching loads, stating, “ASU is now assessing data to create a comparable policy for distance faculty.”

On campus, Friday March 11th was designated as “ASU Pride Day” with everyone encouraged to wear their ASU apparel with a favorite pair of jeans. One faculty member remarked “what if I don’t do that? Will I be viewed as not supporting ASU?”

Ongoing plans for a Sranding Strong For ASU Celebration include a parade across campus complete with drums and live music, “proper framing with positivity” in the A-Stater Alumni magazine, community forums and contact with key stakeholders with the goal of “strong multiple voices for McClure support, strong multiple voices for belief in ASU.” Plans even include “bathroom campaigns” so people can be reminded of ASU’s strengths while they relieve themselves.

The central message: “Keep it positive not whiny, It’s unfair, but we’re dealing with it, Look at our strengths, Addressing our weaknesses.”

Upon reviewing these plans, one faculty member said, “I note with horror but without surprise that the boosters have connected ‘support for ASU’ with ‘support for President McClure.’ McClure represents and nurtures an administration that has led to this problem. It would seem idiotic for any faculty to associate with such an event because HLC can only infer that the faculty is as culpable for this mess as McClure’s minions.”

Another former faculty observed, “this kind of bread and circus is the last thing the university needs right now. Instead, there should be a mature conversation on how the university got this way and the steps needed to correct these actions in a comprehensive and structural way by working with the HLC – not insulting them and then launching a charm offensive. Who really falls for that?”

Many students reportedly feel misled or deceived by the sudden showing of “ASU pride” in light of serious accreditation issues.

Jonathan Rees, the other co-president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Colorado Conference, wrote about the issue of culpability in a recent Academe blog post entitled “Dog Wags Tail.” He wrote:

“While President McClure’s letter makes it seem as if the online tail has nothing to do with the rest of dog, the evidence I’ve seen and heard suggests the exact opposite. Shared governance problems throughout the university explain the online course problem, as well many other faculty complaints I heard about last weekend. All those complaints hurt the quality of education offered in Alamosa, not just the online programs.”