Alamo Colleges: A House Divided

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The Moody Learning Center at San Antonio College.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Moody Learning Center at San Antonio College.

On May 6, Alamo Colleges will ask voters to approve a $450 million bond. In addition to badly needed repairs at St. Philip’s College, parking facilities at Northwest Vista College and San Antonio College, and technological infrastructure district-wide, the bond would include property purchases and building projects to accommodate projected growth.

With three colleges under sanction from their accreditor, full-time faculty have spoken out against the bond and the continued leadership of Chancellor Bruce Leslie. Ultimately, however, voters will decide if Alamo Colleges needs to get its house in order.

Leadership vs. Faculty

In February 2017, after 42 years as a history professor at San Antonio College, Mike Settles resigned his position. He had been called in for the second time, after failing to meet the productive grade rate required by his “win-win contract,” which set a goal for the number of students passed with As, Bs, and Cs.

“I’m not going to pass students that don’t deserve a passing grade,” Settles said. 

Settles is himself a San Antonio College success story. After graduating in the lower half of his class from Jefferson High School, Settles attended SAC and fell in love with learning. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, a master’s at Trinity University, and a doctorate at Texas Christian University. He had job offers from several universities when he chose to return to San Antonio College. He wanted to help students like himself find the same intellectual awakening.

But after Chancellor Bruce Leslie took leadership of the district in 2006, Settles became a vocal opponent of the Alamo Colleges’ administration.

Charged with improving student outcomes and streamlining operations across the district, Leslie came to Alamo Colleges with a strong résumé. He previously served as chancellor of the Houston Community College System and the Connecticut Community-Technical Colleges, and as president of Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y.

However, Leslie left his previous two posts before his contract was up amid reports of conflicts with board trustees and faculty. As chancellor of Alamo Colleges, Leslie enjoys support from the trustees, but he has had a contentious relationship with faculty at the district’s five colleges. No-confidence votes and protests at board meetings have characterized his 11 years as chancellor.

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie

“In the four decades I’ve been there, I’d never seen morale so low,” Settles said.

Hired as a change agent, Leslie sees the faculty discontent as the inevitable cost of culture change.

This “vocal minority” at the various colleges, which serve 58,321 students, represents the old guard of professors who resent losing control, Leslie said.

“They think it should be all about the faculty,” Leslie told the Rivard Report.

However, recent sanctions by the colleges’ accreditation body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), have given credence to faculty concerns over administrative interference in curriculum. Faculty at San Antonio College, Northwest Vista College, and Palo Alto College say the issues raised by SACSCOC spotlight destructive shifts happening outside of the public eye.

Tenured faculty members have long voiced concerns that they are being circumvented, sidelined, and targeted for removal. Jeff Hunt, then-chair of San Antonio College’s faculty senate, presented a 2009 resolution of no-confidence in Leslie to trustees, saying the chancellor had “overextended his role by ignoring faculty.”

Most faculty, Leslie and Alamo Colleges board members say, are happy with the direction the college is heading. If it were not the case, student outcomes would not be on the rise, Trustee Roberto Zárate said, referring to the district’s reported 224% increase in degrees conferred since 2006.

Faculty question the significance of that statistic. Growing pressure from government entities to raise graduation rates has led some colleges to find ways to increase the number of certificates granted without a corresponding rise in the number of actual new graduates or students served. 

Retroactive degrees figure into Alamo Colleges’ improving numbers. A memorandum of understanding with Texas Tech University includes the stipulation that Texas Tech provide information for students who transferred into Texas Tech prior to obtaining an associate degree from one of the Alamo Colleges to “facilitate Alamo [College’s] ability to offer retroactive or reverse transfer associate’s (sic) degrees.”

Alamo Colleges currently awards multiple certificates to graduates, each counting toward the total “degrees conferred” calculation. When a student receives a diploma, as many as five certifications can be listed on that diploma.

Palo Alto American Association of University (AAUP) President Tony Villanueva maintains that enrollment trends tell a more accurate story. 

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) reports that from 2010-2015 enrollment at Alamo Colleges decreased from 62,295 to 60,495. The largest losses came from San Antonio College. According to THEBC projections, San Antonio College enrollment will be almost 5,000 students lower in 2030 than it was in 2010.

In March 2015, to counter claims that faculty morale was at an all-time low, Leslie presented the results of a September 2014 survey of 6,312 district employees. The 1,933 responses indicated a healthy campus climate, scoring 3.76 on a 1-4 scale. However, the survey was taken by all staff, not just faculty. 

In response to that survey, the San Antonio College Faculty Senate surveyed 316 full-time faculty members in the spring of 2015. Of the 159 who replied, 84% reported that their morale was lower than five years before. Only 10% rated their morale “high” or “very high.”

In a further indication of faculty unrest, 107 full-time faculty members at Northwest Vista signed in September 2016 to renew the 2009 no-confidence vote. The original no-confidence vote was part of an widespread faculty movement against Leslie, with similar resolutions signed by 90% or more of all full-time faculty at St. Philip’s, Palo Alto, and San Antonio College.

The San Antonio College campus.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Students walk to class at San Antonio College.

Even the bond package has proven contentious. The Palo Alto College chapter of the AAUP argued instead of being a part of the bond package, the money to repair St. Philip’s should have come from the regular budget funds which are going toward construction of a $45 million administrative building. Faculty refer to the building, on which construction began last month, as the “Crystal Palace.”

“St Phillip’s College needs new buildings only because they have been neglected so much,” wrote Villanueva, the chapter president, in an email to its members. He argued that the repairs could have been made for roughly the same cost as the new administrative building.

In 2009, faculty was concerned by the increasing power of the district’s central administration, and what it saw as encroachment on faculty purview. Today, those concerns are largely unchanged but more specifically embodied in Alamo Colleges’ move toward a “guided pathways” model of education.

With this approach, students are closely advised to choose particular classes with their end goal in mind. For students aiming to move on to a four-year university, the focus is on transferable core classes. For students seeking to enter the workforce, the emphasis is on skills-based classes.

The pathways are designed to prevent the accumulation of non-transferable credits amassed by community college students, many of whom do not have time or money to waste, and to facilitate matriculation to four-year universities. 

Alamo Colleges has created a robust advising system, AlamoADVISE, that aims for a 350:1 student-advisor ratio and a more tailored approach to helping students set and achieve goals.

Davis Jenkins, senior researcher with Columbia College’s Community College Research Center, said a liberal arts core is critical to the guided pathways model. Robust liberal arts are included at community colleges where the guided pathways approach has been successfully implemented. The research center and the Aspen Institute highlight the importance of faculty input to make this possible.

Transition to a guided pathways model is slow and challenging. Difficult questions must be addressed, such as what to do about courses that don’t naturally fit into a pathway, but that enrich student experience or broaden thinking.

“It takes years to lay the ground work for change,” Jenkins said. “These colleges are being asked to do something they weren’t asked to do originally.”

While adding advising positions and greater workforce alignment has gone relatively smoothly under Leslie’s leadership, his efforts to reshape Alamo Colleges to fit the guided pathway model hit a roadblock when it came time to work with faculty.

30 thoughts on “Alamo Colleges: A House Divided

  1. Another example of fantastic journalism by the RR. Thank you for keeping us informed. Looking forward to part 2 tomorrow!

    I was unaware that the facilities at San Antonio College were as old as the top photo indicates. I find it very concerning that a multimillion dollar building for administration is a higher priority than the student-facing facilities. Pardon my ignorance (as a renter)–how much of our property taxes go to Alamo Colleges? With tuition AND property tax income, is it not strange that this bond is required? Seems like poor budgeting to me.

    • Your ignorance is excused. This building also holds salt of the earth staff. More than at any of the colleges. Probably why greedy faculty keep slamming it. Staff deserve a good place to work. Do your homework and.dont get brainwashed. Wouldn’t you want the folks who handle student records and support infrastructure to be happy and safe. Faculty seem to think only they help students, well it takes a village and that includes staff.

      • Truthgiver; Way to throw around statements that are no better than an Internet Troll. Also, this is a question: “Wouldn’t you want the folks who handle student records and support infrastructure to be happy and safe?” But, you have period on the end. As in, maybe you don’t’ want to hear others’ views and are being your own deafening echo chamber. And, way to name call like a diminutive troglodyte.

  2. Yep A, the multimillion dollar administration campus off Broadway is a boondoggle. However, for the Rivard Report its (seemingly) always has been about ACC’s opportunity to plant its flag within Broadway’s hip, urban revitalization and much less about the college district’s financially accountability to the taxpayers.

    Always wondered why an abandoned Target/Walmart type of structure – adaptively re-purposed (like that of Rivard-darling Rackspace) – could not have met ACC’s needs?

    • Get informed Limestone, It is a central location that will also server for much needed Faculty and Staff Development. It will also house updated infrastructure that will help in meeting the needs of the colleges now and in the future. It also moves staff to a safe location free of harm from environmental and physical hazards.

      Re-purposing a building would actually cost more for the Tax Payer to update infrastructure such as access to servers that house learning content and necessary computer operations for all the colleges. Don’t give in to the easy band wagon bias.

      • It’s also a prime piece of real estate that will now be removed from paying property taxes that the lower class will have to shoulder in their rising appraisal values. Actually, rehabbing an existing building is ALWAYS cheaper than building ground up. That’s why CPS and the City are buying older buildings (old ATT and old Frost) and being responsible with tax dollars by renovating existing structures. We don’t give them enough kudos for doing that.

        “Updated Infrastructure” is an intentionally grey term that is meaningless to those who actually understand what that means. You can have older buildings with “updated infrastructure”… Look at Geekdom.

        YES, employees need to be safe, and no one is downplaying the fact that employees should not stay where they are currently. We are simply stating that jumping from the unsafe current locations to a Ritz Carlton is a big leap and is not the best use of taxpayer funds. We can meet in the middle on this, TruthGiver!

        • It is not a Ritz Carlton but a source of pride for those working there. I also believe the Acequia Madre deserves a Ritz around it, why not. It is the fountain of our culture as a city dating back to our Madre Patria. I am glad it is a community serving institution who is building on the land and not a greedy developer.

          Very good points. I think it is our place to be socially responsible and protect those we serve. In this case however I will respectfully disagree with you.

      • Nope; again Truther, this is not the case. Re-purposing a building is the best solution; which could be done for around 10-15 million. I know because I did it when I took over existing structures to get a new university off the ground; And that’s a public State University; not a for-profit degree mill. There’s a multitude of duplicated services on Huston St., that could reduce the cost to implement a new building.

  3. Vote yes to the Bond. Don’t be swayed by biased reporting and ignorance.

    There is a strong misconception fueled by ignorance that it is just Leadership vs Faculty. No one talks about the staff who support both. I would have hoped that this article would have highlighted the poor conditions district support staff have to endure. Employees have to face prostitutes, junkies, needles on floor, possible muggings, mold, condemned buildings and more.

    Get informed people, Faculty teach your children but there is a whole support infrastructure that has to be in place. If support functions were distributed to the colleges it would be chaos and although faculty are good teachers and they excel at what they do, they are also rather myopic when it comes to providing them with their paychecks, technology, teaching resources, and necessary compliance training. Without the support staff at Sheridan and Houston the colleges would crumble. Faculty won’t tell you the story as to how the district support offices rapidly assisted colleges during the SACS warnings but also helped Northeast Lakeview College, have shining marks during accreditation. In the end posh adminstrator palaces are not what is being built but more an acceptable work environment for many people with Doctorates, Masters, and Bachelors degrees who go to work everyday and serve a thankless job from faculty and sometimes the community. These staff do their work because they believe helping the colleges with support functions leaves the colleges to do what they do best, educate our future. I don’t believe letting these district employees work in a building free of cancer causing, life threatening, and demoralizing conditions is a bad thing. Don’t take my word for it, get informed and drive to Houston Street first and walk around for 10 minutes and tell me how safe you feel. The go to Sheridan and ask to be let in to the condemned spaces and then the portable buildings which are hardly suitable for professionals. You may just open your eyes and be more considerate folks.

    As for the Rivard Report, shame on you for being so lopsided. I expected a better and more balanced viewpoint. Clearly there is biased viewpoint probably fueled by friends and family who are faculty and consider themselves faultless and attacked, when in reality their haughty nature belittles and trounces the needs of those who work everyday to make sure all runs smoothly for them and their students.

    • Most people work a thankless job without any degrees. They are at the bottom of the barrel. I think it should be you thanking the community because without them you wouldn’t have a job.

  4. Comments from staff against faculty only reinforce the image of the divisive environment cultivated by the policies of this chancellor. Sad!

    • No they don’t and I am not a staff. Actually I am faculty but would never voice myself openly for fear of retaliation from other faculty. So much for allowing free thinking. It is only okay when I am turned into another administration hating clone.

      The division is caused by my peers not working towards solutions instead of having an all or nothing attitude. I hope people can see through the self righteous veil that what I thought was a noble profession is really an exclusive club for sophists at Alamo Colleges.

  5. Notice how David, probably a faculty member, does not want to take ownership of the problem, instead it is easier to blame the man, the system, the world order that most faculty perceive our support offices to be.

    I work towards solutions to bring value to my students, college, and our tax-payers but if I speak out I will be shunned and basically pushed out by these open minded (Joke) people. Paranoia, tantrum throwing, mean girl attitudes, that is the part that is really sad.

    • See my Forbes link attached to my name. Yes, a venerable, conservative source. Value is found by applying your comments critically towards solutions which are rational and logical. You just don’t do that clearly which is indicative of you missing the larger points here. Listen, the problem is finding solutions that reduce costs at the administrative-level; not at the college-level. That’s the whole point in centering duplicate costs at District. But, this hasn’t happened as you pointed out. Your contention is correct here. It’s said that you shame tax-payers.

  6. If the bond passes over 1 Billion will have gone to the colleges over the past 10 years combined, which I believe is totally in line for faculty and students. The district offices will only have received roughly $47 millions for their buildings and infrastructure updates that also serve the colleges.

    Deferred maintenance of DSO buildings, due to prioritization of expending limited funds on the colleges, has caused many workplace hazards. DSO employees provide essential services to the five Alamo Colleges and their students. A Citizen’s Advisory Committee unanimously recommended to the board that the DSO project is necessary, that the financing strategy is appropriate and that the former Playland Park property at 2222 N. Alamo is the appropriate site that best benefits Alamo Colleges, its employees, students and the community. The committee also added to the board a student, staff member and faculty member to the Citizen’s Advisory Committee to contribute to the design process.

    Learn more below about the process from those who help us as faculty. Not everyone appreciates them but many faculty do and time to speak up for them. Staff are important as well.

    District Employees Plea for Help!!!
    https://courbanize.com/projects/alamo-colleges/information

    • Truthgiver, it is shameful to manipulate employees to pose with a sign that reads “Please Help Us.” Why did they have to hold up a banner? Who orchestrated the shameful misuse of employee time? The same message could have been conveyed in other ways. Besides, these employees are not privvy to other possible solutions to their problem. They could have been relocated to other buildings. This is a sick way of promoting a new administrative building.

  7. Truthgiver is definitely in the minority. He/she forgets the vote of no confidence by over 90% of faculty across the district. Truthgiver forgets that students have protested against the chancellor. Truthgiver forgets that it took 10 yrs to accredit Northeast Lakeview College. Truthgiver forgets that District is way too bloated. Truthgiver fails to understand that other solutions to the Houston St “problem” were never explored. Truthgiver forgets that colleges are under sanctions. Truthgiver forgets that most faculty think Covey is a waste. Truthgiver forgets that faculty has attempted many times to offer solutions only to be told that he (Chancellor) only responds to the “Board’s charges”. Truthgiver fails to understand that buildings at SAC and St Philip’s were in desperate need of repair for many years. Truthgiver fails to realize that students come first and that the mold issues as St Philip’s needed to be addressed way before any administration building was even considered. Truthgiver forgets that faculty did not receive raises for numerous years while administrators received raises annually. Truthgiver forgets that faculty have fought to protect academic majors for students. Truthgiver fails to understand that there has been substantial turnover among staff and they too are unhappy but cannot speak, lest they get fired. Truthgiver fails to understand that faculty are highly respected by students – across all colleges – in spite of Bruce Leslie’s terrible leadership. Truthgiver is the only faculty – if he/she really is – to speak in favor of District and Bruce Leslie. If Truthgiver really understood the role of faculty, he/she would know that it is the duty of academic faculty to protect the integrity of the curriculum. Sorry Truthgiver. You are probably angry about something else but found this place to vent your frustrations. I hope you find someone who can help you resolve your displaced anger.

  8. I was waiting for your comment lie defractor.

    I think you illustrate the prevailing harm that taking a self righteous stance can cause. All the things regarding protecting academic freedom is true, but there is one catch, you are willing to take the principal so far that it is hurting you, your students, and the community. I am afraid you have lied to yourself into believing you are protecting, when sadly you are now so unreasonable you are caustic, destroying what you have sworn to protect, freedom to think and chose.

    No more comments from me, the snake has shown it’s fangs.

  9. Truthgiver,

    All your remarks lack substance. I really hope you find someone to talk to who can assuage your anger toward your colleagues (assuming that you are faculty).

  10. So the answer is to send a faculty member; this person truth giver to reprogramming, because all faculty should think the same. I am starting to see that faculty are huge hipocrates at Alamo colleges. No respect for those in minorith. Not how I was taught by my professors at a real place of higher learning. They had the balls to let me think different and I may disagree with them but I respect them for being genuine and letting me challenge them. Faculty at Alamo seem to be a bunch of pansies who can’t take being challenged or changing the way they think.

    • Well, you couldn’t have formed a better reply. If by better I mean it’s garbage and dismissive of a logical line of thought to challenge a viewpoint not your own. Your reply actually lacks balls; but is bollocks. Go ahead. I’ll wait while you google that word.

  11. Yolo,

    Your response shows how much of child you are. Bollocks? Really; not worth anymore attention.

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