College responds after accreditation threatened HCCC officials: Warning notice was a shock

Dr. Glen Gabert, president of Hudson County Community College, explained to the Hudson County freeholder board at a special meeting on July 15 why the Middle States Commission on Higher Education recently issued a warning that the college’s accreditation could be in jeopardy.

HCCC is located in Jersey City and has a campus in West New York.

While Gabert would not go into specifics about the situation, citing individual privacy concerns, he said that a 58-page report that recently was issued by Middle States and will likely be released to the freeholders by the end of this month.

However, college officials cautioned the freeholders not to expect too much, since the report does not give many specifics either.

A verbal report was issued to the college back in early May – and when rumors of the report became public, the contents remained a closely guarded secret.

The secrecy has angered some freeholders and prompted less than veiled threats that the college’s $8 million-a-year funding could be in jeopardy unless communications between the college and the freeholders improve.

The county provides $8 million in funding for the college as part of its annual budget, and has allocated millions more for capital improvements in the Journal Square campus and the West New York campus.

Didn’t comply with ‘Integrity’

Middle States said that even though HCCC passed 13 of the 14 accreditation standards, the college’s accreditation could be in jeopardy because it failed to comply with the “Integrity” category.

That category covers areas including conflict of interest, ethical standards, and policies regarding support for academic and intellectual freedom.

Although serious, a warning is not the most severe action the commission could have taken.

The commission could put the college on probation, suspend accreditation, force the college to show cause as to why it should not be punished, or remove its accreditation entirely.

“An institution’s accreditation continues unless it is explicitly suspended or removed,” said a summary of the 58-page report provided to the press. “When the commission warns an institution, it believes that although the institution is out of compliance, the institution has the capacity both to make the appropriate improvements within a reasonable period and to sustain itself in the long term.”

In one case, staff member John Shinnick was relieved of one of his positions because it was thought to be in conflict with another (see sidebar).

Four areas of concern

The warning cited four areas of concern.

It said an improvement plan should “restore an atmosphere of mutual respect within the institution, establish an administrative structure that facilitates open consultation free of intimidation for all members of the college community, and implement a complaint procedure that guarantees due process and protects the complaint against perceived or real retaliation.” The commission also pushed for the collect to create and enforce a conflict-of-interest policy governing activities of the Board of Trustee and senior administrators.

2009 deadline

Gabert said HCCC has until September 2009 to file a report on actions it takes to meet the requirements, in order to remove the warning.

To address the concerns, the college’s Board of Trustees set up an ad-hoc committee that includes former or retired well-respected educators from around Hudson County. This committee has hired an outside consultant to review the issues raised by Middle States in order to implement a corrective action plan.

But Gabert said the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, which issues the college’s principle accreditation, has reaffirmed its support of HCCC.

“We are confident that we will meet the expectations of the Middle States Commission and will have this warning removed by September, 2009,” Gabert said.

Evaluators interviewed staff

School officials said the Middle States findings were a shock, since a self-evaluation done in preparation for the accreditation showed none of the issues raised in that area. Staff at the college may have feared retaliation when interviewed by members of the college, but felt freer to voice their fears to Middle States people on the promise of anonymity.

Middle States brought about 12 people to the college earlier this year and interviewed more than 400 people that included students, staff, and others.

Gabert said representatives from the three unions have been brought into the process to discuss the issues.

While the unions are supportive of the college’s moves to deal with the negative report, they said that a previously published newspaper report suggesting that the college has had only one personnel complaint in these areas were wrong.

Esther Greenburg, former president of one union, said one complaint went to arbitration, but other grievances against the college have been settled.

Freeholders Bill O’Dea and Jose Munoz pushed Gabert to provide more details in order to better address the potential problems, and criticized the college for keeping the report a secret.

Gabert and others he brought from the college said that while the college had received a verbal report from Middle States in May, the actual 58-page report was not issued to the college until July 2.

The committee dealing with the report is scheduled to meet on July 24 and is expected to release the full report to the freeholders afterward.

Roger Jones, who is serving as a spokesperson for the ad hoc committee, said the school has instituted equal-opportunity training for administrators, faculty, and students and has educated the staff on its code of ethics.

The freeholders are expected to review the full report and revisit the matter at their Aug. 10 caucus.

Shinnick figures into conflict

While the report on the problems found at HCCC is shrouded in mystery, one of area of conflict involved John Shinnick, who serves as vice president of Human Resources and Communication at the college. Shinnick is also a Secaucus councilman.

He was until recently also the Equal Employment Opportunity officer at the school. But as part of the changes implemented as a result of the Middle States report, Shinnick has been shifted out of that position.

“According to the Middle States Commission the EEOC staff person is supposed to be an independent entity,” Shinnick told the Reporter. “In other words, that person is not supposed to have multiple duties. At most larger universities, the EEOC is an entire department staffed with lots of people. There may be an EEOC director, plus several mid-level and junior people working in the department. And they all do EEOC work. Smaller schools can’t afford to have an entire department devoted to EEOC work. But typically they will have one full-time staff member who just does EEOC work for the college. And that’s the way Middle States wants it. Because, when you think about it, you want your EEOC person to be as objective as possible if there’s a claim of harassment or discrimination.”

He added, “In my case, I had other duties at the college, which someone could claim impairs my ability to act objectively in an EEOC case. That’s where the ‘conflict of interest’ charge comes in.”

Staff writer E. Assata Wright contributed to this story.

email to Al Sullivan


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