The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) has officially warned Medgar Evers College (MEC) that its accreditation could be in jeopardy. It was the first time since the early 1990s that the Middle States Commission has taken such action against a CUNY college.
The warning follows two successive faculty votes of no-confidence in MEC’s president and provost, who took office in 2009 (see Clarion, January 2011 and June 2012. In their time in office, President William Pollard and Provost Howard Johnson have come under sharp criticism from faculty and students, as well as elected officials and members of the central Brooklyn community.
A November 15 statement from MSCHE explained that it “places an institution on Warning when, in the Commission’s judgment, the institution is not in compliance with one or more Commission accreditation standards.” At issue for MEC were standards on Planning, Resource Allocation, and Institutional Renewal; Institutional Assessment; and Assessment of Student Learning – three of the 14 criteria the Commission uses to determine a college’s accreditation.
Medgar Evers was last accredited by Middle States in 2007 without any problems – in fact, it was given a commendation. But when the college submitted its Periodic Review Report in 2012, “the report provided limited responses to requested information and necessitated extraordinary effort by the Commission’s representatives,” the MSCHE complained. The Commission ultimately concluded that the college had failed to demonstrate compliance, and MEC was placed on warning.
As a result, Medgar Evers College is required to provide a monitoring report on September 1, 2013, documenting that it meets all 14 standards. The Commission will then send a small team to conduct an on-site visit. The monitoring report, the small-team report and MEC’s response to the small-team report will then be evaluated by the Commission. If the Commission determines that MEC has made insufficient progress, the school can be put on probation, which can be followed by either suspension or removal of accreditation.
MEC President Pollard downplayed the warning, saying he was “confident” that “the vision for MEC will be achieved.” Pollard cast the monitoring report as “an opportunity to explicitly respond to Middle States regarding how we have made progress regarding compliance,” adding that “we have identified areas for improvement over the next five years.”
“Medgar Evers College is in a state of emergency,” responded Sallie Cuffee, chair of the MEC Faculty Senate, in an e-mail to colleagues. “Our college is justifiably proud of the many successes it has forged and challenges overcome,” Cuffee wrote. “To have our Middle States accreditation put at risk because of the dereliction and failings of this administration...is unconscionable.”
In response to an e-mail query from Clarion, Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson said that “CUNY is assisting the College and we anticipate that the appropriate work will be done.” Emphasizing that MEC remains accredited, Hershenson wrote that MEC “is working cooperatively with Middle States in order to make the necessary improvements.”
CUNY spokesperson Michael Arena declined to name any other CUNY institution that has been similarly treated by Middle States in the last two decades. According to information on the Middle States website, no other CUNY college has been placed on warning since 1999. In 1990, Baruch College was put on warning for failing to retain students of color and for low representation of faculty members of color.
Members of MEC’s Faculty Senate and its PSC chapter told Clarion that the warning from Middle States was triggered by the failure of MEC Provost Johnson to provide an adequate strategic plan.
To guide the accreditation process, Johnson hired a Syracuse-based consulting firm that critics said did not know the college well enough to do the job. Johnson and Pollard were both based at Syracuse University for many years, Johnson from 1973 to 2003 and Pollard from 1989 to 2002.
“The underlying problem is that they have so alienated the faculty that they thought a few consultants could do what faculty should do,” the Faculty Senate’s Cuffee told Clarion.
Johnson also received a faculty vote of no-confidence in 2005 during his tenure as Provost at the University of North Texas (UNT). A major source of faculty discontent at UNT was the report in the college’s student paper that Johnson had lifted whole sections of his proposed strategic plan from several other universities without attribution. Johnson defended himself by saying that his proposal was essentially a draft – “something to react to,” he told the paper. But one of the schools, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, threatened to sue for copyright infringement (see Clarion, February 2011.)
The month before the Middle States warning was announced, the Pollard administration sent shock waves through Medgar Evers College when it told department chairs that it wanted them to prepare “action plans” for reducing the number of course offerings for the Spring semester by as much as 30%. The administration’s October 3 directive cited a decline in Fall semester enrollment and a projected $3 million deficit as the reason: most of the projected course reductions would have entailed eliminating sections taught by part-time faculty.
After loud protests from MEC faculty and the PSC, the college’s administration has retreated from this call for such deep course reductions. PSC First Vice President Steve London said that while MEC’s 8% decline in enrollment this fall is a “very real problem” that has to be addressed, the administration’s description of the school’s economic woes was exaggerated. The college has other reserves it can draw on, London noted, and, if necessary, CUNY could come to the school’s aid while it works to boost its enrollment.
Clinton Crawford, PSC chapter chair at MEC, told Clarion that the administration’s retreat from such draconian cuts was the only logical thing to do. “If you don’t improve delivery of services, you will have both a recruitment and a retention problem,” he explained. But Crawford added that he remains wary of the administration’s intentions.
Reduced quality of services was also on the mind of several hundred Medgar Evers students who walked out of class at midday on October 17, amid chants of “I am a Medgar Evers College student!” and “Pollard, Pollard you come out, face the students you sold out!” The protesters cited a number of grievances: the fact that the school’s computer labs were closed for the first three weeks of the semester, fewer tutors available in the Learning Center, and class sizes that are already too large.
“We want [Matthew] Goldstein to come down from 80th Street and deal with this problem,” said student leader Evangeline Byars, who noted that CUNY Chancellor Goldstein had given strong backing to Pollard in the past.
Camille McIntosh, a student government officer and another organizer with Concerned Students of Medgar Evers College, said she and others went from classroom to classroom before the protest urging students to come out and make their voices heard.
“You can send out an e-mail or hand out a leaflet, but having personal, one-on-one conversations is more impactful,” said McIntosh.
Michael Chance, director of the campus Learning Center, said the students were right to be upset. Due to cuts to its budget and the loss of more than 90% of its grant funding since 2009, the learning center has had to cut back on its hours and the number of tutors it employs, Chance told Clarion.
“[Students] know when they are not getting good services,” Chance said. “That’s why they are protesting.”
The Learning Center, which offers tutoring to the 85% of MEC students who need academic skills support, needs more reserves, Chance said. “[Students] have the ability, but they need the support to keep on going.” Middle States officials have specifically criticized MEC’s administration for underfunding the Learning Center.
A number of protesting students were also vexed by an October 10 notice from the Bursar’s Office, notifying them that they were behind on tuition payments that were supposed to have been covered by financial aid. “This will drop me out of classes,” one student told Our Time Press after being told that she owed $961. But the MEC administration has not followed up on its demands for payment since the October 17 protest, and has offered no clear explanation for the snafu. “It just went away [and] students didn’t pay,” Byars said in December 2012.
In November 2012, the Chancellery sent a presidential review team to Medgar Evers to evaluate the work of President Pollard and his administration. The team’s charge was to hear from all the stakeholders in the school, but Cuffee says the process was compromised by the selection of its chair, Dr. Frank Pogue, who had hired MEC Provost Howard Johnson when Pogue was interim president of Chicago State University. Cuffee said there is no known deadline for the CUNY review team’s report, and it was unclear whether Chancellor Goldstein will make its findings public.
On December 1, Dr. Ellie Fogarty of the Middle States Commission, came to MEC and spoke at a meeting attended by about 75 faculty members and administrators, as well as CUNY Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Alexandra Logue. Two days later, at a meeting of MEC’s Faculty Senate, community leaders, such as Councilmembers Al Vann and Charles Barron and former US Rep. Major Owens, condemned Pollard and Johnson for putting the school’s future at risk.
“It’s not a situation to take lightly,” Crawford, the PSC chapter chair, told Clarion. “We’ve got a failed administration and they’re going to be gone. But we’ve got to make sure Medgar Evers keeps its accreditation.”