Real collaboration preferred over ‘Together we WASC’ Chico State's accreditation push ignores woes, distant administration

by Tony Waters

“Together we WASC” has been the tagline coming from the Chico State administration in recent months. It is even featured at the bottom of some emails.

photo courtesy of Tony Waters

This refers to the accreditation process of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a private organization from Oakland, which is given the right to accredit all schools and colleges in the western United States by the U.S. Department of Education. Everything from Stanford University to universities in the South Pacific to secondary schools in Myanmar are reviewed.

Subjects covered range from engineering to theology. The schools are public, private for-profit, and private not-for-profit. All seek WASC’s imprimatur because it awards legitimacy in the eyes of students and donors. And most importantly to universities like Chico State, federal grant makers and federal student loan programs demand WASC accreditation. But very few are denied, or even put on probation.

photo by Tony Waters

For a major public university like Chico State, this should be a pro forma matter, which large well-established universities are well-equipped to deal with, with or without the PR effort making the word “WASC” into a verb. It simply involves an 80-page “self-report” and a three-day visit from a “WASC team” every 10 years.

The self-report, full of “educationese” jargon, is prepared by a well-paid administrator (or consultant) in a fashion that makes the current administration look good. It has the length of a master’s thesis, without, fortunately for the university, the rigor of anonymous peer review. The report repeats the vague goals of WASC for things like “student achievement,” however defined, “diversity” however counted, and a series of vaguer goals having to do with “educational effectiveness,” whatever that is.

The WASC team, whose identities are not available on Chico State’s website, received the 80-page report last September, met one day to ask some questions, and will come to Chico State for the first time on March 5-7 to “review the campus.” The inspection is done with a pomp associated with Queen Elizabeth reviewing the troops on a state visit to Australia, and each reviewer is tipped by Chico State with an “honorarium” of a few thousand dollars for their trouble. Fawning administrators will protect them from disgruntled students or faculty, and they will be housed in the executive suites at the best hotel in Chico (probably the Hotel Diamond!), where, after being wined and dined at university expense, they will decide to re-certify Chico State, just like they do various fly-by-night colleges and trade schools.

So just how did “WASC” become not only a verb as in “Together we WASC”? As is usual with such things, the message is in what is left out of the report. In the case of Chico State, the PR game is in my view a way of diverting campus and WASC attention away from serious problems at the university. In fact, Chico State went through a faculty revolt in December 2015 when the Academic Senate voted “no confidence” in the then-president and two vice-presidents because of mismanagement of business practices, opaque criteria for awarding raises, and a reluctance to hire new teaching staff — all while accepting more students. It is not clear from the WASC report whether these issues were addressed, much less identified for the reviewers, even though the three administrators cited by the no confidence resolution left the university within seven months, including the vice president for business who departed with a lucrative severance deal. A new president was in place by summer 2016, and new vice presidents were finally on the job only a year or two later.

What were the issues left out of the report? Following are a few of them. (If any of the reviewers read, perhaps they might raise some of these issues. I have written about how the glamorization of Chico State detracts from a broader world, and there has been ChicoSol coverage of my view that the university has been “in retreat” on internationalism, including foreign-language acquisition by its students.)

  • Class sizes, and the number of “class preps” faculty assigned continue to rise because the practice of admitting more students without hiring more faculty continues. On a personal level, I’ve watched my “teaching load” go from about 90 students a semester across three sections of classes seven or eight years ago, to 130-140 across four sections in 2018. Last semester every single “prep” was a different class, including one that I had not taught before. And guess what? What I can do for each student is less; in other words, teaching quality declines, even as the “efficiency” goes up because I teach more students. This is because Chico State uses a “Full Time Equivalent Student (FTES)” budget model to judge faculty efficiency, rather than considering pedagogy, course rigor, instructor interaction with students, or class quality as the measure of success.
  • At lower levels of the university, the larger classes are more and more being assigned to lecturers on temporary contracts, who have little role in curricular planning, governance or the design of the courses. Lack of employment security means that lecturers usually keep pretty quiet when asked their “opinion” regarding concerns about class size or current university policies. They also necessarily trend toward machine-graded multiple choice tests prepared by publishing companies, and away from the personalized academic interaction between faculty and students Chico State claims to value.
  • Staff and lecturer turnover seems higher in recent years. My department has had a revolving door for administrative staff in the context of low pay and poor working conditions — probably seven or eight permanent and temporary Administrative Support Coordinators (ASC) have cycled through since about 2014. Ironically, this is happening as even more higher-level administrators are hired on a temporary “interim” contract so they too can be fired easily. This keeps many employees chronically on the job market because they fear for their jobs at Chico State.
  • Professors are hired by Chico State with the expectation of doing “research.” In fact rigorous research is required of tenure track faculty if they are to stay in their jobs and get the security of employment that is tenure. Despite this, there is no time permitted in the normal faculty contract for research. This happens because the administration insists on an 80 percent teaching load (i.e., four classes) and a 20 percent “service” load. Service involves attending meetings, filling out more and more reports about teaching, and attending the administration’s favorite workshops about teaching methods. Thus, there will be no faculty time assigned to study the consequences of things like the Camp Fire, even as UC Davis has moved in to fill the void.
  • The Business and Finance Office at Chico State has developed a reputation for nickel and diming faculty and staff for reimbursements when they put out their own money. I know I was nicked for a promised $390 last year when forms were not submitted in the right order. Other projects are never undertaken because faculty and staff are unwilling to risk personally the wrath of Business and Finance, which has a long-term reputation for vetoing at the last minute anything “outside the box” as being incompatible with complicated accounting procedures, or, worst of all, a risk of being sued. The result is low morale, and outside-the-box ideas are shelved before even being tried.
  • photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

    So why aren’t these issues in the WASC Self-Study Report? Or any other report? This goes back to the administrative style at Chico State, which values compliance with the vague WASC accreditation standards (WASCing!) over addressing issues raised by faculty and staff. This is symptomatic of the problems at Chico State between an administration that continues to be distant from the campus. That is the message WASC needs to hear. “Together we WASC?” No thanks, WASC is really not a good verb. I would rather see that “together we collaborate,” and I would hope that WASC would too.

    The doors to Kendall Hall have been locked for the last two years or so because of some type of “risk” that administrators have, and apparently professors and students do not—only the one front door is now open for the public. Perhaps a good way to do this would be to unlock the doors to Kendall Hall where the administrators are writing reports, so that faculty and students again have open access, and the problems addressed in the Academic Senate’s “no confidence” resolutions of December 2015 can finally be addressed.

    Tony Waters has taught at Chico State since 1996. In 2010-2011, he was awarded the Professor of the Year award by the university’s Academic Senate. Waters is the author of eight academic books, including books about bureaucratic behavior and the sociology of education. He is currently on leave in Thailand.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *