The Garden City Community College Board of Trustees held a special retreat Monday regarding the college’s status with the Higher Learning Commission

All trustees, GCCC President and Board Clerk Herbert Swender, Executive Assistant to the President Debbie Atkinson, GCCC Attorney Randy Grisell, Vice President of Administrative Services Emily Clouse and Vice President of Instruction and Student Services Ryan Ruda attended the retreat, which did not include a public comment section or an opportunity for action. Twenty-five GCCC employees and community members listened across the room.

Ruda, who has managed much of the college’s HLC preparations, led most of the discussion, walking the board through the college’s accreditation status, what college employees have done to rectify it and misconceptions that have emerged in wake of the report the Faculty Senate presented to the board last month.

The HLC placed GCCC on probation in June 2017 after the college failed to meet the institution's criteria for accreditation regarding its degree programs, quality of its education programs, student and program assessments and attention to program retention and completion rates, according to a public disclosure from the HLC.

In the disclosure, the HLC also said GCCC met but was lacking in its engagement with systemic and integrated planning, and systematic efforts to improve the college’s performance.

In light of student and parent calls asking trustees and administrators about the college’s accreditation, Ruda assured the board that, even while on probation, GCCC was fully accredited.

When a school does not fully meet HLC criteria, the institution can give it three sanctions: “on notice,” if the school meets criteria but with concerns, “probation,” if the school does not meet criteria, and “show-cause,” if the school is not meeting criteria to a severe extent, according to the commission’s website. If the HLC decides GCCC did not show necessary improvement in the areas outlined in its probation disclosure notice, there are several possible outcomes. The probation could be extended and evaluation processes repeated, the college could instead be placed on notice or the HLC may pursue other avenues.

Ruda said he, Dean of Institutional Effectiveness Jacquelyn Messinger and Dean of Academics Phil Terpstra had worked with faculty and staff members to address and improve on the criteria the college failed to meet or met with concerns. When Trustee Terri Worf asked how involved the faculty had been throughout the improvement processes, Ruda commended them.

“I’ve been here for 19 years and I would say I’ve never seen a faculty as engaged, as involved in the accreditation process as what I’ve had the last two years … The level of concern, the level of work they’ve been willing to put in is astonishing,” Ruda said.

He said the college had evaluated and reworked curriculum and begun implementing the program eWalkThrough to better review and set expectations for its programs. It revised syllabi templates and limited students’ hours in faster-paced accelerated classes to create more manageable learning environments and created a new, expansive and rotating structure for procedure reviews in academic and non-academic areas, Ruda said.

In June 2017, the HLC ordered GCCC to provide an assurance filing of detailed, data-driven evidence that would show the college has addressed the HLC’s concerns and now meets the institution's criteria. In this filing, Ruda will explain these measures and improvements. The filing is due before October 1, or eight weeks before the HLC’s on-site evaluation in November.

In June 2019, at the end of the HLC’s two-year probation period, the HLC Board of Trustees will decide whether GCCC has met necessary criteria and whether the probation will be lifted.

Ruda said he was confident that he, Terpstra, Messinger, and the faculty’s efforts had addressed the HLC’s concerns in the 2017 disclosure. However, in the wake of the Faculty Senate’ report, which the senate sent to the commission in May, he said he would be very surprised if the HLC did not bring up further concerns during their evaluations this year.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t say there are things, particularly in question to criterium two and criterium five, subsequent to the things that came out in the last two weeks,” Ruda said.

The college’s probationary status and the HLC’s upcoming evaluations were at the forefront of the Faculty Senate’s report. In the report, the Faculty Senate said GCCC’s HLC probation was a result of Swender’s disregard for and willful incompetence regarding HLC’s criteria and reviews.

Calling Swender out for bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment and retaliation against employees who stood up to him, the report ultimately called for Swender’s termination.

The report accuses Swender of halting program reviews and record-keeping methods that would help the college meet certain HLC criteria, and otherwise failing in his duties the report said would ensure GCCC’s accreditation. Due to Swender’s actions, and his alleged antagonistic leadership, the report predicts GCCC will lose its accreditation should he remain president.

Ruda said he expected the report’s accusations to conflict with the HLC’s criteria regarding integrity, ethics and responsible conduct, including transparency, honesty and freedom of expression across all college operations, and its criteria regarding planning and effectiveness, including effective and collaborative leadership structures.

On May 29, Swender released his first response to the report, including its assertions about HLC accreditation. In his statement, Swender said Ruda has checked in with him monthly to assure him the college is on schedule and that the report’s claims that Swender would instruct employees not to comply with HLC recommendations were false.

Ruda addressed several of the report’s key claims regarding Swender’s impact on the school’s HLC status. He said the HLC’s letter to Swender regarding the assurance filing had been sent to board members, a claim the report questioned.

In response to the allegation that Swender had directed employees to stop performing program reviews, Ruda said he had never received such a direction, and that reviews were still being carried out. He said the report’s assertion that the “HLC has made it very clear” that the college’s accreditation will be safe should Swender remain president did not align with the diplomatic and reserved conversations he had had with HLC representatives.

“I’m not saying they’re exaggerating by any means. The main thing I was trying to spell (out) is just what it is I had received back as far as information,” Ruda said.

Faculty Senate President Philip Hoke, who presented the report to the board, said he sincerely commended Messinger’s new program review structures, but that he stands by the issues described in the report. He said one former administrator had enforced program reviews, and they stopped happening for years after the administrator left the college.

“I wouldn’t say (Ruda’s comments) were accurate or misleading. I think it’s a little spin that’s coming into play...” Hoke said. “Where did the directive (to halt program reviews) come from? All of this starts at the top.”

A couple trustees said the HLC has issues of its own. Trustee Jeff Crist said he had heard that institution’s duties were spread thin and constrained, and as a result colleges under review did not have the chance to accurately express their qualities.

Worf said HLC evaluations are often inconsistent and unstable since they were often performed by different evaluators. Earlier, Worf and Trustee Merilyn Douglass were openly wary when Trustee Leonard Hitz made a similar criticism regarding the revolving door of GCCC leadership.

Worf said she hoped to have a team of more qualified HLC evaluators visit the school in November, and that she thought the team whose visit led to the college’s probation had been inexperienced and unqualified. Hoke said he had worked personally with the latter team and that he found them to be highly trained, knowledgeable and prepared.

“This is not just a random group of people who say ‘Oh yeah, I want a vacation to Garden City Community College.’ These are people who are trained in their academic disciplines, trained in educational processes and methodology overall and well-respected in their fields … To suggest that they’re unqualified is a huge insult to HLC,” Hoke said.

Douglass looked to the audience to express her appreciation for the college’s faculty and the extra hours they had dedicated to making the measures Ruda had discussed possible. During Douglass’ comment, she referred to Sheena Hernandez, the Faculty Senate’s most recent former president who has regularly updated the board on faculty matters for the past year, as “Ms. Henderson.” At the time, Douglass said she was unsure whether she had the name right.

Trustee Chair Steve Martinez said he felt good about Ruda’s report and that it would help him give a more confident answer to concerned parents asking whether they should send their children to GCCC.

After the meeting, a dozen GCCC employees and community members who have supported the Faculty Senate’s report discussed Ruda and the board’s comments. Hoke told the group that, in spite of the meeting’s optimistic tone, they had nothing to apologize for.


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly addressed what may happen if the HLC does not lift GCCC's probation next year. There are several possibilities, including an extended probation or on-notice sanction.