Following two years of preparation and practices shifts, the Higher Learning Commission lifted its probation on Garden City Community College’s accreditation Wednesday, bringing to close a two-year process of preparation and policy shifts at the college.

Following a campus visit in October 2016, the HLC placed GCCC on probation for not meeting the institution's criteria for accreditation. Since then, staff have moved through a series of HLC evaluation processes, rethinking and altering practices in order to once again fall in step with regulations. GCCC has remained accredited throughout the evaluation process. Finally, that process is complete.

“This has been a group effort and included all faculty, staff and administration — the hands-on working stakeholders of the college,” Jacque Messinger, accreditation liaison for the college throughout the HLC evaluation, said in a press release. “We continuously strive for improvement in our procedures and processes … This removal of probationary sanction is a testament to the quality of hard-working professionals we employ who serve as the community’s stewards of the college.”

According to the probation sanction set in June 2017, GCCC failed to meet criteria regarding its degree programs, the quality of its education programs, student and program assessments and attention to program retention and completion rates, and was lacking in its engagement with systemic and integrated planning, and systematic efforts to improve the college’s performance.

The sanction was at the heart of a report the GCCC Faculty Senate presented to the Board of Trustees in May 2018 calling for the removal of former college president Herbert Swender.

The report claimed the HLC probation was a result of Swender’s actions and willful disregard for the accrediting institution, accusing the former president of halting necessary program reviews and record-keeping methods and otherwise failing in his duties as president. Senate members claimed in the report that if Swender stayed, GCCC would lose its accreditation.

In a statement in the weeks following, Swender said then-Vice President of Instruction and Student Services Ryan Ruda checked in with him monthly about the college’s progress and that he did not instruct employees not to comply with HLC recommendations. While Faculty Senate Phil Hoke asserted that program reviews had not been carried out prior to the sanction, Ruda said at the time that Swender never directed him to cease the practice.

Swender exited the college in a mutual agreement in August 2018 and was ultimately succeeded by Ruda.

After the infraction, college staff submitted data-driven documents to the HLC detailing its improvements in the categories connected to the probation. Employees streamlined practices and processes, including a revamped program review system, and developing a strategic plan that established a long-term vision for the college, Ruda said. All departments and programs, academic and non-academic, were reviewed and the changes are already making a difference, he said.

“Even though we had processes in place, they weren’t to the level and weren’t to the rigor of what we needed to have as far as with strategic planning, but also with our academic review process. So, we put a significant amount of work in…” Ruda said.

“We were looking at everything from satisfaction with the departments to student success within the academic programs, graduation rates — a lot of variables and a lot of factors that we’re taking a look at there just to be able to look at success, vitality, improvements that can be made in the programs going forward.”

The HLC also accepted public comments from community members to consider when making their final decision.

In November, an HLC site visit team made up of members of two-year higher learning institutions outside of Kansas visited GCCC to meet with the Board of Trustees, faculty members, administrators and students.

HLC Vice President and Staff Liaison Eric Martin accompanied the team and noted on the visit that college employees were working very hard. Ruda later told the GCCC Board of Trustees that the site team had been very complimentary of faculty and staff members’ work during their visit.

After the site visit, administrators stood before the HLC’s Institutional Actions Council in April to review the site team’s report. The HLC Board of Trustees made the decision to lift the probation at their meeting on June 27.

GCCC will now re-enter a normal HLC evaluation cycle, with its next site visit scheduled for the 2022-23 school year.

Maintaining that progress will be a team effort with individual accountability moving forward, Ruda said. Messinger, who came to the college in September 2017, is now in place to offer more consistent oversight to the accreditation process, and GCCC administration can offer regular meetings with departments and open lines of communication regarding the expectations, requirements and systems needed to meet accreditation criteria.

“Everybody has ownership here at the college. Everybody understands the importance of accreditation,” Ruda said.


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