Critics now defending College of DuPage
Critics of COD's administration don't want problems to block accreditation
After nearly a year of questioning the administration and calling for independent probes and sweeping reforms, some of College of DuPage's harshest critics may find themselves defending the school this week to ensure it retains its accreditation.
Representatives of the Higher Learning Commission are scheduled to spend Monday and Tuesday on the school's Glen Ellyn campus investigating claims of wrongdoing at the state's largest community college and determining if it still meets all 21 criteria required for accreditation.
As part of that probe, members of the agency will meet face-to-face with COD administrators, elected officials and faculty members -- several of whom have been vocal in their criticism of the way the school operated before this spring's election.
The inquiry was sparked by newspaper accounts raising questions about, among other things, no-bid contracts for insiders and administrators allegedly wining and dining at the school's upscale Waterleaf restaurant.
Some of those questions were fueled in part by board member Kathy Hamilton and the school's teachers union -- both longtime critics of COD President Robert Breuder, who was placed on paid leave this spring and banned from campus.
The concerns over COD's administrative practices -- and calls for reform -- played a key role in helping Hamilton get three allies elected to the board of trustees in April and her selection as its chairwoman.
Since being seated in early May, the new board majority has raised even more questions and placed two of the school's top financial administrators on leave amid questions involving their investment practices.
That turmoil prompted the Higher Learning Commission -- one of six regional accreditation agencies in the country -- to re-examine its accreditation of the school.
The commission was expected to renew COD's accreditation for an eight-year period after giving the school a glowing review last October.
But as questions about COD's operation spread to the state legislature and sparked both state and federal probes, the commission informed the school it would do an on-site evaluation to seek explanations related to a half-dozen stories that appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
In a May 5 letter to Breuder and Executive Vice President Joseph Collins, who is now COD's acting interim president, Higher Learning Commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley said information in media reports "calls into question" whether COD continues to meet the criteria for accreditation by the Chicago-based organization.
Until Higher Learning Commission officials make a site visit and report their findings, she said, the college's pending reaccreditation has been put on hold.
Loss of accreditation would be a crushing blow for COD and its roughly 29,500 students.
"The result would be the students wouldn't be attending an accredited school," said John Hausaman, spokesman for the Higher Learning Commission. "It could be difficult for them to transfer credits to other institutions and to have legitimate degrees. It could have impacts on the participation of financial aid programs as well."
Collins, Hamilton and union President Glenn Hansen told the Daily Herald's Editorial Board they're confident COD will maintain its accreditation.
"It should not be in question," Hansen said. "We are solid. There's never been a question about what we do academically and that's really at the heart of our accreditation."
The school has prepared a lengthy written response to the commission's questions, Collins told the Daily Herald.
He also said he will tell commissioners the media reports that caught their attention were "exaggerated."
"I think they've all been greatly sensationalized in the media ..." Collins said. "The fact that those stories are now possibly going to impact our accreditation status is very troubling to me."
Hamilton and Hansen say they firmly believe COD should retain its accreditation. But they were frequently quoted in media accounts, including those in the Daily Herald, criticizing the former administration and board of trustees and calling for change.
Hamilton stressed the college's responses to the commission will be based on facts -- not opinions.
"Any kind of interpretation on my part or on Dr. Collins' part is not in that response," Hamilton said. "We are just providing facts."
Hansen, meanwhile, said he doesn't see the faculty union backing away from anything it has said or done. In fact, he said, he expects faculty members to "speak their minds" when they have a group session with commission representatives.
"What has happened is there," Hansen said. "It will be out in the open for them to hear and for them to decide what they're going to do about it."
As for what prompted the on-site evaluation, Gellman-Danley's May 5 letter specifically refers to several news stories. The articles dealt with:
• Allegations college administrators and board members spent taxpayer dollars on meals and alcohol at the Waterleaf restaurant;
• The college paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to Herricane Graphics as part of two no-bid contracts that repeatedly refer to the company's owner as an architect, even though she isn't licensed to be one;
• Members of the COD Foundation board who have done business with the school while at the same time making donations;
• The Suburban Law Enforcement Academy increasing the award of credits to students in its program from 13 to 22 credit hours without changing the curriculum or increasing instructional time;
• A former WDCB campus radio station employee accused of stealing more than $100,000 from the college.
When it comes to the Waterleaf, COD officials plan to explain that administrators used the restaurant mostly for business lunches, entertaining, community nights and faculty lunches, Collins said.
He said the school has a policy that allows for an employee to be taken to lunch on his or her 10th anniversary and that Breuder suggested such lunches occur at the Waterleaf instead of a restaurant off campus.
"So a lot of those expenses that are portrayed as wining and dining are really what you would think of as normal business expenses for the college," Collins said.
Collins acknowledges there might have been "some questionable usage" of the Waterleaf, but said media reports were "exaggerated based on what the reality was."
As for the awarding of no-bid contracts, the college plans to show the state allows such deals in certain situations and COD followed the law and its own policies.
Collins said the college also did nothing illegal when it allowed foundation board members to do business with the college.
"What we do is what almost everyone does with their foundation," said Collins, adding that COD has policies in place to prevent "pay for play."
"If they (the Higher Learning Commission) think that we did something wrong, they'll let us know," he said. "But I don't think they're going to say that."
That doesn't mean COD's existing policies won't be revised.
Hamilton said she expects the board to re-examine the relationship between the foundation and the college.
"The structure that has been in place between the foundation and the college hasn't been well defined," Hamilton said. "If we have more definition, we'll be able to provide assurances to the community ... so they know that what we're doing is beyond reproach."
When asked about the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy increasing credits, Collins said that was done only after the academy learned other police academies in the state award 22 to 24 credits for the same amount of instructional time.
"A very appropriate process occurred," he said, while admitting the faculty wasn't involved in the decision.
As for the theft from the radio station, Collins said he plans to show the accreditation team the results of an internal probe that found high-ranking COD officials weren't immediately made aware of the criminal history of the former part-time employee charged with stealing the money. When top administrators were made aware of problems at the station, the report says, they acted quickly.
Hamilton, however, has said it was "very clear" in 2011 that there were "suspicious activities" at the radio station -- activities that she claims weren't followed up on appropriately. She also has said she does not accept or agree with the results of the internal probe.
Still, Hamilton said she, Collins and Hansen are all on the same page when it comes to securing reaccreditation for COD.
"A lot of those articles were political," Hamilton said. "But what we have at stake here at this college is the academics. The College of DuPage is the jewel of education here in DuPage County.
"So we are here today to defend the college," she said. "Whether or not we disagree with something in a report here and there is not relevant. And it's not relevant in the responses to the Higher Learning Commission."