Crucial week ahead for COD amid accreditation, state Senate probes
An accreditation team will visit the College of DuPage next week seeking answers to questions critics have raised about some of the Glen Ellyn-based school's administrative practices.
The three-person evaluation team from the Higher Learning Commission is scheduled to be on the campus of the state's largest community college Tuesday and Wednesday to determine if it still meets all 21 criteria required for accreditation.
As part of its probe, members of the agency will meet face to face with COD administrators, elected officials and faculty members -- some of whom have been openly critical of the way the school operated before the spring election brought a new majority to the elected board of trustees.
Maintaining its accreditation is key to COD's future, officials have said. If the college loses it, students could find it difficult to transfer credits to other institutions and the value of their degrees could be called into question. The college itself could find itself in jeopardy of losing its eligibility for financial aid programs.
COD board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton said next week also is a crucial one for the school because the state Senate is holding hearings Monday to determine "what the state of Illinois should learn from the improprieties here."
The commission was expected to renew COD's accreditation for an eight-year period after giving the school glowing reviews last October. But as questions about COD's administration spread to the state legislature and sparked both state and federal probes, the commission informed officials it would do an on-site evaluation to seek explanations specifically related to a half-dozen stories that appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
In May, the commission -- which accredits more than 1,000 colleges and universities in 19 states -- announced it wanted to examine the school in person before granting the reaccreditation that once appeared to be a sure thing.
A letter mailed by the commission to COD officials said the on-site visit was prompted by, among other things, media reports about taxpayer dollars being spent on meals and alcohol at the high-end Waterleaf restaurant, a college radio employee accused of stealing $100,000 and members of the COD Foundation board doing business with the school while making donations.
The commission has a policy that allows for the re-examination of an institution when it is undergoing "serious legal, financial or ethical investigations."
A visit originally was scheduled for June 29 and 30, but it was canceled after a member of the three-person evaluation team dropped out. Jackson College President Daniel Phelan left the team a day after the Edgar County Watchdogs -- a downstate group that has been critical of COD -- reported he received a vote of no confidence at his own school in 2014.
Commission spokesman John Hausaman on Friday would not reveal who is part of the new evaluation team, but he did confirm the group is coming next week.
Hamilton and other officials said they welcome the visit from the commission. During Thursday's COD board meeting, Hamilton said she believes the commission already knows education at College of DuPage is "first rate."
"The commission also knows that thanks to lawyers, accountants, investigators and full cooperation with law enforcement, COD is doing everything it can to piece together what happened and how," she said. "So I think the commission is coming to look at us -- us, as in the board. The commission is coming to see for itself if this board is up to the task of turning around this college administration, ending the (President Robert) Breuder culture and building a new culture that will in time attract a first-class permanent president."
COD trustees placed Breuder on paid leave this spring in the aftermath of questions about his leadership style and decisions and banned him from campus. Two of the school's top finance officials also have been placed on paid leave.
Hamilton, a longtime opponent of Breuder, has said he needed to be placed on administrative leave because of the ongoing state and federal investigations and to eliminate his influence on the administration.
Hamilton said the board will build a new administrative culture by stabilizing the college, building a new relationship with faculty, opening the college to a Blue Ribbon transition team, respecting taxpayers and continuously looking for ways to improve.
"When the state Senate and the Higher Learning Commission get through the next week," she said, "I hope both have learned that the new board at COD is dedicated to an education vision on sound administration and strong finances, and that every trustee has a productive, constructive role to play in getting us from these scandals to that vision."
Board member Frank Napolitano said he believes the commission will find the school has corrected any questionable administrative practices and, from an educational standpoint, "we're doing a lot of great things in and around the college."
"I look forward to it," he said. "I believe it will be a positive visit."