COD leaders respond to scathing accreditation report
College of DuPage officials defended themselves Monday in the wake of an accreditation agency's frequently scathing report that raises questions about the actions of the school's administration and its board of trustees -- both before and after the April election.
The 45-page report by the Higher Learning Commission was released Friday, the same day a special COD board meeting was called for today to fire COD President Robert Breuder, who has been on paid administrative leave since spring.
The report cited numerous "integrity" concerns under Breuder's watch, such as dining and drinking at the college's high-end restaurant, awarding of no-bid contracts and making bad investments. It also suggests a dysfunctional board bickers while its leader micromanages or bypasses the college administration.
Board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton, who gained control of the board in April when three of her political allies were elected, didn't dispute the HLC's findings that she's taken a "hands on" approach.
"It's our responsibility to set the college on the right course," Hamilton said. "We absolutely had to be hands on. We were elected to safeguard the (school's) assets, and what goes on at the college is our responsibility."
She said the board won't be as closely involved once more of its reforms take effect.
And the school's acting interim president, Joseph Collins, backed away from comments he made to commission members who visited the Glen Ellyn campus in July that suggested Hamilton was "micromanaging" the college.
"The situation referred to as 'micromanaging' has improved considerably as both the chairman and I have developed a stronger working relationship," he said in a written statement Monday. "I regret the comments I made to the HLC reviewers, as they are not reflective of the reality at the college today."
The commission is considering putting COD on probation -- or giving the school a lesser sanction of "notice" -- because the college failed to meet accreditation standards related to issues of "integrity" and "effectiveness of administration and governance." Neither action would immediately affect the school's accreditation.
According to the report, these red flags were raised concerning integrity issues:
• A former employee of campus radio station WDCB was accused of stealing more than $200,000 from the college.
• Breuder and other administrators charged alcohol expenses, often in violation of board and administrative policy, at the college's Waterleaf restaurant, which has since been closed.
• Contracts were awarded to vendors whose owners or employees serve as members of the COD Foundation board.
• COD lost $2.2 million in its investment portfolio, which had "several areas of noncompliance, including exceeding the limits of specific types of investments." Two employees were fired over this revelation.
• Some audit reports pointing to ethical violations were ignored.
COD trustees have since launched internal investigations and adopted new policies in response to those controversies. But the Higher Learning Commission says there isn't "sufficient evidence to show such actions have resulted in moving the college forward."
Hamilton, however, said she's confident steps already taken -- along with other planned changes -- will prevent future problems. For example, COD will restructure its finance department and hire an administrator who is a certified public accountant, she said. The school also plans to hire money managers to ensure its investment decisions comply with all guidelines.
The report also questions the effectiveness of the board and administration's leadership. The commission noted that the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy almost doubled the credits awarded to students without changing the curriculum or increasing instructional time. This was done without faculty input.
The evaluation team also directs some criticism at the current board.
"The board of trustees has not yet balanced its role as a governing body against the role of the administration (and other entities tied to the college) in handling the day-to-day management of the college," the evaluation team wrote.
The evaluation team said its review of COD board meetings found instances where "rules of order and decorum appear to be replaced with what students, faculty and community members have publicly stated as, among other things, 'bickering' and unproductive behavior."
Collins told HLC representatives that "minority" board members are inconsistently provided information. This perception prompted two minority board members in July to file Freedom of Information Act requests for financial records.
Hamilton said efforts have since been made to ensure all trustees get access to information. She pointed to how the entire board was able to review evidence the school has collected that supports the recommendation to fire Breuder. She's also hoping to bring peace to the board.
"I'm really trying to have people get along better," Hamilton said.
With respect to the delegation of day-to-day management, the Higher Learning Commission found the administration's role under the new board "is questionable."
Collins told the accreditation team the board is quite "hands on" in connection with the college's operations. He also originally said Hamilton is "micromanaging" and calls him "very often" with instructions.
"Given the problems at the college, a little micromanaging is not really a bad thing," Hamilton said on Monday.
She said she's surprised the report indicated she directed Collins to hire Chris Robling, whom the commission said is "connected" to Hamilton and helped the three new trustees get elected. Robling holds the temporary part-time position of "assistant to the president for institutional and transition affairs."
"Chris offered to run a transition team; he volunteers his time," said Hamilton, adding that Robling donates his salary from the college to the COD Foundation.
Institutions placed on probation must host a comprehensive evaluation visit within two years from the date of the sanction to demonstrate they meet all 21 criteria for accreditation. At that time, the commission determines whether the school will continue to be accredited.
If COD were to lose its accreditation, the school's students could find it difficult to transfer credits to other institutions. It also could affect the college's ability to participate in financial aid programs.
The commission has given COD until Oct. 29 to respond to its report. But the school has requested a 60-day extension.