ACC Scrambles for Staff

The college's accreditation troubles leave students without teachers

Austin Community College administrators spent the first week of classes filling the remaining staffing gaps left after the college told 215 adjunct faculty in April they were unqualified to teach this fall. But administrators insist that they did not allow their scramble to fill sections – some of which still lacked teachers as late as Friday (four days after the start of the semester) – to affect the college's 29,000 students.

"We have a few sections that we have not been able to hire faculty for yet," said Donetta Goodall, ACC's associate vice president for academic affairs, at the end of the week. "But we tend to have a few sections every semester that we don't have a sufficient number of faculty for, so it's not unusual at all." Goodall said they covered the gaps the way they always do, by asking other teachers to fill in for the first week, and that the only "core transfer area" (academic courses for those seeking a four-year degree) that had permanently lost sections for lack of instructors was biology.

"It was the usual beginning-of-the-semester craziness," said Tim Altanero, a full-time professor of foreign languages. "ACC has a lot of adjuncts, a lot of classes, and a lot of campuses." But what is unusual is the source of the staffing gaps. The 215 adjuncts (part-time faculty) lost their fall appointments as part of ACC's efforts to keep their accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which warned ACC last year that too many of its teachers lacked proper credentials. (Administrators say these teachers weren't "fired," because they're welcome back as soon as their credentials are in order.) By that, SACS means they lack 18 hours of graduate coursework in the area they teach – a seemingly benign requirement rendered absurd by narrow definitions of "area." For example, someone with a Ph.D. in biology cannot teach an anatomy course, even though anatomy is foundational to any biology program.

Altanero, who will teach an extra course this fall because of a vacancy that wasn't filled in time, was one of the affected teachers. He learned in the spring that he was no longer qualified to teach his regular technical writing course. "I don't have a Ph.D. in technical writing," he said. "I don't know that anyone does."

Because Altanero is a full-time employee, ACC found him another appointment teaching Spanish and German (his graduate degrees are in Latin American studies, Germanic languages, and sociolinguistics). All full-timers with credentials issues were reassigned or given administrative duties until they can straighten out their transcripts. For part-timers, it's another story: they are out of a job until they earn their 18 hours.

Some were able to do so, such as the real estate instructors, licensed agents with degrees in fields like history or business, who earned associate's degrees in real estate over the summer. But since ACC did not inform many affected teachers of their status until this spring, many couldn't afford, or schedule, the necessary courses over the summer. "We had a lawyer who was teaching accounting, who had a CPA but didn't have a degree in accounting," said Val Cantu, dean of business studies. "We lost him."

In filling their vacancies, ACC made sure all new hires fit SACS requirements down to the letter – which is why, Goodall said, it took so long to fill many of the positions. "We wouldn't offer an assignment until we had the transcripts in our hands," she said. Of course, whether recent graduates with little experience but the right words on their transcripts are really more qualified than those with years of professional and teaching experience is a matter open to debate.

Still, Cantu argues that if the alternative is losing accreditation, this is a fair sacrifice to make. "This is important for us, for the institution, and for the students," he said. "We're not taking any chances."

A SACS team will review the college Sept. 8-10, not only to quibble about credentials, but to ensure that its other fundamental questions of good governance – such as a history of micro-management by some of the college's trustees and poor relations between the administration and the rest of the college – have been answered.

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Austin Community College, ACC, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, SACS, accreditation, adjunct faculty

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