The man leading Pima Community College through perhaps the most troubled time in its history has used many metaphors to describe the school during his first year at the helm.
Chancellor Lee Lambert has likened the college to a bus without wheels, to an aircraft being flown while it’s still being built, and to an iceberg of problems with only the tip showing.
Tuesday marks his one-year anniversary in PCC’s top job, a period in which the school has faced one controversy after another at the same time it’s trying to shed a probation sanction imposed by its accreditor.
Looking back, Lambert said he didn’t fully grasp the extent of the Pima’s problems when he arrived.
Still, he has no regrets about leaving the Seattle area to come to Tucson.
Despite everything, “there’s a lot of good here,” Lambert said in a recent meeting with the Arizona Daily Star’s editorial board.
“The wheels are back on the bus,” he added, his current metaphor for numerous corrective efforts now underway.
PCC’s accreditor will decide in another six months or so whether fixes are sufficient to take the college off probation.
Since Lambert’s arrival, the college has fired, retired or otherwise cut ties with a dozen administrators, including two campus presidents, a vice president, the dean of nursing, the campus police chief and the school psychologist.
Close to $300,000 has been spent on payoffs to some who left, public records obtained by the Star show.
They include the former Downtown Campus President Luba Chliwniak and Vice President Jerry Haynes who received $123,000 and $86,000, respectively; $44,000 paid to former Nursing Dean Marty Mayhew, and $31,000 to former Psychologist James Sanchez.
At the same time, hundreds of employees and numerous consultants have been working to correct the problems that led to probation.
PCC now has a new citizens committee overseeing its finances, a soon-to-open complaints department, updated board policies to replace decades-old versions, and a new focus on sexual harassment prevention.
Most of the school’s Governing Board members, faulted by the accreditor as lax and “dysfunctional,” remain in office but have taken training to try to be more effective.
Employee morale is an ongoing problem, Lambert acknowledged. Work is underway to change that but it may take years to undo the damage wrought by the “abrasive” leadership style of former Chancellor Roy Flores, he said.
“I want to really look at the issue of bullying,” Lambert said of his plans for the future.
“There’s a lot of abrasive conduct occurring at multiple levels of the organization,” such as eye-rolling during meetings or critiques that are harsh instead of helpful.
“That was the culture the (previous) chancellor set and others became abrasive in order to survive.”
In addition, he said, the college still suffers from the faulty hiring practices of Flores, who often paid little heed to employee qualifications.
Flores left the college in 2012 after eight women accused him of sexual harassment.
“There are unfortunately a number of employees, not just at the leadership level, who don’t have the competencies for what they do,” Lambert said.
Flores “promoted people without regard to their knowledge, skills and abilities,” he said.
Another issue that surfaced this year is the crucial need for upgrades to programs such as auto mechanics and welding, which use outdated methods of little value to local employers, he said.
Regina Suitt, PCC’s dean of adult education, said “the college is moving in the right direction” under Lambert’s guidance.
“He has the right heart to do this work because he really cares about students. He wants us all to put students first,” she said.
Lambert said he’s pleasantly surprised by the amount of goodwill PCC still has among Tucsonans despite its problems.
“The good news is that people really care about the college,” he said.
He believes the school will emerge from probation stronger than ever.
“I came here because the college is on probation. Probation is not a negative; it’s a chance to change and do better,” he said.
“When you look at what we’ve already accomplished this past year, I think it’s pretty phenomenal.”