Lambert has work ahead as he takes over at PCC

2013-07-01T00:00:00Z 2014-08-05T11:04:01Z Lambert has work ahead as he takes over at PCCCarol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 01, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A famous scene from Greek mythology has been playing in Lee Lambert's head as he's pictured taking the helm of troubled Pima Community College.

In the literary classic Homer's "Odyssey," the hero, Odysseus, must steer a ship through a treacherous passage with monsters on both sides threatening to sink it.

There are casualties, but the hero gets through and eventually - with fierce persistence - makes it home.

"I'm like Odysseus going through the strait, proceeding very carefully through a narrow channel," said Lambert, 50, who starts work today as PCC's new chancellor.

A talent for navigating in troubled seas is likely to come in handy as the college faces one of the darkest periods in its 40-plus year history.

Lambert, a lawyer and former criminal prosecutor turned higher-education executive, inherits a school fighting for its life, plagued by problems so serious they recently landed PCC on probation with its accreditor.

PCC now has two years in which to clean up its act or risk losing accredited status. Loss of status would effectively put the school out of business since it could no longer offer federal aid and its credits couldn't be transferred to other schools.

A recent accreditor's investigation found a litany of shortcomings in PCC's administration and governance.

They included corrupt contracting practices, ethical failing by top executives and Governing Board members, and board mishandling of allegations against former Chancellor Roy Flores, who retired last year after eightwomen accused him of sexual harassment .

The school's problems began under Flores but continued after he left, the accreditor said - fueled in large part by members of his inner circle, most of whom still work at PCC.

Four Governing Board members faulted by the accreditor for shirking their oversight role also remain. The four - Brenda Even, David Longoria, Marty Cortez and Scott Stewart- face calls for resignations from faculty, students, business leaders and others but have refused to leave.

"One of the biggest challenges for Mr. Lambert as soon as he walks in the door is: 'Who in God's name can he trust?,' " said Carol Gorsuch, a retired PCC executive who has locked horns with the college over some of the problems the accreditor identified.

Mario Gonzales, head of a local taxpayer group that pushed for the investigation of PCC, agrees.

He predicted a wave of of "snow jobs and spin-doctoring" as insiders try to distance themselves from the accreditor's findings.

Lambert, who led two other schools before coming to PCC, said he's faced similar issues elsewhere.

"Anything Pima can throw at me, I've probably seen it before," he said, citing his background in the criminal-justice system. "When I used to prosecute cases, everybody said they were innocent. I have experience dealing with people who want you to believe a story that isn't so."

The new chancellor's challenges include:

• Internal resistance to change. One board member, Stewart, for example, recently voted against the accreditor's demand that PCC restore its longtime open-admission policy. Stewart said he doesn't believe the college should take all comers.

• A track record of downplaying problems. When PCC's accreditor started getting complaints, college officials initially responded that things were fine and blamed the news media and citizens' groups for stirring up trouble. Later, they acknowledged some, but not all, of the failings the accreditor identified.

• Poor morale. The accreditor found a "culture of fear and retribution" had infected PCC's workforce.

• Lingering ill will over sexual-harassment claims against Flores. The accreditor said female executives suffered job-related retaliation after spurning their top boss, but only one has received redress from the college, and then, only after she sued.

Lambert is due to meet next week with the other women to start making amends, but one of their key demands may not sit well with some at the college.

The women want PCC to come clean, publicly, about what happened to them, said former administrator Jacquelyn Jackson, one of the complainants.

Lambert has said personnel changes may be needed at PCC, though he doesn't intend to make them without careful consideration.

"My wish is to look for the best in people," he said. "But at the same time I recognize that's not how some people are."

He said he'll use the accreditor's findings as a road map as he gets his feet wet in his new role.

"It's not like I'm walking in to a situation where the problems are unknown," he said. "Change will happen. At this point, it's not a choice."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

On StarNet: Find more education and PCC news and resources at azstarnet.com/education

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