A 30-page report that details grave failings of Governing Board members and administrators at Pima Community College contains "misstatements and errors of fact" that the college intends to challenge, according to a top official said to be complicit in the violations.
Interim Chancellor Suzanne Miles said in an email to PCC personnel late Monday that the college will respond by March 29 to the findings of its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, which is poised to put the school on probation over a litany of shortcomings identified by investigators the commission recently sent to Tucson.
If changes aren't made to the commission's satisfaction, PCC eventually could be stripped of accreditation, making its degrees virtually worthless and its students ineligible for federal aid.
Miles' email, co-signed by Governing Board chairwoman Brenda Even, followed 48 hours of official silence over the report's contents, which the board viewed in a closed-door meeting Saturday without public comment.
The board's next regular meeting is Wednesday, and the report is not on the agenda for discussion.
Miles' email doesn't say which of the report's facts are wrong in her view. Longtime board members, who also are implicated in the college's problems, declined comment or did not respond when contacted by the Arizona Daily Star.
Local experts in higher education say the college's best bet at this point is to own up to problems and take concrete remedial action - such as replacing inept senior personnel - rather than trying to convince the commission that a team of seasoned investigators got it wrong.
"Denial is a natural reaction when people are caught" in wrongdoing, said Gary Rhoades, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona.
"But at some point reality sets in, and I'm hoping that point is very soon for Pima because this is a very serious situation. It's not something they can PR their way out of."
Jane Robbins, who teaches corporate and professional ethics and other subjects at UA's Eller College of Management, called the report "shocking" and likened PCC's problems to a "cancer" that could kill the college if not effectively treated.
"They have all the classic symptoms of a toxic organization that is in very deep trouble," Robbins said. "It's clear that the governing and administrative structures have broken down."
The report from the Chicago-based commission said the college's board, its former chancellor, Roy Flores, and its current senior administrators committed "serious breaches" of the ethical conduct expected of people in those positions.
It said PCC's problems include corrupt hiring and contracting practices, unauthorized changes to college admission rules, a "culture of fear and retribution" created by abusive administrators, and a "dysfunctional" Board of Governors that failed to watch over college operations.
While the problems developed under Flores, they've continued under Miles' leadership as interim chancellor, the report said.
It said the board ignored, for at least three years, early indications that Flores was sexually harassing female personnel and threatening other employees in angry outbursts sometimes laced with profanity.
Investigators found it "highly unlikely" that Miles, Flores' second-in-command, didn't know about such behavior.
Flores resigned last year after eight women came forward internally to accuse him of sexual harassment.
Flores and the board have always maintained publicly that he left for "health reasons," but the accreditor's report said that wasn't entirely true. Though he had health problems, the harassment allegations were a big part of why he left when he did, it said.
The report also said PCC's board has been abusing its closed-door executive sessions - intended to allow for private discussions of legal or personnel matters - by discussing other matters, such as financial problems or errors, during those sessions rather than disclosing them to the public.
"Past actions of the board indicate that secrecy and protection of individuals is more important than transparency and a willingness to deal openly with difficult and sometimes embarrassing situations," it said.
Robbins, of UA, said PCC could take steps to restore credibility by hiring a consultant who specializes in turning around troubled organizations.
"At this point, I don't think they can do it alone," she said. "They need someone who understands how organizations work to come in and get rid of people and get new people in and get things running like they're supposed to."
Rhoades, director of the UA's Center for the Study of Higher Education, said a new PCC chancellor with the right qualifications could right the ship without a consultant's help, provided the board is "willing to look in the mirror and do things differently."
Despite its problems, the college is a great asset to Tucson and has a crucial role in improving the state's economic prospects, Rhoades said.
"You can protest and deny all you want, but at the end of the day they have to change. If they don't, they will have ruined the institution."
On StarNet: Read the full text of Suzanne Miles' email to PCC employees at azstarnet.com/education
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4138.