Yesterday’s NMSU regents meeting mainly addressed the issue of DACC’s loss of accreditation. There were sensible questions and comments by Javier Gonzales, Ike Pino, and Christopher Dulany; and sobering comments by students and nursing professionals. Dr. Margie Huerta, DACC president, made a weak presentation mixing defensiveness about the past, optimism about the effects of current efforts, and implicit denial of responsibility; she was misled by the accrediting agency. Dr. Barbara Couture, NMSU president, made a stronger statement nonetheless disclosing lapses in judgment in her leadership approach; she was not informed by Huerta.
Huerta would have everyone believe that she was blindsided by NLNAC’s withdrawal of accreditation. Indeed, she reported her impression that the site visitors had been impressed by what they saw and pleased with DACC's efforts to remedy “historical issues.” Her April letter to students is a glowing report of NLNAC satisfaction. However, so a credible nursing student told me, the faculty received a briefing to the contrary. Thus, students heard only second-hand reports about the possible loss of accreditation, with no any explanation of what it would mean to them. I doubt that these inconsistent reports reflect any inconsistencies in NLNAC’s accreditation review process and outcome. I doubt that NLNAC site visitors first gave an overall impression of satisfaction in April later reversed by NLNAC’s decision indicating dissatisfaction. I think that the issue was not miscommunication, but misrepresentation, to students.
Couture implies that she, too, was blindsided by the loss of accreditation. Huerta did not inform her, and Couture did not inquire, about the results of the NLNAC site visit. Couture admitted to a hands-off approach to campuses other than NMSU; that approach suggests that she did not welcome communications from their leaders. Couture concluded by declaring her firm resolve to provide means of ensuring communication. Such a resolve publicly stated in this forum, though impressive, raises questions about her management approach after three years in office. Otherwise, why do problems in communication between NMSU and its satellite units exist? Why do not periodic reports on these units and, especially, on accreditation- or approval-sensitive programs, exist? Why do no management means exist to anticipate, address, and solve problems in advance or after others identify them? Or, if such means do exist, why did they fail?
In this case, at least, I think that a large part of the answers reflects a prevailing local culture which encourages what I call a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, do-no-good approach to leadership. Huerta chose to perceive the positive and to minimize or ignore the negative in reviews of “historical issues”; Couture chose to let other campus leaders operate with little or no direction or supervision. Each president took the path of least resistance, respectively, in responding to a problem or running a university. Neither operated as a problem-solver or a manager. In this case, the consequences of their flawed leadership are enormous costs to the institutions which they are appointed to serve and, most important, the students about whom these leaders profess to care. The recovery will require a radical re-adjustment in management approaches and attitudes; the regents will have to decide whether Huerta and Couture can make the necessary changes.
DACC’s Loss of Accreditation Discredits Local Leaders
My blog on the loss of accreditation of DACC’s nursing program blamed poor management by all parties—the presidents’ offices of DACC and NMSU, and the heads of their nursing programs. I cast aspersions on the regents, and local state senators and representatives, who tout their commitment to public education.
I knew, and heard from others, that the local system of state higher education—Dona Ana Community College and New Mexico State University—is flawed, and that everyone involved in its leadership or direction, including local as well as other legislators, has failed. Thus, I pointed my finger at everyone and have listened to others who have pointed a finger at everyone else. However, a circular firing squad solves no problems.
Nevertheless, a sampling of responses indicates the scope of the system failure. For one instance, when Senator John Arthur Smith said that he wants to investigate what went wrong, he implied that he, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, knew nothing about the inadequacy of funding for enough, suitably qualified faculty in the DACC nursing program. If so, the question is why not. The answer would have to be that DACC or NMSU officials said nothing to him or local state senators and representatives, or that they, in turn, said nothing to him and colleagues in Santa Fe about urgent needs to save this nursing program from loss of accreditation.
For another, when DACC President Dr. Margie C. Huerta discounted the importance of the loss of nursing program accreditation—graduates can still take and pass the NCLEX examination for state licensure and get nursing positions—she implied that she did not know, less likely that she did not care, that graduation from a non-accredited program denies employment at the area’s two hospitals, restricts employment elsewhere, and limits further education opportunities, and thus professional development and future earnings. If so, the question is why not. The answer escapes me unless communications between the administration and students is problematic.
Finally, since NMSU President Couture has major responsibilities for DACC, her ten-day public silence in this critical situation suggests uncertainty and indecisiveness, not leadership which takes command, gives direction, and offers support to students affected by the loss of accreditation. She seems to have done little enough thus far. If she knew nothing about the 2010 warning, she should have; if she knew something, she did nothing. Setting aside rumors of institutional rivalry for enrollments and revenues, I nevertheless wonder if her span of concern does not extend so far as her span of control.
Coming into compliance with NLNAC standards for the number and qualifications of faculty would be an effort requiring administrative and financial assistance from others. But coming into compliance with NLNAC standards for evaluating educational outcomes would be an effort entirely within DACC’s control. Yet the nursing program failed to document standard management practices in evaluating student performance and using the results to improve student performance. Whatever blame attaches to others under the first standard, significant blame attaches to DACC under the second standard.
DACC may have addressed long-term deficiencies in student performance by taking some short-cuts to improve, not teacher instruction and student learning, but the first-time NCLEX pass rate for its graduates. This pass rate is one “situation” for program approval by the New Mexico Board of Nursing (NMBN); the standard is 80 percent. Between 2004 and 2008, the pass rate never achieved this standard; it averaged 63.8 percent. Between 2009 and 2011, the pass rate never dropped below 80 percent; it averaged 91.1 percent. The difference of over 27 percent is hard to explain without considering that DACC funded a course in NCLEX preparation—which I take to be a teach-to-the-test strategy having little or no real educational value.
These numbers raise additional questions about the status, even the viability, of the DACC nursing program. Huerta rightly states that, despite the loss of accreditation, its nursing students can still graduate from a state-approved program and, by passing the NCLEX examination, become certified RNs. However, state approval of DACC’s nursing program may be in jeopardy, for the NMBN also has standards of program approval. Of nine “situations” which can trigger a site review or visit—pass rate is one—, a second has arisen, and a third appears to have arisen. Respectively, the “situations” are “withdrawal or change of program accreditation status by a board-recognized national nursing accreditation agency” and “providing false or misleading information to students or the public concerning the nursing program.” A fourth “situation” might be frequent faculty turnover.
The defects in the DACC nursing program are pervasive and have been persistent. The underlying dynamics of system failures creating these defects reflect political, personal, and institutional factors. Remediation is probably beyond the capacity of any one individual or agency. But no one has asked the larger question: if this program struggles even to achieve mediocrity, does anyone really want it to succeed?