The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury investigated allegations of financial mismanagement, grade manipulation and a difficult work environment at Allan Hancock College — the kind of accusations that, if true, could dull the shine of the “Hancock Promise.”
The Grand Jury, though, could not substantiate the complaints with fact.
Hancock’s president, Dr. Kevin G. Walthers. told the News-Press he believes the complaint came from a “handful” of the college’s employees. The Grand Jury’s report acknowledges some staff bitterness.
The broad complaint points to instances as early as five to seven years ago. Dr. Walthers said each incident has been addressed by the Santa Maria college.
“We feel like we’ve looked at this a couple of times, and now that somebody else has looked at it maybe it will bring it to a resolution,” he said.
He mused whether the Grand Jury was a way to “vent some steam” for a public employee. The pressure was visible in a 2018 survey among 217 faculty and staff; 81% of administrators, 47% of classified staff and 41% of faculty completed the survey.
The results put responses in three categories: favorable, unfavorable and neutral. When given the statement “There are enough people to do the work in my work group,” 58% of respondents answered unfavorably.
Of those surveyed, 46% disagreed with “There are no significant barriers at work to doing my job well.” The firm that conducted the survey, Korn Ferry, scored the questions answers 21% below average for the education industry.
Other poor-performing questions looked at training and communication. Despite concerns, the same respondents indicated above industry-average that they believe Allan Hancock provides a high-quality education.
Dr. Walthers said 2018 was a “tough time” for the employee environment. The year welcomed its first Hancock Promise students. The program offers a year of free tuition to local graduates, but administrators were also embroiled in tense negotiations with bargaining units.
Since then, the college changed its training and professional development procedures. To improve communication, Dr. Walthers has published messages to the trustees on the website and started a podcast.
The complainant alleged the work environment included “fear tactics,” “intimidation and reprisal” and “gaslighting subordinates.” The complainant labeled the college’s resolution system biased as well as appeals to the board of trustees.
Dr. Walthers said substantial complaints are investigated by an outside firm, hired by the college’s lawyers.
When asked if there are any assessments the college uses to evaluate administrators, he scoffed.
“I’m not even going to answer that. There’s an assumption there that our administrators are not doing their jobs. But I assure you that in the past two years, they’re doing their jobs — plus managing a vaccine clinic,” he said.
There’s little turnover of managers, he continued. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re effective leaders.
Again, he was asked about staff assessment of leadership. He said employees can voice complaints to human resources.
“We’ve had conversations with administrators about things like, ‘Be careful with your language,’ but we always try to catch these things early,” he said.
The Grand Jury recommends the college “make more effective use of peer-review evaluation practices” and commission a new staff survey.
The jury’s report also looked at alleged financial mismanagement, which was not substantiated, in two incidents of loans to students.
The college issues emergency loans to students; there’s a maximum of one loan each semester per student. One case that the Grand Jury investigated involved a student receiving two emergency loans, but a software error applied grant funding to the loan. The student still needed the loan, so the university corrected the error.
Dr. Walthers said a few employees are “really hung up on this instance” although it occurred five years ago. The college updated the software so it wouldn’t automatically apply outside funding to an emergency loan.
The Grand Jury report mentions an instance where a loan was forgiven. The jury determined the college’s actions were an “appropriate exercise of administrative discretion.”
The report also cleared allegations of grade manipulation in the college’s concurrent enrollment program, which allows high school students to earn Allan Hancock College credit for studies at their schools.
The jury learned about a misunderstanding in the first year of the program where students requested to change from a failing grade to a “no pass” grade. The option is only available early in the semester, but the students were confused and were allowed the “no pass” grade.
“We’re a really big organization and we’re really good at what we do, but I’m pretty sure everyday we make a mistake,” Dr. Walthers said. “But what matters is how we correct the mistake.”
He hopes the long-standing criticisms he hears of these instances will fade now that the Grand Jury report is public.