Essex County College can breathe easy, for now.
Representatives from the college’s accrediting agency on Tuesday delivered news the institution has been hoping to hear for months: Essex County College is in compliance with two accrediting standards that had led to its probation.
It was a huge sigh of relief for the college that for months has sweated out the possibility that it could lose its accreditation and with it, the opportunity for students to earn federal grant money.
The college is a lifeline for its 8,900 part-time and full-time students, most of whom are black and Latino. Half of the student body receives some form of financial aid, officials estimate.
“It feels great, a lot of hard work, tough decisions, great support,” college President Anthony Munroe told NJ Advance Media outside of the meeting, sharing the preliminary findings. “It’s been a labor of love and it is who we are: Essex County College, exceeding expectations.”
The initial findings were presented by a group of peer evaluators from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The group visited the campus this week and shared their observations during a meeting at the college.
A peer evaluator said press was not allowed inside and a reporter with NJ Advance Media was escorted out of Smith Hall. Middle States did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Just got kicked out of the meeting with Middle States peer evaluators who are giving their preliminary findings on Essex County College’s accreditation status.
— Karen Yi (@karen_yi) March 20, 2018
The findings by the Middle States evaluators are preliminary; the college remains on probation until the Commission meets in June to decide its fate.
But the news was a boon to the college as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. And many expect the institution to be taken off probation come summer for meeting both standards: governance and finance.
“There’s no question, we’re moving in the right direction and I couldn’t be more pleased,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr. said.
“This is continuous improvement, it’s never over,” Munroe said. “It’s not a static thing … this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And we will always continue to stay focused on our mission.”
A rotating cast of presidents has come and gone over the last few years at the college, each departing under a different controversy.
The infighting among leadership continued even after President Munroe was unanimously hired by the Board of Trustees last year as a “turnaround expert.”
There were back-and-forth accusations of wrongdoing, allegations by a vocal group of clergy of political interference and collusion, and tense public meetings calling for the ouster of a high-ranking administrator and trustees who were blamed for interfering with the presidency.
Those fights have subsided.
DiVincenzo appointed new trustees as others resigned or were not re-appointed. He pledged to work with Munroe to move the college to solid footing.
“We have a good president and a great board and they’re working together,” he said. “It was never about the president, it was never about the board, it was about the kids that go to this institution.”
“They needed to give this guy a shot, this is what (Munroe) does,” added Rev. Ronald L. Slaughter, who was among the clergy members who supported Munroe and denounced “political shenanigans” at the college. “This is what happens when people work together, when government, community puts people first, when politicians and community put people first. This is the end result of it, positive things happen.”
Munroe said peer evaluators commended the college for its new trustee training policies, their required self-evaluations and the revision of at least 20 board policies.
During the last preliminary review in November that led to the college’s probation, peer evaluators from Middle States found officials could not agree on whether it had a $17 million surplus or none at all.
This time, peer evaluators cited marked improvements. The college passed a “fiscal exigency” plan that included 20 layoffs and eliminated 14 vacant positions; it’s audit was submitted early and a interim Chief Financial Officer was appointed along with a deputy CFO. The college will have two deputy CFOs once a permanent CFO is hired.
“They cited a number of improvements and processes in place,” Munroe said.
DiVincenzo said the county boosted its base funding for the college to $13.9 million — the highest ever — as declining enrollment at the school reduced revenues over the last few years.
“No one person could have done this alone, you needed the administration, you needed the board and you needed us on the county side,” he said. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”