A Debacle Unraveled: The story behind the Graphic Design termination of 2015

Doug Hibbert at work in the graphic design lab.

The notification hit students with out warning: the AAS Graphic Arts degree had been terminated, and nobody seemed to know how, when, or why. It was clear something had gone awry within the internal cogs of Linn-Benton Community College’s administration, and the announcement thrust the 22 students in the graphic design program into chaos just two months before graduation.

In the midst of their final portfolio projects, students were initially told a catalog error had occurred, leaving a terminated Graphic Design degree in the 2014-15 catalog.  They’d be receiving an Associate of General Studies instead of the degree they’d been working towards. After the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities informed LBCC administration they could grant the Visual Communications/Graphic Design degrees to the students, the school breathed collective relief. The degree was put into a three-year teach out.

However, some students were left disappointed and disheartened by the whole experience; others believe they were forced to fight far too hard to receive the degree they’d signed up for. Students contacted law firms and received legal advice, steeling themselves to file a civil suit in case they did not receive their graphic design degrees.

It could be described as a near miss for LBCC.

Doug Hibbert at work in the graphic design lab.

Doug Hibbert at work in the graphic design lab.

“It’s a huge, messed up situation and nobody wants to take responsibility,” said graphic design student Doug Hibbert.

Hibbert will be the last of the students to graduate with the Visual Communications/Graphic Design AAS this fall, after waiting over a year to complete the degree. (See story at lbcommuter.com.)

Though administration missteps were serious, little has been examined about the events leading to the tumultuous  spring 2015. 

It was reported in the Albany Democrat-Herald/Corvallis Gazette-Times that the program never had been approved by the college administration or board of education in their April 20, 2015 article.

“A mistaken listing in the 2014-15 LBCC catalog included the program as part of the curriculum, when in fact it had been suspended in 2013 as part of a $3 million budget reduction,” wrote the Democrat-Herald’s Steve Lathrop. “Dale Stowell, LBCC’s executive director of advancement and foundation, said some students were confused by the listings in the catalog, which were coded as if they were part of the visual communications major — even though the major was suspended in 2013.”

But this was no case of mass student confusion. The program had been suspended during budget cuts, yet the program had in fact been re-approved in a June 18, 2014 memo, “Curricular changes and update for 2014-2015,” from former Executive Vice President Beth Hogeland, and former Dean of Instruction Jonathan Paver, to the LBCC College Board. In it, an AAS in Graphic Arts was listed under new degrees.

Both Hogeland and Paver have since left LBCC; Hogeland could not be reached and Paver declined comment.

The year previous, at the June 19, 2013 meeting, the AAS in Visual Communications and the Advanced Graphic Design one-year certificate had indeed been listed under suspended programs in a similar memo.

“The Visual Communication degree will be redesigned, however, the remainder of the programs listed will be suspended,” stated the last line of the 2013 memo.

Four other certificates or programs had been suspended, but Visual Communications was slated to return to LBCC.

“It was a program that was under enrolled and it was three years long,” said Greg Hamann, president of LBCC. “We weren’t serving enough students and it was costing too much.”

Whether the program was, or was not, meant to be redesigned and continued, it’s clear where the confusion began.

“Part of the school went through a process of reinstating the program, while the other part of the institution didn’t know it,” said Hamann.

A memo from June 17, 2015 to the LBCC College Board suspended the program for the final time:

“In an erroneous addition to the June 2014 annual curricular summary, an AAS in Visual Communication/Graphic Design was approved. The current suspension of this degree corrects the error made in 2014.”

Lewis Franklin, the head instructor of the program, said he was taken by surprise when the news of the program’s final termination hit.

“The program was approved and accredited, but one piece was out of step,” said Franklin. “Even though it made it into the catalog and everything was fine, it wasn’t fine, and so they made the decision to pull it, and basically took us back to where the program had been shelved before and gave us a three-year teach out.”

According to Sally Widenmann, dean of instruction, “substantive change” to a program is about 30 percent. When changes reach the 30 percent mark, it translates into a new program and must go through an accreditation process.

Dean of Applied Business and Technology Dave Becker was overseeing the redesign of the  former program, after taking over the dean position from his predecessor. He described an “accreditation tipping point” of the program; the re-design had gone too far.

“That was my fault,” said Becker. “We had made several changes over time, and that’s where it exceeded the allowable 30 percent. That’s when it went into suspension.”

In a field with frequently changing technology, the Graphic Design AAS is subject to many changes. All revisions were made to improve the effectiveness of the program; to ensure the students were more employable, said Becker.  

“They were concerned the accreditation group would ding the whole college for it, and so better to just go ahead and pull that program again and start the process over rather than the whole college getting a mark for it,” said Franklin.

Thus, the program was terminated once again in 2015.

In the wake of the degree debacle, Widenmann says that student success is her top priority.

New programs now endure a nine- to 10-step approval process, and it’s all public; accessible under the curriculum management dashboard on the LBCC website.

“We have re-examined the entire process, looking at programs coming into existence and getting approved,” said Widenmann. “We’ve looked at how programs get suspended, and how programs are re-designed. We’ve completely redone all processes.”

This system failure led to a redesign of internal program approval, and the graphic design program itself.

“It wasn’t a single mistake by anyone,” said Widenmann. “Systems work the way they do because all the parts are connected.”

And when two parts don’t connect, major system failures can occur.

“Now we’ve gone through a much more comprehensive process, we’ve rebuilt it from scratch. It gave us the opportunity to change some things we couldn’t have changed in the process it was in before,” said Franklin. “It’s [the program] actually going to be better in the long run, and the school is committing a lot more money to the program now.”

Katie Winder, dean of arts, social sciences and humanities, is overseeing the design and accreditation of the new visual communications program. The previous program is in its last year of teach-out, and Winder says the new program will be available and in the 2017 fall catalog.

Current students are able to take most of their first-year classes for the new program this year, barring a class or two that will not be ready until the fall. However, they will not be able to declare a major as Visual Communications until 2017.

Story by Emily Goodykoontz