The Latest on City College of San Francisco’s Struggle for Accreditation

The fight continues to protect the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) — with about 80,000 students, the largest community college in California —  from losing its accreditation.  (For background see What Happened at City College of San Francisco).

Yesterday, November 7, at a public forum featuring two members of the U.S. Congress, two state legislators, and many faculty, staff, students, and community activists, the Save CCSF Coalition announced that it had filed a lawsuit against the Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges (ACCJC).  Filed in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of individually named faculty, staff, and students at CCSF, the suit charges that “ACCJC abused its discretion and violated its legal duties by deciding to revoke accreditation in an arbitrary, capricious manner, without observance of the procedure required by law.  Specifically, ACCJC erred by failing to follow applicable statutes, regulations, and its own rules against the appearance of conflicts of interest.  It also erred by arbitrarily and capriciously overturning the findings of its own visitation team, without any evidence to support their decisions.”

The suit was the third directed against the ACCJC.  Previous lawsuits were filed by the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), which represents faculty at CCSF, and by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. (For a revealing analysis of Herrera’s filing that disputes criticism of it in the San Francisco Chronicle see “City Attorney Herrera, not SF Chronicle is Protecting CCSF”at the website BeyondChron.)

“We hope that one of the three lawsuits would stop this bad dream – this nightmare that would have City College close,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said.  She and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) criticized the commission for its record of sanctioning colleges at a far higher rate than similar commissions around the country.

ACCJC, which accredits California’s 112 community colleges as well as those in Hawaii and the Pacific, has been under increasing pressure not only for its decision to withdraw accreditation from CCSF as of July 2014.  The California Joint Legislative Audit Committee has approved an audit of the Commission to determine whether its practices conform to those of similar commissions across the country.  An August 13 reprimand by the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the commission, identified problems ranging from too few faculty members on the CCSF evaluation team, to the appearance of a conflict of interest when it appointed the husband of its president, Barbara Beno, to that team.  The letter came in response to a complaint filed with the Department by the CFT.  ACCJC was given a year to “take immediate steps to correct the areas of noncompliance identified in this letter.”  In addition, the Department is in the midst of a routine review of ACCJC that will determine whether it should maintain its status as California’s accrediting body for community colleges.

In a letter dated October 8, Beno sought assistance from the Association of Chief Business Officers — made up of business officials of California’s community colleges.  She noted that the Department of Education had already received critical letters from many faculty organizations, and asked for “letters of support or broad acceptance for ACCJC’s standards, policies, procedures and decisions.”

The request did not sit well with the commission’s critics. “It’s completely inappropriate,” said Fred Glass of  CFT. “Here’s somebody who sits in judgment of accreditation for these institutions, and she’s asking for help with her own accreditation from these institutions. There’s at least an implicit quid pro quo here.”  But it’s unclear whether Beno’s appeal was successful.  Bonnie Dowd, president of the Business Officers and executive vice chancellor of business and technology services for the San Diego Community College District, said, “I do think a review of ACCJC would be worth the time — a review that wouldn’t do what ACCJC did, which is to say, ‘Shut it down,’ but that says, ‘This is what you have to do to make it better.’”

In September, San Francisco’s budget and legislative analyst offered a quantitative look at the impact that a CCSF closure would have on the city, students, college employees and local industry.  Just 1,400 City College graduates transfer each year to University of California or California State University campuses, but students would have to pay an additional $5,000 a year if they transferred earlier than their junior year, according to the study conducted at the request of city Supervisor Eric Mar.  Thousands of students enrolled for other purposes, the study said, are unlikely to be able to find or afford another program, many of which are already full at neighboring community colleges or are offered at expensive for-profit schools.  Students from San Francisco could also face significant challenges in commuting to institutions outside the city.

More than 16,000 students studied English as a second language in Spring 2013, while another 5,000 were there to earn a high school diploma.  If those students are displaced, said the study, “each non-English-speaking student would earn an estimated $13,500 less per year than a worker who speaks English well.”  Those seeking a high school diploma “would lose estimated annual earnings of $8,840″ if they were unable to find or afford another equivalency program,” the study concluded.

Employers would also lose out because there are already more job openings than there are trained graduates – even with City College in the picture. For example, in the 2011-12 academic year, 87 City College students graduated from the licensed vocational nurse program. Those students filled 75 percent of the available local jobs, the study said. And overall, 2,272 students graduated that year with an associate degree or certificate qualifying them for a range of specific jobs that would go unfilled if the college had to shut its doors.

CCSF’s academic quality is not in dispute.   Its completion, transfer, and remediation rates are all above statewide averages.  “This is a manufactured crisis,” opined Wendy Kaufmyn, an engineering instructor and leader of the Save City College movement. “It’s not about standards. This is a political fight.”  Indeed, Herrera’s lawsuit suggests that CCSF’s “Open access” policy, mandated in the California Education Code, is really the primary reason behind ACCJC’s ruling to terminate its accreditation.

It’s not only faculty, students and politicians who are concerned.  Community college administrators are also among those increasingly dissatisfied with ACCJC.  The chancellor of one community college district wrote the Education Department, urging it to reject the commission’s petition for federal recognition on grounds that ACCJC is overly punitive and does not comply with the requirement that its “standards, policies, procedures, and accreditation decisions are widely accepted in the United States.”  That letter also cited a 2011 report by a nonprofit group that studies California community colleges, which found deep dissatisfaction with the commission among the leaders at three of five colleges studied. They deemed ACCJC “generally unreceptive to constructive criticism and expressed a fear of retaliation.”

One community college administrator willing publicly to risk retaliation is Ron Galatolo, Chancellor of the San Mateo Community College District just south of San Francisco.  “Some would say I probably should have my head examined, since I’m going through (accrediting) review right now,” Galatolo told the November 7 forum. “But this is the right thing to do.”  Previously Galatolo had responded to a request for support from ACCJC with strong words in a letter circulated to other community college chancellors.  That letter is worth quoting at length:

[T]he benefits of accreditation and of a regional accrediting agency are not in question. The issue is ACCJC’s inconsistent application of its own standards; its punitive focus on compliance – irrespective of relevance; its imposition of numerous sanctions; its preferential treatment of its own Commissioners; and its indifference to the application of reasonable due process.

The action by the ACCJC to terminate the accreditation of City College of San Francisco (CCSF) was not only an egregious error in judgment of epic proportions, but it solidified – at least for me – that the ACCJC has fundamentally harmed the reputation of our entire system and reinforced my belief that the ACCJC has not been objectively operating in the best interest of its member colleges for an extended period of time.

. . . . I urge you to read the well-prepared CCSF Show Cause Evaluation Report. . . .  The report highlights the status of 14 recommendations made by the 2012 evaluation team. As you read those recommendations, I ask you to preface each one with: City College of San Francisco should be closed permanently because…

As an example using the first recommendation in the report, City College of San Francisco should be closed permanently because they do not have a “prescribed process and timeline to regularly review the mission statement and revise it as necessary.” Or, the second recommendation, City College of San Francisco should be closed permanently because they did not “develop a strategy for fully implementing its existing planning process.”

CCSF is an imperfect institution – we all are! But do we eternally deny access to 85,000 students in San Francisco because of these largely non-academic issues or do we collectively get behind an institution that is performing (according to the State Chancellor’s Office Scorecard data) well above the statewide average in Completion, Persistence and Remedial English as well as ESL?

The facts speak for themselves:

• The ACCJC is under siege by a variety of educators, public officials and educational organizations: 1) the California Joint Legislative Committee on Audits ordered a formal State audit of the ACCJC; 2) the United States Department of Education found the ACCJC to be out of compliance with Basic Eligibility Requirements; 3) the City of San Francisco and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)/California Federation of Teachers (CFT) have both filed lawsuits against the ACCJC; and 4) the California Department of Education, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the AFT have filed complaints against the ACCJC.

• Over a ten year period (2003-2013), the ACCJC sanctioned 66% of California’s community colleges undergoing accreditation. Since 2007, all 112 California community colleges were reviewed by the ACCJC – 71 of 112 colleges were sanctioned (63%). In the last three years, 35 of 51 community colleges were reviewed by the ACCJC – 69% were sanctioned.

• Conversely, the average sanction rate for the other accrediting agencies throughout the nation is approximately 2%. From 2003-2008, ACCJC generated 89% of all sanctions nationwide.

• Over a ten year period (2003-2013), 18 of the Commissioners’ institutions underwent accreditation and NONE of those colleges received a sanction – NONE!! A statistical improbability impossibility!!

• In several instances, the ACCJC Commissioners have ignored recommendations of the visiting teams they sent out to review institutions. In one recent example, Northern Marianas College was recommended for reaffirmation of accreditation by the visiting team, but that favorable endorsement was overruled by the Commission and Northern Marianas College received a “show cause” sanction.

• In March of 2013, Santa Barbara City College received a prominent national award by the Aspen Institute for “high achievement and performance in America’s community colleges” – Santa Barbara was chosen from more than 1,000 colleges nationwide. Nevertheless, the ACCJC sanctioned that very same college two months earlier, in January of 2013.

• In 2011, the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges (RP Group) found that the orientation of the ACCJC is at odds with best accreditation practices which, according to the RP Group, should focus on active engagement with a college community in educational quality improvement, not punitive focus on compliance. The RP Group notes that the emphasis on compliance “…can detract from institutional improvement priorities—implying a disconnect between the intentions of the commission and the experience of the colleges.”

• In addition, the RP Group found that “transparent, open and honest opportunities for feedback without fear of retribution are critical to the commission’s relationship with member colleges” but “the colleges interviewed found the ACCJC generally unreceptive to constructive criticism and expressed a fear of retaliation.”

The United States Department of Education (USDE) requires that an accrediting commission’s “standards, policies, procedures and decisions to grant or deny accreditation are widely accepted” by educators and educational institutions (Criteria §602.13). This is a basic eligibility requirement for an organization to be recognized as an accrediting agency.

In response to the USDE’s letter informing the ACCJC that it did not have “letters of support or broad acceptance for ACCJC’s standards, policies, procedures and decisions” from educators and educational institutions, the ACCJC President selectively petitioned CEOs, educational organizations and others asking them to send support letters in order to bolster ACCJC’s request for reauthorization. The President also asked the responders to send these letters directly to her and not straight to the USDE. The ACCJC President is soliciting these letters of support from colleges that it accredits, which could exert undue influence on those individuals and entities to respond favorably.

Lastly, this email comes from a district that has all three of its colleges fully accredited. I have no personal axe to grind, nor am I expecting any “awards granted by union power.” I merely care about the long-term welfare of our exceptional system as a whole!

ACCJC’s application for renewal of recognition as a federally authorized accrediting body will be reviewed by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity at a hearing in Washington, D.C. on December 12.  The Save CCSF Coalition facilitated the submission to the Committee of fifty written third party comments and twelve individuals — faculty, staff, and students — have submitted requests to provide oral testimony at the hearing on behalf of the Save CCSF Coalition.  Those wishing to help them travel to D.C. to testify can donate at http://www.gofundme.com/4841ns.

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