Irresponsible Expressions of Dissent?

Readers of this blog know that I have been reporting occasionally on the continuing conflict between faculty, staff, and students at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which has threatened to revoke CCSF’s accreditation on what many — including San Francisco’s City Attorney and other prominent political leaders — consider dubious grounds.  (For the most recent post go here; see also my original post of July 8 and subsequent posts on July 13, August 13, and November 8.)

One reason I believe this conflict is so important is its potential implications for accreditation everywhere.  An ominous sign  — and a new wrinkle in the CCSF struggle — is a recent proposal by ACCJC to add a new accreditation standard that would require that an institution’s “board, administration, faculty, staff and students, act responsibly and with integrity.” Such a requirement, of course, could well threaten the freedom of speech of all members of an institutional community, especially since it is totally unclear what “responsible” behavior would have to entail.

This is the important point made by the following discussion of the proposal written by Karen Saginor, first vice president and former president of the academic senate and a librarian at CCSF. Hers is a cautionary tale well worth reading; one only can hope that the ACCJC will step back from this very dangerous proposal.

Irresponsible Expressions of Dissent? A warning about new ACCJC Standard I.C.9.

By Karen Saginor, City College of San Francisco

A new standard section has been added to the revised ACCJC standards for approval in June. The new section says:

I.C.9. Through its policies, procedures and actions, the institution demonstrates that it promotes integrity and that the board, administration, faculty, staff and students, act responsibly and with integrity.

Standard I.C.9. will require institutions to set and enforce policies to prevent members of constituent groups from unspecified actions that are deemed irresponsible or lacking in integrity.

The January ACCJC document that “crosswalks” the new standards to the current standards claims that the new I.C.9. revises the old II.A.7.b, which reads:

II.A.7.b. The institution establishes and publishes clear expectations concerning student academic honesty and the consequences for dishonesty.

However, in the ACCJC October draft of the Standards revision provided to ALOs, the old II.A.7.b was included for carry over with exactly the same wording it had in the past. This new text (numbered I.C.12 in that draft) was written as an additional standard.

This new standard is problematic – it is very unspecific, but its most likely use will be to stifle over-vigorous expression of perspectives not authorized by institutions. New rules are written to address existing problems. In this case, ACCJC has an existing problem with faculty, students, and other members of constituent groups acting to promulgate harsh criticism of ACCJC, in spite of repeated warnings that such actions are irresponsible. The new standard can address this problem.

At City College of San Francisco, ACCJC has already found the institution out of compliance for speech and actions that are, or ought to be, part of academic freedom and the constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. Over the past few years, as faculty have put in long hours in SLO assessment and participatory governance work, they have also pressed hard and publicly for the administration to make decisions most beneficial for students, and they have been vociferous in demanding fair treatment in the accreditation process. CCSF faculty and students have been repeatedly told, “Stop speaking out against ACCJC, stop speaking out against the administration, stop talking to the media. Your resistance is hurting City College’s chances of staying accredited. You are acting irresponsibly.” Faculty, students, and other members of the college community have nonetheless persisted in speaking up. Standard I.C.9. will make it easier for ACCJC to control exactly those kinds of “irresponsible” actions, actions that have led policy makers, the court, and the U.S. Department of Education to question or challenge ACCJC.

Examples of reprimands for City College deriving from dissent and public criticism of ACCJC are found in several parts of the 2012 Visiting Team Evaluation Report and especially the 2013 Show Cause Visiting Team Report and the 2013 ACCJC decision letter. Two examples:

• From the July, 2013 decision letter on CCSF, p. 4: “… active protests against the direction the college is taking, expressed at governing board meetings, and against the college leadership, indicate that not all constituencies are ready to follow college leadership to make needed changes in a timely manner.”

• From the 2013 Show Cause Report on CCSF, p. 58:
 “some members of all college constituency groups have communicated misleading information about the Commission and its findings and actions relating to the college. … there remain leaders in each of these same constituency groups whose actions are counterintuitive to achieving the kind of honest communication needed to set the institution on a path to demonstrate integrity in its relationships.”

Charges such as these were included prominently in the grounds for terminating accreditation for City College. These charges resulted from public comments at Board meetings, communications to the press, student and faculty pickets, demonstrations, statements made to reporters or in radio interviews, an opinion piece written by a trustee and published in the S.F. Chronicle, etc. Most, if not all of such actions are undeniably protected by freedom of speech.

With I.C.9 not yet part of the Standards, ACCJC has primarily used IV.A.4 to find CCSF noncompliant because of these actions:

IV.A.4. The institution advocates and demonstrates honesty and integrity in its relationships with external agencies. It agrees to comply with accrediting Commission Standards, policies, and guidelines, and commission requirements for public disclosure, self-evaluation and other reports, team visits, and prior approval of substantive changes. The institution moves expeditiously to respond to recommendations made by the commission.

Notice that Standard IV.A.4. does not squarely address the problematic irresponsible actions. Some of the communications that ACCJC finds out of compliance are internal, or with entities (such as radio shows) that aren’t “agencies.” Also, Standard IV.A.4 is about the actions of the institution. ACCJC strongly maintains that students, faculty, and such, regardless of their leadership roles, do not and cannot speak for the institution. Only the CEO or the Board as a whole is acting for the institution. Even a trustee cannot speak with the voice of the institution if acting alone.

Look again at the new Standard I.C.9:

I.C.9. Through its policies, procedures and actions, the institution demonstrates that it promotes integrity and that the board, administration, faculty, staff and students, act responsibly and with integrity.

This new standard will empower the commission to find a college out of compliance if members of a constituency group fail to “act responsibly and with integrity.”

One thought on “Irresponsible Expressions of Dissent?

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