Ruling in CCSF Accreditation Suit

As regular readers of this blog know, I have been posting reports on the accreditation controversy at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) ever since the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) issued its “show cause” order in early July 2012.  (The most recent post, from September 2014, is here, at the end of which may be found links to all previous posts in the series.)  On Friday, January 16, California Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow issued a Tentative Decision and Proposed Statement of Decision in the lawsuit brought against the ACCJC in August 2013 by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera.  Herrera sought to overturn the ACCJC’s order to terminate CCSF’s accreditation as of July 2014.   A brief but generally accurate report on the ruling appeared today on insidehighered.com; Judge Karnow’s complete ruling may be found by those willing to slog through its 72 pages (as I have) here.

The decision would appear to be a significant win for Herrera and, indirectly, for CCSF, which was not a party to the suit.  “We didn’t get 100 percent, but I’ll certainly take 80 percent,” Herrera told veteran San Francisco journalist Tim Redmond, whose useful interpretation of the ruling for the online publication 48 hills called the decision “a clear victory for the school.”

According to a press release issued by the City Attorney,

If finalized as expected, a significant feature of Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow’s 72-page proposed decision would offer the college of some 80,000 students a new option to pursue to secure its accreditation and finally put threats of closure to rest.

Karnow’s proposed injunction would require a full, fair reconsideration of City College by the Novato, Calif.-based accrediting panel, assuring due process rights that Karnow found accreditors denied the college in 2013. Karnow’s injunction would require accreditors to rectify multiple deficiencies in their 2013 evaluation by engaging in a thorough reconsideration process, while prohibiting ACCJC from taking any action to finalize a termination decision until the process is complete.

By contrast, however, the ACCJC claimed in a somewhat bizarre press release

that after a full evidentiary hearing and extensive briefing by the attorneys, Judge Karnow essentially found that the ACCJC did not do anything wrong with respect to its decisions regarding the accreditation of CCSF. Judge Karnow’s decision has largely discounted the far-reaching accusations of the City Attorney against ACCJC, including suggestions that [ACCJC President] Dr. Barbara Beno improperly influenced the decision on CCSF.

In fact, Judge Karnow found that the ACCJC did indeed do a few things wrong.  He determined that the Commission violated both federal regulations and common law fair procedure and committed “significant unlawful practices” in its handling of CCSF’s accreditation review.  To remedy the violations of City College’s due process, he ordered the ACCJC to revisit its termination decision and provide the college with the opportunity to respond to the ACCJC’s actions that previously had been denied to it.  The judge, however, did stop short of ordering the college’s accreditation and he declined to begin the review process entirely anew.  “Under federal law it is ACCJC, and not this court, which exercises its discretion with respect to accreditation decisions,” Karnow wrote.  He also rejected several key claims made in the suit by the City Attorney.  Nonetheless it is difficult to see the ruling as anything other than a clear setback to the ACCJC’s efforts to revoke CCSF’s accreditation and arguably as well to the Commission’s overall credibility and legal standing.

In what follows I will, first, examine in some detail the specific provisions of Karnow’s decision, relying wherever convenient on the decision’s own language.  I will then offer some thoughts on its impact on both CCSF and ACCJC and move from there to an overall discussion of the ACCJC’s allegedly “rogue” status, concluding with some comments on the potential significance of the case for college and university accreditation nationwide. [Warning: This is a lengthy post.  I should also note that by and large I will avoid the actual content of the alleged deficiencies found by the ACCJC nor will I assess the validity of its criticisms of CCSF, except to recognize that all parties to the case acknowledged the existence of problems at the school and to point out that none of these problems had anything directly to do with the quality of education offered by CCSF.]

Judge Karnow’s Ruling

The decision includes the following summary:

All the interested parties-City College, the People, and ACCJC-agree that when City College had its accreditation terminated in 2013 it was not in full compliance with accreditation standards; and this after years of serious financial and other problems. City College has not yet challenged that termination finding in court, but the San Francisco City Attorney has, on behalf of the affected People of California. The People’s case rests on a single statute, the Unfair Competition Law (UCL), which allows courts to issue injunctions after findings of ‘unfair’ or ‘unlawful’ business practices. Practices that violate other laws, or state or federal regulations, might be termed ‘unlawful,’ and the People’s complaint contains a lengthy list of such assertedly unfair and unlawful practices. It appears the UCL has never previously been used to challenge an accreditation decision.

The parties presented their evidence at trial, through five days of testimony and many documents. The evidence does not support a finding of any unfair practices. The evidence does show that ACCJC violated certain federal regulations and a law known as the ‘common law fair procedure’ doctrine. That doctrine requires basic due process, that is, the fundamental opportunity to be able to respond to accusations of deficiencies before a final termination finding is made. These are this court’s findings on liability. On my way to those findings, I have had to evaluate a series of defenses that ACCJC claims bar this suit altogether. I have generally rejected those defenses.

The People seek a judgment and injunction which would in effect erase the actions of ACCJC since 2012 and restore City College to a ‘clean slate’ of a fully accredited status. But in deciding what sort of injunction to issue, a court must first decide which of the liability findings are sufficiently material, or significant, to warrant any relief. I have found that not all the liability bases deserve relief.

Some of the liability findings, specifically those relating to City College’s ability to respond in 2013 to the bases for termination, do warrant relief. The scope of the injunction I issue must be commensurate, or proportionate, to that specific liability. Therefore the injunction I plan to issue requires ACCJC to give City College that chance to respond; and allows ACCJC to then take any action consistent with law, including rescinding or reaffirming the 2013 termination.

This relief directly accounts for the significant unlawful practices I have found, it pays attention to the extensive federal regulations which surround the accreditation process, and it respects, as it must and as all parties agree, the fact that under federal law it is ACCJC, and not this court, which exercises its discretion with respect to accreditation decisions. (p. 16-17; citations to case law and to testimony and exhibits entered at trial have been removed from all quotations from the decision)

The decision also includes the following Conclusion:

ACCJC is liable for violations of the Unfair Competition Law, specifically, the law’s ban on unlawful business practices. ACCJC’s material violations made it impossible for City College to have a fair hearing prior to the 2013 termination decision. The material violations can only be remedied with an injunction allowing City College to have the due process to which it was entitled in 2013. The Commission must specify in writing its bases for finding deficiencies in its 2013 termination decision that were not identified in the 2013 Evaluation Team Report, consider any written responses to those newly identified deficiencies provided by City College, and reconsider its termination decision, then taking such action as it in its lawful discretion may decide.

The preliminary injunction will be dissolved on entry of judgment.

The People should now draft a proposed judgment and injunction consistent with this proposed statement of decision (PSOD) for review by ACCJC and to be provided to me, together with ACCJC’s comments, on the date when objections under CRC 3.1590 (g) are due. By that due date, either party may also draft, present to the other party for review, and provide to me, any other proposed judgment and injunction which is either consistent with this PSOD or which assumes I will agree with objections made to the PSOD. In the latter case, the draft must indicate that it assumes a specified modification of the PSOD. (p. 70-71)

In the course of reaching this judgment the Court came to a number of intermediate conclusions.  In a lengthy narrative history of the case’s background (pages 2-16 of the ruling) Judge Karnow recounted how CCSF’s 2006 accreditation review found the school to have complied with the required accreditation standards, but also developed eight recommendations “to guide the college in accomplishing certain goals and assuring the high quality of its programs and services.”  When CCSF submitted a required Focused Midterm Report in 2009, it was accepted but the college was required to submit a follow-up report by March 2010, which would “demonstrate status toward resolution of Recommendation 3 and resolution of Recommendation 4.”  That letter also said CCSF “must correct the deficiencies noted by June 2010.”  However, as Karnow observes,

nothing else in the Commission’s communications with City College up to and including the Commission’s acceptance of the Focused Midterm Report indicates that City College was deficient in meeting the accreditation standards.  To be sure, the Commission had identified concerns and required City College to take action to address those concerns.  But it had not identified deficiencies. (p. 5)

That failure to clearly identify deficiencies and to distinguish these from “concerns” and “recommendations” runs through the entire record leading up to the ACCJC’s July 2012 order to the College to Show Cause why its accreditation should not be terminated and to submit a Show Cause report by March 2013.  The College submitted that report, as required, and a new evaluation team visited the school.  At the preliminary hearing Judge Karnow had “found that the Commission’s failure to have more than one academic on the 2013 Show Cause team violated federal regulations.”  Nevertheless, that team “was impressed by City College’s response to the Commission’s show cause directive.”  Still, it found that the school “did not meet many standards.”  The team did not, however, recommend termination of accreditation.  That action was taken by the Commission after it added additional deficiencies to those found by the team.

I will not burden readers with an account of Judge Karnow’s lengthy discussion of jurisdictional issues and legal precedents (pp. 17-36) regarding his authority in the case.  Suffice it to say that, rejecting a long series of arguments made by the ACCJC, Judge Karnow concluded that the Commission’s activities are subject to California’s Unfair Competition Law and that the City Attorney is not barred from bringing a lawsuit against the Commission.  In reaching this conclusion he argued that “the interest of all participants in an honest and effective accreditation process may be protected by allowing such a suit as this one” and that “the point of an outcome of this case is to hold ACCJC to the very standards that govern it.” (p. 29)  I will return later to the possible implications of the jurisdictional findings.

Turning to the substance of the City Attorney’s complaints, Judge Karnow dismissed a number of accusations, finding, as the ACCJC’s press release boasted:

No conflict of interest or apparent conflict of interest with Peter Crabtree’s appointment to the CCSF team in 2012;
No conflict of interest by Commissioners appointed under a selection process later changed to comply with federal regulations;
No lack of academic representatives on the 2012 team that evaluated CCSF;
No improper reliance by the Commission on factors outside the accreditation standards in making its termination decision;
No improper influence by Barbara Beno on the team report in her capacity as staff reader;
No effect of having only one or two academics on the July 2013 Show Cause team on the termination decision; and
No improper activity by ACCJC in its positions on Student Success legislation while reviewing CCSF.

However, Karnow did find that “Between at least October 2007 and October 2010, ACCJC’s Commissioner selection process did not provide adequate controls against conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts of interest.  This was unlawful under the UCL.  Twelve of the nineteen Commissioners who served in June 2012 and nine of the nineteen Commissioners who served in June 2013 were appointed under the inadequate policy.”

More significantly, the judge also found significant violations of due process and common law fair procedure.  “Beginning in 2006,” he wrote

the Commission raised various concerns regarding City College’s future ability to comply with accreditation standards. But the Commission did not at that time, or at any time between 2006 and 2012, find that City College failed to meet any accreditation requirement. In 2012, the Commission found that City College failed to meet numerous accreditation requirements and placed City College on show cause status. At that point, City College was given notice of the deficiencies identified by the Commission in issuing its show cause decision.

Pursuant to the show cause evaluation, City College submitted a written self-evaluation that spanned over 200 pages and separately addressed each Accreditation Standard and Eligibility Requirement.  Thereafter, City College was reviewed by a new visiting team. City College had an opportunity to review and comment on the team’s report before the report was finalized and sent to the Commission. The team found that City College had made progress, but still failed to meet numerous accreditation standards. The Commission then terminated City College’s accreditation. In doing so, the Commission concluded that some accreditation requirements the team believed were met were not, in fact, met. Before the Commission’s action became final, City College had an internal right to appeal. City College did appeal. The appellate panel remanded the termination decision to the Commission to consider City College’s compliance as of May 21, 2014. Concluding that several standards were not met as of that date, the Commission did not reconsider its decision, at which point the termination decision became final. There are discrepancies between the Standards that the 2013 Evaluation Team concluded were not met and the Standards that the Commission concluded were not met. . . .  (p. 48-49) the Commission concluded that ten standards were unmet, where the 2013 Evaluation Team had concluded these standards were met.  (p. 51)

Further:

The meaning of the term “deficiency” is critical. ACCJC asserts that the word “deficiency” refers to conduct that results in noncompliance, not noncompliance itself. Therefore, ACCJC contends, the Commission may conclude that an institution failed to meet an accreditation standard at the pertinent time for the purposes of terminating accreditation even if the failure to meet that standard at the pertinent time has not been previously raised by ACCJC so long as the Commission’s decision is based on facts found by the evaluation team. The People argue that deficiency means the failure to meet a standard. I adopt the meaning urged by the People. Whether a factual finding amounts to a ‘deficiency’ is a conclusion arising from the application of accreditation standards to factual findings. A deficiency is not noted or identified until the underlying conduct is evaluated in connection with an accreditation standard, and an insufficiency is found. If the same factual finding is made, but there is no conclusion that the accreditation standard is unmet, no deficiency has been identified. That is, a deficiency is not listed or identified with respect to a specific standard unless and until the underlying behavior is directly tied to a failure to meet the standard. . . .

City College was not given notice that deficiencies with respect to standards I.B.1, I.B.2, IB.3, II.A.6, II.B.4, III.B.1, and II.C persisted in 2013 before the Commission acted to terminate based in part on the conclusion that those deficiencies did persist in 2013. . .

ACCJC’s violation of its own policy was material with respect to the additional deficiencies identified as such by the Commission but not in the 2013 report. The policy, as I interpret it based on the evidence before me, ensures an institution the opportunity to dispute, in writing and in advance of the Commission meeting at which a decision is reached, the conclusion that a factual finding amounts to a deficiency. . . . City College was deprived of that opportunity to the extent that the Commission identified new deficiencies not identified as such in the team report because City College was never given notice that deficiencies with respect to those specific standards persisted in2013. Such a deprivation of notice can render the process unfair. (p. 51-53)

Moreover, the decision adds,

It does not appear that appellate processes cured the deficiencies I have noted, specifically, that City College did not have an opportunity to contest the specific deficiencies identified by the Commission but not by the 2013 Evaluation Team. The record reflects the decisions on review and appeal, but not the bases on which City College sought review and appeal.  It does not appear that infirmities in the procedures before the Commission were either cured or waived (assuming waiver applies) by City College’s conduct of the appeal, and accordingly I conclude here that there is a violation of the common law fair procedure doctrine. (p. 54)

Summing up the proven violations of the Unfair Competition Law, Judge Karnow concluded:

The People have shown that ACCJC violated the unlawful prong of the UCL in the following ways: (1) failing to maintain adequate controls against the appearance of conflicts of interest in the Commissioner selection process between October 2007 and October 2010, during which time twelve of the nineteen Commissioners who served in June 2012 and nine of the nineteen Commissioners who served in June 2013 were selected in violation of 34 C.F.R. § 602.15; (2) failing to include sufficient academics on the 2013 Evaluation Team in violation of34 C.F.R. § 602.15; (3) failing to provide a detailed written report that clearly identifies deficiencies in the institution’s compliance with accreditation standards in 2013, in violation of 34 C.F.R. § 602.18; and (4) failing to provide sufficient opportunity for a written response to deficiencies identified by the Commission in 2013 but not by the 2013 Evaluation team, in violation of34 C.F.R. § 602.25 and common law fair procedure. (p. 66; 34 C.F.R. §602 refers to The U.S. Secretary of Education’s Procedures and Criteria for Recognition of Accrediting Agencies)

With respect to the 2013 termination decision, the People have proven that (1) the evaluation team had too few academics; (2) numerous Commissioners were selected pursuant to a policy that inadequately guarded against the appearance of conflicts of interest; (3) ACCJC did not provide a detailed written report that clearly identified all deficiencies in City College’s compliance with accreditation standards; and (4) ACCJC did not provide sufficient opportunity for a written response to deficiencies identified by the Commission in 2013 but not by the 2013 Evaluation team. (p. 68-69)

Judge Karnow, however, declined to grant injunctive relief for the first two violations regarding the 2013 actions noted above.  He reasoned that were he to overturn a Commission decision to terminate accreditation because of the flawed mechanism for selecting Commissioners prior to October 2010, this would logically necessitate the overturning of all ACCJC decisions made by Commissioners selected under that mechanism, including those which granted accreditation, with resulting chaos.  With respect to the Commission’s failure to include enough faculty members on the evaluation team, he argued in a footnote that this was not

a basis for reversing an accreditation decision.  The deficiencies identified in 2012 went to financing and administrative oversight, not the quality of instruction.  Thus this is not a situation where administrators reviewed teachers and found that the teachers were not teaching properly.

This remarkable statement, buried in a footnote, acknowledges what critics of the ACCJC and CCSF supporters have been claiming from the start: contrary to popular perception and misleading claims by supporters of ACCJC and, to some extent by ACCJC itself, the denial of accreditation had nothing at all to do with the quality of education offered by the City College of San Francisco!

“I’m grateful for a tentative ruling that vindicates our view of the accrediting commission’s unlawful conduct in evaluating City College,” said City Attorney Herrera.

This should serve as a loud, unequivocal wake-up call to accreditors — that they are subject to laws, and will face consequences for breaking them. Though Judge Karnow didn’t go as far as we asked in terms of his proposed remedy, I am impressed with his thoughtful proposal for a tough, enforceable injunction that forces ACCJC to correct its violations and assures City College its due process rights. City College has been a cornerstone of educational promise for generations of San Franciscans, and Judge Karnow has proposed a thorough, novel and influential ruling that powerfully affirms the importance of a fair and lawful accreditation process — not just for City College of San Francisco, but for all educational institutions in California. While I’m grateful for this proposed ruling, I’d reiterate a point I made when I first filed suit: nothing about our case should distract or delay City College from doing all it can to solve problems that potentially threaten its existence. Should this decision stand, as we expect, it will offer City College another option for a life-saving reprieve. We will have affirmed the college’s right to a fair and lawful accreditation process. But City College’s future is in City College’s hands. And we must be vigilant to ensure that our cherished college isn’t vulnerable to similar injustices in the future.

The Decision’s Impact

Just two days before Karnow issued his decision, the ACCJC announced that it had granted CCSF “restoration status,” an additional two years to restore its accreditation by correcting remaining problems.  But “restoration status,” CCSF supporters have argued, “is dangerous and deceptive because it imposes new and unequal conditions: the college will be required to be in ‘full compliance’ instead of ‘substantial compliance’ and accreditation can be removed without right of appeal.” During the trial, ACCJC argued that there was no need for the judge to revoke the panel’s decision on accreditation because the problem had been solved: restoration was in place, City College was open, no problem. But Herrera argued that restoration doesn’t address the real issues of equity in the process, and that it won’t protect the school from the same kind of bad behavior that has characterized the ACCJC from the start.  [In a footnote, Judge Karnow noted that “While news reports suggest the Commission has granted restoration status, its action on restoration (one way or the other) has no effect on the issues decided here.” (p. 14)]

Now CCSF has a choice: accept and work with the bogus “restoration” process or inform the ACCJC that it accepts the court ruling and will work with the Commission in accordance with the terms of the injunction to be issued by Judge Karnow.  That would seem both the sensible route for the school as well as the one it is apparently taking.  In the wake of the Karnow decision, CCSF Chancellor Art Tyler said:

When today’s ruling is finalized by the judge, we will take the opportunity to ask the Commission to reconsider its termination decision and will present evidence, as we have for the last two years, of our continued progress and commitment to meeting the accreditation standards.

Another implication of the decision for CCSF concerns the state-appointed special trustee who was placed in charge of the college after the show cause order, displacing the legally elected board.  The trustee has, for over two years, acted as a veritable dictator in an effort to appease ACCJC and avoid termination at all costs.  The results have been the dismissals of numerous administrators and significant loss of faculty and staff, not to mention the radical constriction of democracy and shared governance and a drastic decline in enrollment owing to student fears that the college would be closed.  While many CCSF faculty and their supporters also see in the state takeover a hidden agenda of privatization and so-called educational “reform,” its justification has solely been to retain accreditation and satisfy ACCJC’s hazy demands.  If, in fact, much of the accreditation process was illegal, as Judge Karnow’s ruling implies, then that justification is at minimum much weakened.

Tim Killikelly, President of AFT Local 2121, which represents CCSF faculty, said, “This decision demonstrates that the justification for imposing a ‘special trustee with extraordinary powers’ and displacing the democratically elected Board of Trustees at CCSF was wrong.  There is no need for a special trustee at CCSF.  We call upon the State Chancellor and the state community college Board of Governors for the immediate return of the Board of Trustees.”  As journalist Tim Redmond noted, “That action is in the hands of the state chancellor — but he will be under pressure from the city, the Legislature, and labor to recognize that the problem he sought to solve was created by an unlawful, unfair process.”

While Judge Karnow’s long and complex analysis of the state Court’s legal jurisdiction over the ACCJC hardly makes for scintillating reading, its implications may well be considerable.  ACCJC insisted throughout the trial that it is an independent entity whose operation is subject only to regulation by the U.S. Department of Education.  When the state Legislature sought, for example, to audit the ACCJC, the Commission refused to participate.  But Karnow’s decision makes clear that the Commission is also subject to the laws of California and, presumably, other states in which it operates.

“The ruling clearly states that the people of the state of California have oversight over this agency,” California Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) told reporters.  “ACCJC is accountable to the people of California and our state laws.  The Legislature will discuss and determine if ACCJC needs reform or replacement.”

This may, however, be a bit of a stretch under Karnow’s ruling.  After all, the judge wrote: “While I have not found this state court action preempted, I do take the federal policies as cautionary, an alert that as I exercise my discretion any order of this court only do so much as is plainly necessary to account for the specific liability I have found and avoid to the extent possible interference with federal policies and procedures.” (p. 64-65)  It should probably be assumed that the courts will proceed with similar caution in assessing the legality of any efforts by state legislatures to determine accreditation policies, especially if these conflict with, limit, or extend federal regulations.

Certainly, it seems unlikely that a state legislature could legally designate the appropriate accrediting body for public colleges and universities in that state.  And that’s probably a good thing too, for although we might have considerable sympathy with efforts by Sacramento, where government is dominated by Democrats, to replace the rogue ACCJC, efforts by legislators in, say, Louisiana or Florida might be quite another matter.  It would be a mistake to permit the nation’s independent accrediting system, however flawed, to be replaced by state-run or even state-sanctioned agencies, stacked with political appointees.  Still, Redmond may well be correct when he says, “I would be shocked if the Legislature didn’t start another audit, hold hearings on the ACCJC, and come up with some sort of effective legislation forcing the agency to clean up its act.”

A Rogue Accreditor?

For ACCJC, despite its strangely odd insistence that it essentially won the case (which seems to suggest the Commission will not appeal), the consequences may be serious. “The judge’s decision is important,” said California Federation of Teacher (CFT) President Joshua Pechtalt.  “It says clearly that the commission broke the law, and that City College of San Francisco must be given a new opportunity to keep its accreditation.  But the broader meaning is that the ACCJC is not a fair and constructive overseer of accreditation for California’s community colleges.  Its bad behavior was revealed in this trial, and demonstrates the need for reform of community college accreditation in California.”

For some time now, the ACCJC has been under withering criticism as a “rogue” actor.  Both the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee and the U.S. Department of Education have found the Commission to be out of compliance with numerous regulations and requirements.  In April 2013 the CFT filed a complaint with the Education Department that resulted in a ruling demanding the ACCJC come into compliance with 15 violated accrediting standards.  In January 2014 the Commission was granted one year to come into compliance, meaning that in the coming months ACCJC will be reviewed and may have its authorization revoked by the Department.

Last month, the CFT filed a new complaint alleging continuing “…violations of federal requirements,” indicating that ACCJC “lacks the capacity, competence and knowledge to serve as a recognized reliable accreditor.” The complaint alleges that “ACCJC’s procedures, policies and actions […] adversely affect all California community colleges accredited by the ACCJC… threatening the opportunities of hundreds of thousands of students to continue their education at California community colleges.”

In a 32-page document, CFT alleges nine violations of ten different regulations.  These include charges that

  • ACCJC lacks a reasonable basis for determining that information it relies upon for making accrediting decisions is accurate. In particular its “average norm” for college expenditures for personnel costs, which it has announced is 80%, is not accurate. In reality, the statewide average is higher, and the average for urban-located colleges and large colleges is even greater.

  • ACCJC applies a norm to assess fiscal stability which looks at the percentage of a college’s unrestricted general fund which is spent on employee compensation (wages and benefits). ACCJC applies the same norm, 80%, regardless of the scope of operations of the college. However, statistics published by the Chancellor’s Office of the California community colleges confirms that the percentage figure is higher for colleges which have a greater scope of operations, or which are located in urban areas.

  • ACCJC’s lack of an adequate, competent and knowledgeable administrative staff interferes in the consistent application of fair evaluation standards and requirements.

  • ACCJC’s failure to have written and published specifications of requirements for obtaining good cause extensions of the “two-year rule”, and ACCJC’s basing of decisions toxtend the two-year rule on policies which are not published, threatens the continued accreditation of California’s 112 community colleges, and the educational opportunities of hundreds of thousands of students.

While these charges stem in good measure from the CCSF situation, that college is but the most prominent of several cases that suggest widespread problems with the Commission.  For some time Martin Hittleman — Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Los Angeles Valley College; President Emeritus of the California Federation of Teachers; former member of the California Community College State Academic Senate Executive Committee; former President of the CFT Community College Council; and former Vice President of the California Federation of Labor — has been compiling a document, now extending to well over 300 pages, that he calls ACCJC Gone Wild, which extensively documents a broad variety of problems with the accrediting agency.  According to Hittleman’s account,

From 2003 to 2008 the six United States regional accrediting bodies issued a total of 126 sanctions to community colleges in the United States. 112 of these were issued by the ACCJC under Beno’s direction. ACCJC has continued to be out of step with the other accrediting agencies. From June 2011 to June 2012 the ACCJC issued forty-eight of the seventy-five sanctions (64%) issued nationwide. The community colleges in California represent about 19% of the community colleges accredited nationally. In short, the 19% of the colleges nationwide that are under ACCJC generated 64% of the national sanctions.

In 2013 the ACCJC continued its assault on California’s community colleges when it sanctioned 10 out of 23 (43.4%) colleges before it in January of 2013 and 10 out of 21 (47.6%) colleges in June of 2013. Their action included putting College of Sequoias on SHOW CAUSE (the college must prove that it should not have its accreditation removed) and removed the accreditation from City College of San Francisco effective July 2014. This large number of sanctions is an indication that their policies and the way they apply them are out of step with what is happening in the internationally recognized outstanding community colleges of California.

ACCJC Gone Wild also demonstrates that ACCJC’s sanctions have little to do with educational quality:

The California Community Colleges Student Success Scorecard tracked students for six years through 2011-12. Many of the colleges which ranked highest on the scorecard in the various categories have recently been given sanctions by the ACCJC. Other colleges with low ranking have not. One typical example is City College of San Francisco which was had its accreditation revoked in June of 2013. CCSF ranked fourth among the colleges in the state in the percentage of students who were underprepared for college but still achieved 30 units of transfer work over the six years tracked. It also ranked high in other categories. CCSF is a great college for students and the ACCJC is set on closing it. It is clear, from looking at the scores at the various colleges, that the ACCJC has not successfully developed a methodology for considering academic quality and success. The scores on the California Community College Student Success Scorecard can be found on the California Community College website.

According to their own published report, the following were the reasons given for the ACCJC sanctions of January 2012:

• Six colleges did not have adequate procedures and did not appropriately implement program review of instructional programs and services.
• Twenty colleges failed to meet requirements regarding the use of assessment results in integrated planning.
• Twenty colleges were sanctioned for deficiencies in governing board roles and responsibilities; seven of these were colleges in multi-college districts where the key deficiencies were in district governing board operations.
• Fourteen colleges lacked appropriate and sustainable financial management.
• Thirty colleges had miscellaneous other deficiencies, primarily related to staffing (6), library and technology resources (4), and evaluations (4).

In the Summer 2014 ACCJC newsletter it was reported that “the main deficiencies for sanctions are related to Program Review, Planning, Internal Governance, Board Roles, and Financial Stability or Management. Common sanctions new to 2014 were related to Student Learning Outcomes Implementation and Employee Evaluation.”

Hittleman concludes that “None of the above areas of concern should be used as a reason for denying accreditation and effectively closing down a college.”  It is certainly hard to disagree with him.

Is ACCJC, therefore, a “rogue” accreditor?  Perhaps, but the real question is why?  Some have argued that this has something to do with the personality of its leader, Barbara Beno.  Others claim that ACCJC is a stalking horse for larger forces seeking to implement the so-called “completion agenda” and privatize California’s community colleges.  Others see a conflict between the California Master Plan’s longstanding definition of the multiple missions of the states’ community colleges, which are charged not only with lower division preparation for four-year colleges but also with ESL education for immigrants, enrichment courses for working adults, technical education and job training, and provision of college classes for qualified high school students in lieu of advanced placement courses, and those who believe the community colleges should focus almost exclusively on preparing students for four-year institutions.

Whatever the truth may be, it is certainly the case that the conflict over CCSF has focused attention on these sorts of issues.  Clearly accreditation is an area that faculty everywhere will be well advised to keep a close eye on.

5 thoughts on “Ruling in CCSF Accreditation Suit

  1. Thank you for this very thorough, systematic, and engaging overview of the significant aspects of this very complex case and ruling. This is a terrific post on a very important subject.

  2. Pingback: CCSF Board of Trustees Votes Against Holding ACCJC Accountable | The Academe Blog

  3. Pingback: California Task Force Recommends Replacing ACCJC | The Academe Blog

  4. Pingback: CFT Files Amended Lawsuit Against ACCJC | ACADEME BLOG

  5. Pingback: Victory at CCSF! ACCJC Fate Still Unsettled | ACADEME BLOG

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