California Task Force Recommends Replacing ACCJC

If you have been following my long series of posts about the accreditation controversy at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), you are aware that I have been one of many critics of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), an independent entity of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) charged with accrediting two-year institutions in California and elsewhere in the west.  As I previously reported:

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.

Yesterday (August 28) the office of the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges weighed in and the news is not good for ACCJC.  Here’s how the San Francisco Chronicle put it:

The only group authorized to accredit California’s 113 community colleges is far too punitive and should be replaced, a task force convened by the state’s Community College Chancellor’s Office concluded Friday. . . .

But the startling recommendation from the task force of 10 college leaders and faculty members — which was asked to evaluate the state of accreditation in light of concerns from college faculty and employees across the state, as well as politicians and the chancellor’s office itself — is based on more than just the outrage that has sizzled around City College for three years.

The task force said the commission has for years resisted calls for it to change from focusing on the minutiae of compliance to doing a better job helping troubled colleges improve. In addition, the task force noted that community colleges and four-year universities are increasingly intertwined — the transfer system has improved, and some colleges are even offering bachelor’s degrees.

As a result, the panel is recommending that the state chancellor’s office replace the commission, perhaps by bringing community colleges under the wing of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, which accredits California’s four-year schools. The nation’s five other accrediting regions all have just one commission evaluating both levels of higher education.

Until a new system is identified — which could then take years to receive the required recognition from the U.S. Department of Education — the task force is recommending that colleges continue to work with the commission. At the same time, a delay in repairing the problem “will have adverse effects” on students and the state’s economy, the task force warned.

The task force said that since 2005, ACCJC has placed two-thirds of California’s community colleges — all but 37 — on some level of sanction. “Although many of these institutions were removed from sanction relatively quickly, the numbers are inordinately high compared to the frequency of sanctions under other accreditors,” the task force said in its 270-page report.  From 2009 to 2013, the commission’s sanction rate was about 53 percent (it issued 143 sanctions within 269 accreditation actions it took) compared with a sanction rate of about 12 percent by other accrediting agencies, according to the task force, which got the figures from a 2014 state audit of the commission.

“Yes, our colleges have challenges, but that many sanctions? I must admit that does not make sense to me,” said California Community College Chancellor Brice Harris, a former commissioner who left in 2007.

Harris said he generally agrees with the report’s conclusion that the commission must go.  He added that the primary point of accreditation should be on helping colleges improve and grow, rather than focusing entirely on compliance. The report spends several pages talking about what a good system would look like, including improving communication and respect between colleges and the accreditor.

“I’m certain it won’t be a quick process,” Harris said, adding that the Board of Governors for the state’s community college system is likely to take action on the recommendation and direct his office to consider possible alternatives.

In a press release posted on its website, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) welcomed the report:

“The ACCJC has lost its way,” said Joshua Pechthalt, CFT president. “We need a commission with the best interests of students, faculty and public higher education at the center of its work. The ACCJC has other priorities. It forces colleges to waste faculty and staff time and taxpayer money on bureaucratic minutia irrelevant to the classroom. It makes reckless and ill-informed decisions behind closed doors that harm the lives of thousands of Californians. And in the process, it is unconcerned if it is breaking the law. This report sharply underscores that accreditation is too important to be left in the hands of ACCJC.”

In a statement Tim Kilkelly, President of AFT 2121, the CFT local that represents faculty at CCSF wrote:  “I could not be prouder of AFT 2121 than I am today! It has been the efforts of our local members that started the process that led to today’s report. It was by simply telling the truth and sticking together and working with our friends and allies that made this possible. We still have struggles ahead of us but speaking truth and showing our solidarity with each other is incredibly powerful.”

The struggle at CCSF is far from over, however, nor can it be assumed that ACCJC will simply go peacefully into the sunset.  But the task force report represents not only a major victory for CCSF faculty, students, staff and community supporters but a victory for community college faculty throughout the state.  Indeed, this is an important advance in the developing fight against the so-called “completion agenda” with its accompanying “assessment myth” that has rendered such damage to the country’s once-great system of private accreditation.

7 thoughts on “California Task Force Recommends Replacing ACCJC

  1. I would agree with all of the article except the last words. The accreditation system in the US was never great, back to its origins which were partly to screen out women’s and Black institutions at the turn of the 20th century. It now cries out for massive reform and to be taken in-house as a direct government function, rather than a privatized (and now corporate controlled) one, as it is in nearly every other nation on earth.

    Joe Berry

    • Point taken; “great” was probably excessive. Still, although I’m not as knowledgeable about the relevant history as I might be, I’m willing to venture that in the democratization of American higher education after WW2 our independent system of accreditation was on balance more facilitator than obstruction.

      More important, I cannot embrace your call for direct government control of accreditation. I find it hard at best to see how the same legislators responsible for the systematic defunding and privatization of public higher education should be given the added responsibility of policing the very system they’ve worked so hard to destroy. Think about it, Joe. Would you put, say, the Wisconsin Legislature in charge? Or maybe the climate-change-denying anti-science yahoos currently running the Congress? After 25 years in the California State University I’ve learned a few things about state interference in education and I’ve come to envy my UC colleagues who, despite their battles with fat-cat corporatizing Regents, are protected by that university’s Constitutional independence, established at its foundation in the 19th century. But it’s not just Republicans and the states. In a recent post to this blog (https://academeblog.org/2015/07/28/arne-duncan-accreditation-and-barking-watchdogs/) I pointed out how Arne Duncan’s complaints that accreditors are “watchdogs that fail to bark” serves the anti-education agenda of the corporatizers. (For more of my views on accreditation see that post).

      My dream is that we may one day see accreditation agencies hold institutions accountable for their criminal overreliance on a largely part-time and exploited faculty on contingent contracts, with limited academic freedom and no shared governance. I dream they will one day call out those universities who claim penury in the classroom while spending millions on executive salaries or a football stadium. In today’s climate that dream will be difficult to make real under any circumstances, but it will surely be even more difficult were we to subject accreditation even more directly to prevailing political winds.

      • Perhaps I am unduly influenced by my experiences at City College of SF since the battle there began all the way back to July 2012, but I still think I would rather have an enemy (or a power over me) that had to have public meetings, was in some way accountable to someone who was elected, and otherwise more open to protest and pressure. Having also taught in private higher ed, where Trustees’ meeting do not have to be open or even reported, I think the public sector is where these sort of decisions should be made. I also thing that most faculty (the contingent majority) do not see the present system as staffed or operated by “colleagues”, especially since contingents are never on evaluation teams presently and some teams recently have hardly any (even zero) faculty on them at all anymore. Then, as we found with ACCJC, the team’s rulings can be overturned by the Board of the “non-profit” organization anyway, with virtually no democratic accountability or transparency.

        I do not see having accreditation done by a private entity, even if supposedly a cooperative association made up of the leaders of the institutions themselves (nearly always defined as top present or former administrators) serves the public good in the long run. The political wheel will turn (in fact I think it is starting to now) and we will see a different set of ideas to some extent in state, and even federal, government. In any case, I think the answer to most problems, including this one, is more democracy not less and more organizing by those of us at the bottom of a very misshaped pyramid, especially in higher ed, and education in general.

        I think the current system represents some of the worst of privatization and the fact that this system was in place during what some call the “golden age” after WWII does not in itself make the system good. Only that it allowed some good things to happen (with lots of Federal money as lubricant, and a big social movement in the 1960s forcing the pump pressure).

        Thanks for the opportunity to engage in this discussion.

      • I understand your position, but I guess in this Scylla/Charybdis context I simply lean the other way. I will agree, however, that most faculty — and far from only those on contingent appointments — don’t see accreditors as “colleagues.” That’s because they aren’t. But then neither are legislators or government officials. Whether accreditation is carried out through an independent body or directly by the state, faculty will need to organize to have greater and more direct influence. To my mind that is one important lesson of the CCSF fight. I might also add that at CCSF the faculty, represented by AFT 2121, consistently argued that ACCJC was a “rogue” accreditor and not that the entire accreditation system was broken, although, frankly, I agree with you that it is. Another thing we agree on here is that a broader and more extended conversation about accreditation and its role would be most welcome. Thanks.

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