ACCJC On the Defensive at NACIQI

This week I had the honor and privilege to join more than 30 California community college faculty, students, staff, trustees and community allies attending a meeting of the National Advisory Commission for Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) in Alexandria, Virginia.  NACIQI advises the U.S. Department of Education with regard to federal recognition of accrediting agencies and renders advice as well on the compliance of those agencies with federal regulations.  We traveled across the country to offer oral comment on NACIQI’s consideration of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which accredits two-year institutions in California, Hawaii, and the Pacific islands, 95% of which are in California.  ACCJC is seeking to demonstrate that it has come into compliance with a number of regulations that two years ago the department found it to have violated.  It also seeks to expand its scope of coverage to include accreditation of baccalaureate programs that California community colleges recently gained legal authority from the state to offer.

I want to report at some length on what transpired at this rather extraordinary NACIQI session, but first I need to pay tribute to the remarkable group that I had the pleasure of joining.  As regular visitors to this site know, I have been writing about ACCJC, and specifically its notorious effort to terminate accreditation of the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) — with over 80,000 students the largest single community college in the U.S. — for some time.   But this was the first opportunity I’ve had to meet and work directly with many of the dedicated educators and activists who have been fighting to defend CCSF and community colleges in California.  They are a special group whose persistence, energy, and intelligence are little short of amazing.

California Community College Faculty, Students, Trustees, Staff and Allies at NACIQI

California Community College Faculty, Students, Trustees, Staff and Allies at NACIQI

Two years ago in response to complaints from, among others, the California Federation of Teachers, NACIQI and the Department of Education found ACCJC to be out of compliance with 15 different federal regulations and gave the agency a year (later extended to two years) to come into compliance.  Earlier this year NACIQI issued a call for written and oral comment on ACCJC’s effort to demonstrate compliance with these 15 regulations and the agency’s application for an expansion of scope.  By the due date of September 25, about a hundred written comments were received, totaling over 250 pages.  Many of these comments addressed two standards — whether ACCJC is “widely accepted” by those it reviews and whether faculty are adequately represented on its visiting teams — that the agency had appealed two years ago.  That appeal has sat unresolved on the desk of outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for over a year and a half.

On November 12, NACIQI amended the Federal Register notice of the meeting to indicate that written and oral comment related to these regulations would not be accepted.  At the meeting it was revealed that while all written comments had apparently been forwarded for response to ACCJC, comments that staff deemed related to the two appealed issues were removed from comments forwarded to NACIQI members, apparently at the demand of ACCJC’s attorney.  In addition, oral commenters were instructed not to refer to these regulations.  The ACCJC attorney even asked whether he could “object” whenever a speaker made direct or indirect reference to these issues, to which the NACIQI staff aptly replied, “this is not a courtroom.”

As Tim Killikelly, President of AFT 2121, which represents CCSF faculty, told NACIQI, these restrictions were akin to speaking about the Titanic without being allowed to talk about the iceberg.  And AFT staff prepared bound copies of all written comments of which they were aware for distribution to NACIQI members, who were prohibited, however, from accepting them! (These bound comments are the documents being held by some individuals in the picture above.)

The staff report to NACIQI recommended that ACCJC’s request for expansion of scope be denied.  With respect to the 13 other regulations, the staff report found ACCJC’s efforts to come into compliance insufficient but recommended the agency be given another year to do so.  ACCJC was represented by its notoriously truculent President Barbara Beno; Chair Steven Kinsella, President of Gavilan College; Vice President Krista Johns and outside counsel Steven Winnick.   Their response was unrepentant and in some respects even belligerent, as they refused to accept the staff recommendation.

These proceedings took up much of the morning of December 16.  In the afternoon came the oral comment, lasting almost four hours, with each speaker strictly limited to just three minutes.  Brice Harris, Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, began by calling on NACIQI to deny the requested expansion of scope, noting that on the basis of a report from a broad task force his Board of Governors had resolved to seek a different accrediting agency for the state’s 113 community colleges.  He was followed immediately by former CFT President Marvin Hittleman, whose Accreditation Watch website, AKA “ACCJC Gone Wild,” is an indispensable and encyclopedic source of evidence that ACCJC is, as many claimed, a “rogue accreditor.”

They were followed by a parade of CCSF faculty, trustees, staff, and students; faculty, trustees, and administrators from other colleges, and allies like Jonathan Lightman, Executive Director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges (FACCC) (check out their twitter page for a running account of the hearing).  Lightman told NACIQI that the issue is not just CCSF, but an overall “failure of judgment” by the agency, with devastating impact on sanctioned colleges, whose complaints about their treatment were muzzled by threats of retaliation.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who successfully prosecuted ACCJC in federal court for its treatment of CCSF, in comments read by a member of the CCSF Board of Trustees, told NACIQI that “ACCJC cannot and will not comply with regulations because it doesn’t even acknowledge it is subject to them.”

Jennifer Shanoski, a chemistry professor from Merritt College in Oakland, told the meeting that her school had been found fully compliant just two years before being arbitrarily sanctioned by ACCJC.  In response to questions she added that ACCJC’s criteria for the assessment of student learning outcomes were so arcane that even with a Ph.D from U.C. Berkeley she couldn’t understand what they meant and how she could comply with them.

CFT President Joshua Pechtalt called the committee’s attention to the glaring irony of ACCJC’s repeated approval of the notorious and criminal online scam operation, the Heald/Corinthian colleges, even as it threatened termination of CCSF.  It was only in 2012, when CCSF was first placed on “show cause” status, that accreditation of Heald/Corinthian was removed from ACCJC and evidence of its misdeeds began to come to light.

Tim Nader, a trustee at Southwestern College in Chula Vista near the Mexican border and former mayor of that city, arriving near the very end of the comment period after a late flight from California, told NACIQI about ACCJC’s disdain for elected college trustees. Ron Galatolo, Chancellor of the San Mateo Community College District; John Rizzo and Rafael Mandelman of the CCSF board were among other adminstrators and trustees adding to the critique of ACCJC as inadequately transparent, arbitrary, and inconsistent.

I also want to acknowledge those dedicated CCSF faculty members who have been waging this battle now for more than two years and spoke with both passion and reason: Tim Killikelly and Alisa Messer, who have led AFT 2121; Wendy Kaufmyn, who has been instrumental in building the Save CCSF Coalition and who indefatigably coordinated a feisty group of commentators; Lilliam Marrujo-Duck and Karen Saginor, leaders of the Academic Senate; as well as the other faculty activists who spoke, including Mike Solow, Muriel Parenteau (who heads the disability program), Tarik Farrar, Rodger Scott, and Anita Grier (I hope I haven’t left anyone out!)  What a splendid group of colleagues!

But by far the most moving comments came from a group of CCSF students and recent alumni, whose eloquence, poise, and intelligence provided perhaps the most powerful testimony to the school’s success.  And among those comments perhaps the most powerful came from Martin Madrigal, a CCSF graduate now completing a mathematics degree at San Jose State University.  An Army veteran of four tours of duty in Iraq, Madrigal spoke in full military dress uniform and movingly described how CCSF faculty members had inspired and helped him overcome PTSD and directed him on a new career path to becoming a teacher.

Here are those students:


Of course, not all the speakers opposed ACCJC.  At the last minute four speakers signed up to defend the agency.  Three of these, however, were members of the commission, although only one of them identified himself as such.  And in a telling moment one of the commissioners, a faculty member, was asked by a NACIQI member whether he had a similar view of the commission before he was recruited into its ranks.  No, he said, but now he was “an insider” and understood things better!  So much for transparency.

On Thursday morning NACIQI took up the staff recommendation.  The overwhelming sentiment of the commenters was that the committee should recommend that the department (NACIQI is only advisory to the Secretary of Education) immediately revoke ACCJC’s authority.  But committee members were troubled by that possibility, given that at present there is no alternative accrediting mechanism in place.  (The California Community College Board of Governors promises to offer a substitute by mid-March.)  As a result, they voted to accept the staff recommendation but to reduce the time afforded ACCJC to come into full compliance from a year to just six months.  Three NACIQI members dissented, preferring to terminate ACCJC’s authority now.

The AAUP takes no position on the future of ACCJC; this is an issue for those directly affected to decide.  But from the moment that ACCJC announced that it would terminate CCSF’s accreditation AAUP has expressed its concerns.  A statement approved by the AAUP Executive Committee on July 8, 2013, declared: “we cannot ignore the growing chorus of complaints from faculty organizations, individual faculty members, students and community groups that ACCJC’s actions are excessive and unfair, and not only at CCSF.”  In September, 2013, Kimberly Reiser, Chair of AAUP’s Committee on Community Colleges, and Jack Rossman, then-Chair of AAUP’s Committee on Accreditation, submitted written comment to NACIQI opposing ACCJC’s request for expanded scope.

I was proud and honored to be able to offer my own oral comment, on behalf of both myself and the AAUP, which follows:

Oral Comment of Henry Reichman, AAUP First Vice-President, to NACIQI, December 16, 2015

Numbers in brackets refer to federal regulations with which ACCJC has been found to be non-compliant.  The sentence in italics was not read out of deference to NACIQI’s prohibition of reference to compliance violations remaining under appeal.

My name is Henry Reichman. I am Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, East Bay and First Vice-President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). More than 40,000 college and university faculty members nationwide belong to the AAUP, over 2,500 in California. Since the Association’s founding in 1915, its recommended policies have been widely recognized as authoritative throughout American higher education.

I am here because the AAUP has received numerous complaints about the failure of the ACCJC to serve as a constructive accrediting agency. Specifically, we have heard that

• ACCJC does not maintain clear standards or offer reasonable time for institutions to comply with those standards [602.25]
• ACCJC’s standards are insufficiently rigorous in important areas and overly rigorous in trivial ones [602.16]
• ACCJC is inconsistent in its application and enforcement of standards, which are themselves too often vague, conflicting, and confusing [602.18]
• ACCJC’s procedures fail to provide adequate due process protections [602.25]

These concerns and others find powerful validation in the 2015 Report of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Task Force On Accreditation, which concluded unanimously that “ACCJC has consistently failed to meet expectations” and that “The California Community College system and its member institutions have lost confidence in the ACCJC.”

Consequently, AAUP members do not believe that ACCJC’s “standards, policies, procedures, and decisions to grant or deny accreditation are widely accepted.” [602.13]

The AAUP’s chief concern with accreditation has long been the extent to which the faculty meaningfully participates. [602.15(a)(3)] Not only are ACCJC’s visiting teams dominated by administrators, with few faculty members. Not only is there scant evidence to suggest that faculty members are selected through a process by which the faculty may gain genuine representation. But this absence of faculty may help explain why ACCJC’s standards do not effectively address the quality of an institution’s faculty. [602.16(a)(1)(iii)]

For example, their standards do not meaningfully attend to critical issues of academic freedom. Our 2008 statement on accreditation standards and part-time faculty bemoaned the silence of accrediting agencies like ACCJC, about the growth of non-tenure-track and part-time appointments and the ensuing deterioration of the teaching profession and the quality of education. Not only does ACCJC not consider overreliance on such faculty a problem, they seem to encourage this harmful development.

Recently Secretary of Education Duncan declared that accrediting agencies should be better ‘watchdogs.’ We agree, but at whom and what should they bark? ACCJC would snap at the letter carrier and delivery person but wag their tail at the burglars. The real issue is not the volume of the barking but ACCJC’s failure to challenge institutional priorities and practices that erode genuine educational quality while arbitrarily disciplining institutions for petty or irrelevant “violations.”

Thank you.

In conclusion I want to thank the Save CCSF Coalition, AFT 2121, and the California Federation of Teachers for inviting me to join them at this meeting and for their support of my trip.  This fight is far from over!

13 thoughts on “ACCJC On the Defensive at NACIQI

  1. Beautiful commentary! A slight criticism: I’m not sure “authority” is the best word to use in that context, since accreditation is a voluntary system in the United States and accrediting organizations are not governmental agencies.

    • Technically, yes. But only students at institutions accredited by an agency approved by the Dept. of Education may receive federally backed financial aid. Few institutions can survive without this.

  2. You may want to correct the following sentence:
    “Ron Galatolo, Chancellor of the San Mateo Community College District; John Rizzo and Rafael Mandelman of the CCSF board were among other adminstrators and trustees adding to the critique of CCSF as inadequately transparent, arbitrary, and inconsistent.”
    to read:
    “Ron Galatolo, Chancellor of the San Mateo Community College District; John Rizzo and Rafael Mandelman of the CCSF board were among other adminstrators and trustees adding to the critique of ACCJC as inadequately transparent, arbitrary, and inconsistent.”

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