BY HANK REICHMAN
In a stunning development that the Faculty Association for the California Community Colleges called a “major win” for the state’s community college faculty, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) yesterday announced that it had settled its lawsuit against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), the embattled agency that accredits all 112 community colleges in the state. The agreement includes a no interference clause for the community college collective bargaining process, agreement on the appropriate use of student learning outcomes, and increased inclusion of faculty on evaluation teams.
In a press release, CFT said:
Originally filed in September 2013, following the ACCJC’s reckless decision to terminate the accreditation of City College of San Francisco, the CFT’s lawsuit sought an injunction to keep the college open, and to force the agency to stop violating its own rules and the rule of law. That injunction was granted through a separate lawsuit filed by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera in San Francisco Superior Court, and in that lawsuit ACCJC was found to have broken several laws in its decision to terminate CCSF’s accreditation.
The CFT’s lawsuit addressed broader concerns than Herrera’s, seeking to end years of punitive, arbitrary, inconsistent and expensive actions by the Commission. The behavior brought to light by the CFT led many observers to decry the Commission’s lack of transparency and “culture of fear,” culminating in sharp criticism by the Chancellor’s office, the Board of Governors, the State Auditor, elected leaders in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Washington D.C., and sanctions by the U.S. Department of Education.
Last year, however, a number of changes in Commission leadership—including placing its controversial president, Barbara Beno, on administrative leave—ultimately led to fruitful discussions between CFT and the ACCJC.
Under the settlement ACCJC has agreed, among other things, to:
- “take no positions or to create any new policies with the intent of interfering with California community colleges collective bargaining agreements.” Nor will it require colleges to adopt terms and conditions through collective bargaining with respect to matters within the scope of representation as defined by California law;
- delete accreditation standard III.A.6, requiring student learning outcomes (SLOs) to be used as a component of faculty evaluation;
- adopt a policy to ensure at least three active duty faculty members are assigned to each college evaluation team;
- adopt a policy establishing clear criteria by which the ACCJC may extend for “good cause” the two year period for a college to comply with accreditation standards as to which it has been found deficient;
- apply its indicators of financial stability consistently from college to college, and refrain from directing colleges what specific steps must be taken to achieve that stability;
- reaffirm accreditation for 7 years with a follow up report for colleges with minor compliance issues, instead of the recently-adopted eighteen month period of reaffirmation; and
- strengthen conflict of interest safeguards for commissioners and evaluation team members.
As I’ve reported many times on this blog, ACCJC has been a growing target of faculty ire since it first revoked the accreditation of the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) in 2013.
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 the National Advisory Commission on Insitutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) opposing ACCJC’s request for expanded scope. 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. In December 2015, addressing recommendations to deny ACCJC’s accrediting authority under federal law, I told NACIQI that “AAUP members do not believe that ACCJC’s “standards, policies, procedures, and decisions to grant or deny accreditation are widely accepted,”adding,
The AAUP’s chief concern with accreditation has long been the extent to which the faculty meaningfully participates. 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.
Two years ago a task force of California community college leaders and faculty members recommended replacing the commission as the accrediting body for the state’s community colleges. In Fall 2016, Richard Hansen, a longtime faculty and union leader who teaches mathematics at DeAnza College in the Bay Area, summarized the complaints against the Association that led to this recommendation:
Lack of collaborative interaction with the colleges and a shroud of secrecy surrounding all ACCJC activities have created what some critics call a “gotcha” approach to the accreditation process. Colleges under review are kept in the dark about expectations, and those on campus preparing for an accreditation review suffer extreme anxiety for fear that something might go wrong and result in a sanction. College representatives believe their jobs are on the line.
Self-studies are written without ACCJC guidelines and authors often resort to checking with recently accredited colleges to ask what is expected in each successive accreditation cycle. Once submitted, the ACCJC offers no feedback, preferring to use what is revealed in the self-study as hints at failings to be explored during the site visit and then exploited in the visiting team report. Ironically, the ultimate “gotcha” is often reserved for the Commission itself as there have been instances in which the Commission’s decision on a college results in a sanction more severe than the visiting team recommendation, and Commission findings sometime raise issues not found in either the self-study or the report of the visiting team.
The potential impact of the CFT-ACCJC agreement on efforts to replace ACCJC is unclear. Tthere is reason to believe, however, that the commission may now survive the challenges to its existence, albeit with a revised (and hopefully much improved) approach to its mission.
Speaking for the CFT, union president Joshua Pechthalt said, “This agreement represents a sea change in the ACCJC’s operations in a number of significant ways. We believe that as a result of this settlement, fair accreditation practices will be the norm going forward.”
Jim Mahler, president of the CFT’s statewide Community College Council, said, “In fast-tracking these reforms, the ACCJC’s leadership has indicated the seriousness with which they view the settlement and their intent to implement it. We look forward to strengthening and improving the educational opportunities for the community college system’s two million students, no longer distracted by the accreditation problems of the past.”
CCSF faculty union president Tim Killikelly said, “On the heels of ACCJC finally granting City College of San Francisco full accreditation, and putting Compton College on a firm path to reaccreditation, this settlement is a vindication of our union’s decision to fight back against the illegal and unfair actions to which we had been subjected, and for the literal future of the college. This struggle took a big toll. What the agreement should mean is no one else will ever again have to go through what we at City College went through.”
“The campaign for fair accreditation in California led by the CFT has been incredibly successful. We hope this agreement signals a new direction for the accreditation process and the California community college system. Nonetheless, we will remain vigilant in holding ACCJC accountable. We believe this agreement and our vigilance together will help ensure a robust and fair accreditation system for California.”
Community college faculty in California and, indeed, faculty everywhere affected by accreditation standards and practices, should be grateful to CFT for its tireless efforts in support of the faculty’s role in building collaborative and constructive — not punitive — accreditation processes.