ACCJC: On a mission and off the rails

At the end of April, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) filed a complaint or "third party comment" with the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), and sent a copy to the United States Department of Education. In that complaint, the CFT protested the ACCJC’s action in placing City College San Francisco (CCSF) on a “show cause” sanction in 2012. The document laid out a strong case that no sanction, let alone “show cause,” should have been imposed on CCSF. It also notified the ACCJC that in the view of CFT, the accrediting agency is in violation of federal law and its own rules, and has overstepped its authority in a number of ways.

As CFT’s Community College Council president Jim Mahler observed, “We need to get the commission back to where it used to be, as a positive force for quality instruction, not as an agency to be feared.”

“Please don’t quote me”
If you talk with faculty at community colleges throughout California about their experience of the accreditation process in recent years, Photo of CFT Executive Director Dan Martin delivering the complaintyou hear the same thing over and over again. Faculty activists who have been unafraid to place themselves on public record on a range of matters, including initially unpopular issues like opposition to wars or support for progressive tax policies, are saying, “I’ll talk with you about accreditation, but don’t quote me. I don’t want repercussions for my college.”

Why the fear and trembling? ACCJC has been issuing sanctions at a rate hugely out of proportion to other regional accreditation agencies. A quarter of California community colleges are operating under one of the three levels of sanction—warning, probation, or show cause. Comparable numbers for the other regional accreditation agencies are far lower. These sanctions can, and do, have dire effects—increased faculty workloads, priorities shifting from instruction to administrative paperwork, and plunging enrollment and falling state revenues based on that enrollment.

Thus sanctions can, perhaps counter-intuitively, also damage the ability of community colleges to perform their central task—delivering quality instruction to their students, at least during the time it takes to address the accrediting agency’s concerns.

Hence the anger at ACCJC’s actions, and a thread that runs through all the off-the-record testimony from faculty: the widely shared perception that the people at the top levels of the ACCJC are vindictive and vengeful, and believed to have bumped sanction recommendations from the site visitation teams up to higher levels “to teach people a lesson.”

If the perception is true, keeping your head down and working on “compliance” would seem the better part of valor; who wants to be known as the individual who turned his or her vessel broadside to the ACCJC’s cannons?

Beyond the chill cast over individual speech, the threat and reality of ACCJC sanction has contaminated collegiality between faculty and administration and disrupted traditional methods of problem solving in many districts. As one off-the-record faculty member confided, “On my campus, we worked very hard, for years, to achieve a good level of collaboration, to create the rules we can all play by and live with. Suddenly, with the sanction hanging over us, you end up throwing all that overboard. There’s an alarm bell constantly ringing, and the line from top management now becomes, “Well, if you don’t do this, you compromise our existence.” At times I was told, in enforcing our contract or the EERA, “You’re putting us in jeopardy.” And it wasn’t just the union being told. Academic senate leaders went through similar things.”

Not everyone thinks the crisis atmosphere is all bad. As one administrator noted from an alternative perspective, “Many times it’s been a nice stick to get people to change.”

The historical record points to the conclusion that these faculty fears of retaliation for speaking out may well be justified. If that’s the case, then the ACCJC is in trouble.

CCSF as poster child
The poster child for ACCJC overreach is City College of San Francisco. The ACCJC gave CCSF “recommendations” in 2006, but ACCJC did not issue a sanction at that time, and this is significant. The ACCJC returned to the college in March 2012 and found the college had not, in its view, successfully addressed the recommendations identified in 2006.

When the ACCJC issued its CCSF finding in June 2012, the college was placed on “show cause”—as in, show cause why the institution should remain accredited. This jump from no sanction to the highest level short of closure was unprecedented. Earlier “show cause” sanctions on College of the Redwoods and Cuesta College had been issued by the ACCJC only following failure to address stipulations in previous, lower level sanctions. Equally disturbing, while typically an institution is given two years to deal with its difficulties, the ACCJC told CCSF it had but eight months to address 14 issues that fell under the broad areas of finances, decision-making, and measurements.

But through a linguistic sleight of hand, ACCJC changed the rules of the game between 2006 and 2012. CCSF’s supposed failure to address the recommendations of the site visit team in 2006 did not represent a failure to respond to sanction, since there was none. Yet in 2012 the “recommendations to improve” morphed into a need to “correct deficiencies,” a different definition under the guidelines for accreditation, and offered as a major reason why the “show cause” sanction was imposed.

Alisa Messer, president of AFT 2121 at City College, argues that “Many of CCSF’s problems were rooted in state underfunding. After 2007, we suffered $53 million in cuts in four years, slashed out of the district’s budget from state allocations.”

Between the two accreditation site visits, the college’s technical infrastructure decayed, maintenance was deferred, and administrative positions went unfilled. The ACCJC’s response was to largely ignore the economic context, and then ding the college for too few administrators, outdated technology, and depleted reserves—in essence, for keeping the cuts as far away as possible from classrooms and student services.

The resultant negative publicity, fed by a steady drumbeat of yellow journalism-style misinformation from San Francisco’s sole daily newspaper, created enough anxiety in CCSF’s student population that enrollment fell by nearly 10%. The Board of Trustees hired a new Chancellor from outside the district, and agreed to take on a “special trustee” with extraordinary powers appointed by the state.

“Neither of these top decision-makers had any experience with or connection to City College of San Francisco and the communities it serves,” says Messer, “and certainly no emotional attachment to its historic successes, personnel, or future.”

Following passage of Prop 30 and San Francisco’s parcel tax, Prop A, in November 2012, the CCSF administration and Board of Trustees decided to allocate the new revenues to budget reserves, administration, and technology—seemingly everywhere but the classroom, while demanding further salary concessions and class cutbacks. This was contrary to the expectations of 73% of San Francisco’s voters, but apparently aligned with the ACCJC’s demands, and set the administration and Trustees on a collision course with the district’s faculty, staff and students, which is now unfolding in sharply rising conflict over budget and policy issues.

RP Group report validates view
A report issued by the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges (RP Group) in 2011 validates the view that something was seriously wrong with the ACCJC’s approach in San Francisco—and in other community colleges across the state. The RP Group, no nest of radicals, is a foundation-supported organization of community college managers and board members, “working to build a community college culture that views planning, evidence-based decisionmaking, and institutional effectiveness as integral strategies for student success.”

Acting on behalf of the State Chancellor’s office, the RP Group was concerned at the soaring level of sanctions in California (at the time of its research, 14% of ACCJC institutions, versus 1% and 3% of the institutions covered by the two comparison accreditation agencies; it’s even worse now) and at the discontent emerging in the “community college culture” with ACCJC’s approach to the accreditation process. It looked at the practices of other regional commissions and compared them with the ACCJC’s (“Focusing Accreditation on Quality Improvement”, at http://www.rpgroup.org/projects/archive).

The RP Group offered an analysis that is damning. The orientation of ACCJC is at odds with best accreditation practices, which, according to the RP Group, should focus on active engagement with a college community in educational quality improvement, not quality assurance from on high through a punitive focus on compliance. The RP Group notes that the emphasis on compliance “…can detract from institutional improvement priorities—implying a disconnect between the intentions of the commission and the experience of the colleges.”

The RP Group found in its research that “transparent, open and honest opportunities for feedback without fear of retribution are critical to a commission’s relationship with member colleges.” But “…the colleges interviewed found ACCJC generally unreceptive to constructive criticism and expressed a fear of retaliation.”

Just the beginning
The RP Group’s report was, characteristically, ignored by the ACCJC. But the report just scratches the surface of the agency’s departure from the norms of behavior by an accreditation agency. The San Francisco case illustrates what those problems are.

An accreditation agency must avoid not only conflicts of interest in its work, but, as the ACCJC’s own handbook delineates, even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Yet during the year prior to the stunning “show cause” sanction, CCSF and the ACCJC were on opposite sides of a major legislative battle over SB 1456, the product of the Student Success Task Force, which proposed to drastically overhaul the mission and practices of California’s community colleges.

CCSF students, faculty, and members of the Board of Trustees testified against the Student Success Task Force recommendations and SB 1456, held rallies against it, came out in force to the January 2012 state Board of Governors meeting to oppose the bill, and ultimately succeeded in eliminating some of the most objectionable policy language in the bill.

On the other hand, the chair of the ACCJC, Barbara Beno, sent letters to legislators urging them, on behalf of the ACCJC, to pass SB 1456. The ACCJC lent its name as a supporter on the official Bill Analysis.

Federal law requires accrediting agencies to be independent, both administratively and financially, of related or affiliated trade associations or membership organizations. Yet ACCJC’s president, Commissioner Steven Kinsella, and Vice President John Nixon, are active in the Campaign for College Opportunity, which advocated for SB 1456; and the ACCJC worked with the Community College League of California as a “partner” in supporting SB 1456.

Former CCC president Carl Friedlander noted that, “Spearheading a “reform campaign” is not the business of an accrediting commission.” ACCJC’s task is to accredit colleges based on the current state mission, not to propose changes to it. Lobbying clearly puts it at odds with its role in evaluating the accreditation of CCSF, and any other college that took a position against SB 1456.

Change coming
Why is this happening now, and how is the ACCJC getting away with what it’s doing? The precise answer to “why?” can only be speculative, given the lack of transparency in ACCJC deliberations. As to how it has managed, thus far, to break federal law, not to mention its own rules, with impunity, it’s because no one has stood up and said that it can’t.

But that is now about to change. CFT’s complaint requires action by the Department of Education within 30 days. [The third party comment may be viewed here.] It states clearly that the ACCJC should be disqualified from judging CCSF, and the sanction imposed while engaging in a conflict of interest with the institution over which it was sitting in judgment must be lifted.

CFT is also working on a legislative remedy to address some of the harm caused by the ACCJC’s overreach. AB 1199, carried by San Jose’s Assemblymember Paul Fong, will create a stabilization formula for enrollment-related funding losses for any community college with a certified plan to improve accreditation status while under severe sanction from an accreditation agency. A community college experiencing enrollment decline over the subsequent year, and making progress to address the sanctions, will be temporarily held harmless for failing to achieve its enrollment target.

“It’s ironic that an accreditation agency itself has to be held to account,” says CFT president Joshua Pechthalt, who signed the complaint to ACCJC. “But it’s past time for someone to blow the whistle here. Community college faculty should be in their classrooms with their students, not fearfully pushing paper to appease a wrong-headed “education reform” agenda, or worse, standing in unemployment lines because of these actions. CFT is prepared to do whatever it takes to make this right for students, faculty, and the quality of education in California’s community colleges.”

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May 2014 Perspective Cover

Perspective

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