During the Vietnam War an American officer famously explained, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Apparently this was the approach embraced by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) in its shocking decision in July to terminate the accreditation of City College of San Francisco (CCSF).

But after years during which ACCJC had things its own way — intimidating college administrators and faculty instead of working collaboratively, sanctioning colleges out of all proportion to other accrediting regions, diverting scarce educational resources and funding to “compliance,” and blowing off any criticisms of the damage it was inflicting on collegial relations — the tide is now shifting. Public exposure by the CFT of the ACCJC’s practices and motivations has pierced its customary lack of transparency and generated pushback from a growing array of forces against the out-of-control agency.

The ACCJC is now facing multiple lawsuits and possible “delisting” by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), in addition to a state audit. Critical letters and angry public statements from elected officials are sailing around the ears of the ACCJC’s leaders. Media coverage of the story is changing as reporters are digging deeper, questioning ACCJC’s justifications for its actions. None of this comes a moment too soon.

The purpose of accreditation

Accreditation should ensure that an educational institution meets acceptable standards, the public can trust the quality of the educational experience, units are transferable, and students are eligible for financial aid. Accrediting agencies can — and should — impose sanctions on colleges when significant problems that threaten the integrity of the educational experience need fixing. But before that moment arrives, the college and the agency should work together with mutual trust and respect to resolve the problem and prevent any sanction from occurring. Above all, accreditation should ensure the uninterrupted delivery of quality public education to all students who want and need it.

A decade ago, the count of ACCJC’s colleges under sanction began to climb and diverge sharply from the norm elsewhere in the country. Today, more than one in five of California’s community colleges are sanctioned. No other regional accrediting agency comes close to this punitive record. ACCJC is sanctioning colleges at a rate 400 to 700 percent higher than its brethren.

Do California’s community colleges compare that badly with their counterparts? Hardly. Rather, this is what happens when a rogue private agency with no transparency and a big “reform” agenda goes on a rampage.

Premier access point

California’s 112 community colleges are known as the nation’s premier access point to public higher education. Revered by surrounding communities, they supply more trained workers to local businesses than any other source, and enable millions of students to achieve educational and career goals.

California ranks third among the states in the percentage of four-year degree holders previously enrolled at community colleges. Thanks to their affordability, California is also 46th lowest in student debt rates.

CCSF is no exception to this record of success. It is above average in the community college system in such important markers of student success as overall student completion rates (top sixth), transfer velocity to four year colleges, completion rate for academically needy students, and grade point average for CSU students who came from community colleges. This record doesn’t even take into account its deep roots in community service through non-credit programs such as ESL. And a recent study of CCSF’s economic impact found that it contributes more than $300 million per year to the city’s economic activities.

Yet in 2012 the ACCJC, in an historically unprecedented move, jumped CCSF from fully accredited to “show cause,” the highest sanction short of dis-accreditation. This year, ignoring progress, the ACCJC exercised the nuclear option, pulling the plug as of July 2014.

If City College closes, where will its 85,000, largely working class students of color, go? Their most likely option is to enroll in far more expensive private colleges, with a track record of far less successful outcomes and enormous student debt.

In justifying its action, the ACCJC referred to CCSF’s failure to address “deficiencies” identified in 2006. Most were related to poor fiscal administration, deteriorating infrastructure due to deferred maintenance, and too few administrators—problems already identified by another state agency, the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FICMAT. None had to do with the quality of education offered at CCSF.

However, listen closely: “deficiencies,” in accreditation-speak, are not the same as “recommendations.” ACCJC made recommendations in 2006 while fully reaccrediting CCSF. In misrepresenting its earlier actions, in 2012 ACCJC violated its own policies and federal law.

Following this linguistic shell game, the college was thrown into turmoil. Thousands of students left, fearing they would not receive course credit, or might lose financial aid eligibility. Two hundred faculty lost their positions, as did scores of support staff.

Wildly inconsistent application of standards

Throughout its sanction binge, the ACCJC has been wildly inconsistent in applying standards; colleges with worse student success measures than CCSF, and equally dire finances, have been reaccredited.

CCSF failed to meet, or only partially met, nine of eleven Standards identified by the Commission, which sounds bad. But consider that of the 21 colleges placed by ACCJC on “Warning” (the lowest sanction level) over the past four years, two failed all eleven standards, and eight others failed nine standards — the same number as CCSF.

Ten colleges in the same period were placed on “Probation.” One failed all eleven standards, one failed ten, one failed eight. None of these had the boom lowered on their accreditation. What’s going on here?

After an exhaustive review of ACCJC practices, the CFT filed a 280-page, highly detailed complaint on April 30 with the ACCJC and the USDOE, which oversees ACCJC. The complaint shows ACCJC fails to follow its own policies, is riddled with conflicts of interest, and has violated numerous laws

The ACCJC’s response? A seven-page letter denying (or ignoring) everything. It also passed a new policy allowing it to shred its own accreditation review documents. This occurred at its biannual three-day meeting in June, held at a San Francisco airport hotel. In a remarkable display of tone-deafness, the Commission surrounded the meeting with armed guards and police barricades. It also arbitrarily limited attendance during the four-hour public portion of the meeting to twenty people, turning away at least twice that many at the door, including community college faculty, administrators, and students.  

Among those left stewing outside the meeting were a Univision reporter and the higher education reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, who has been covering the story of CCSF’s accreditation woes for more than a year. She said she had received advance permission to attend the meeting from ACCJC staff. The article she ended up writing was about being locked outside the meeting.

Bad month for ACCJC

Perhaps that was foreshadowing, as the month of August did not go well for ACCJC. On August 13, the DoE issued a letter to ACCJC president Barbara Beno that agreed with CFT on several key points, ordering the agency to fix four violations of accrediting standards or face its own termination. These included: the apparent conflict of interest by Beno in appointing her husband to the CCSF site visit team; the failure to field accreditation review teams balanced fairly between administrators and faculty; and failure to distinguish clearly between “recommendations” and “deficiencies.”

A week later, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera initiated legal action against the ACCJC. Seeking to overturn the de-accreditation of City College, he charged that “the private agency unlawfully allowed its advocacy and political bias to prejudice its evaluation of college accreditation standards.”

Many observers, CFT included, think CCSF was punished by ACCJC for opposing reform legislation that sought to restrict the current broad community college mission to a narrower “transfer” function. That legislation was vocally supported by ACCJC in 2011-12.

Herrera further noted, “There are very good reasons why judges should not be advocates. And why advocates should not be judges. The evidence is compelling in the civil complaint I’ve filed in San Francisco Superior Court this morning that the ACCJC did both. In doing so, accreditors acted improperly to withdraw accreditation.”

The City Attorney also filed a legal challenge with the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges, saying that, “the Board of Governors improperly ceded its public duties to a wholly unaccountable private entity in the ACCJC.”

Audit request granted

Next, on August 21, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee approved a request by state senators Jim Beall and Jim Nielsen to audit ACCJC. The audit will examine a number of issues related to accreditation at three community colleges, two of which are currently sanctioned, including the financial costs of accreditation, ACCJC-style, to the colleges. Completion of the audit is expected by next March.

Nielsen, a Republican, represents California’s huge 4th District, which runs from just north of Sacramento to the Oregon border up through the center of the state. In his statements before the Audit Committee, referring to ACCJC president Barbara Beno, Nielsen bluntly stated, “In all my career, in my thousands of meetings with agency individuals — representatives, secretaries, etc. — I have never dealt with a more arrogant, condescending and dismissive individual.”

The tides of opinion continued their shift against ACCJC in September. CFT, AFT Local 2121, and other individual plaintiffs filed suit against the ACCJC on the 24th of that month. The CFT’s suit is broader than Herrera’s. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to halt the closure of City College, and a reversal of both the “show cause” and dis-accreditation decisions, since they occurred in the context of multiple violations of policy and law. CFT leadership hopes that the injunction request will be heard in court within four to six weeks.

CFT’s suit incorporates most of the elements of the CFT’s April 30 complaint, as well as amendments from a separate third party comment submitted by CFT in September, intervening in ACCJC’s own accreditation review process. (The ACCJC, like all accrediting agencies, is licensed by the USDOE, and must undergo periodic review and renewal.) The CFT’s comment makes the case for delisting (pulling the accreditation) of the ACCJC.

Another damning third-party comment was delivered by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) on September 10. It documented the effort by Beno and the Commission to punish an entire community college district (Ventura) for the actions of one Board of Trustees member with whom they disagreed. The letter noted that Beno and the ACCJC attempted to intimidate the Board of Trustees into isolating the outspoken member, who was advocating on behalf of preserving programs in the college with the highest percentage of Latinos in the District. LULAC pointed out that with 38 percent of the community college student body in California, Latinos are disproportionately affected by obstacles to access to higher education.

Not so bland and neutral

All of this controversy beginning to swirl around what would normally be a bland, neutral administrative education agency going about its quiet tasks in support of public education has drawn the attention of a growing number of elected officials.

A September 6 letter sent by Congressmembers Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo to the USDOE raised concerns about the ACCJC’s disproportionate sanction rates and secrecy.

In a September 17 letter to ACCJC Chair Sherrill Amador, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson politely but firmly urged, “Given the recent United States Department Education findings that the City College of San Francisco accreditation review process was flawed, I encourage the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges to rescind the college’s show cause sanction.”

And at the press conference announcing CFT’s lawsuit, held on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano said, “The blatant lack of transparency, loose interpretation of the rules, seen through a lens of hubris and elitism, cannot continue. San Francisco is our backyard and the college is our treasure. You don’t destroy the village to save it.”

Accreditation review should result in improved instruction and increased access to education. The opposite, with a vengeance, is occurring today. The City College closure is but the most egregious case of ACCJC overreach. That ruling should be rescinded, and the U.S. Department of Education should pull the ACCJC’s authority, giving it to an agency that cares less about ideological missions and more about public education and the rule of law.