To appreciate the value of a community college education, consider the transformation of Shanell Williams.
By the time she was a teenager, Williams was constantly getting into trouble on the streets of San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Her abuse of drugs and alcohol, along with a difficult family life, would lead her into the juvenile justice system, drug treatment centers and foster homes.
“I was a juvenile delinquent,” she admits.
Today Williams, now 29, hardly resembles that troubled youth. She is a hard-working student at City College of San Francisco, taking urban studies courses and hoping to transfer to Stanford University or the University of California at Berkeley. She has served as president of the student council at CCSF’s Ocean campus and was elected to be the student representative on CCSF’s Board of Trustees.
“Community college has helped give me a pathway to higher education,” she says.
That pathway may soon be closing. A little-known but powerful organization called the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) has announced plans to revoke CCSF’s accreditation on July 31, 2014, subject to appeals and a one-year review. The loss of accreditation would certainly mean that CCSF, which has about 80,000 students and is California’s largest public college, would be forced to close – possibly during its 80th anniversary. Students at unaccredited colleges are not eligible for student loans or other types of financial aid through government agencies.
The decision to impose sanctions on CCSF has set in motion a fierce yearlong struggle that is being played out on its 11 campuses, in hearing rooms in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and in San Francisco courtrooms. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, the California Federation of Teachers and the Save CCSF Coalition have filed lawsuits alleging that ACCJC allowed its advocacy and political bias to prejudice its evaluation of college accreditation standards. (Note: The California Federation of Teachers is a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)
In Sacramento, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee has approved a request to audit the ACCJC. In Washington, a federal Department of Education staff report has criticized the ACCJC for not including enough faculty members on its accrediting team.
Next week in San Francisco, a state superior court judge will hear a motion from Herrera’s office seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the ACCJC from revoking CCSF’s accreditation status in July. The City Attorney’s office says that the accrediting body has been using stalling tactics and failing to turn over records. The hearing is scheduled for the day after Christmas.
In an interview with Capital & Main, Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart calls the ACCJC a “rogue agency that is accountable to no-one,” adding that its efforts to revoke CCSF’s accreditation status represent an “unconscionable” move that would devastate tens of thousands of poor and working class students.
“The people served by City College are the most economically in need of a boost,” says Stewart. “Community colleges provide that at an affordable price.”
Stewart says, and the lawsuit filed by the City Attorney alleges, that the accrediting agency took the unfair and unusual step of moving to sanction CCSF and revoke its accreditation because the college’s trustees, faculty and students opposed the ACCJC’s efforts to reshape the mission of California’s community colleges. The ACCJC has been a leading proponent of policies that would focus on degree completion to the exclusion of remedial courses, such as those that teach English as a second language to immigrants.
The lawsuit says that the ACCJC strongly supported state legislation to limit certain low-income students’ eligibility for fee waivers to those identified with a specific degree or certificate. The provision was later removed from the legislation at the urging of advocates for open education, including many members of the CCSF community. At the same time this dispute was raging, the ACCJC was in the process of evaluating CCSF.
Stewart says that it was “highly questionable” for the accrediting agency to become so heavily involved in the legislative fight at the same time when it was supposedly acting as a neutral judge of the college’s academic standards.
“The process is really tainted here,” she says. “It appears to us this was about retaliation for political views.”
Barbara A. Beno, the ACCJC’s president, declined through an aide to be interviewed for this article. A statement on its web site said the ACCJC believes the San Francisco City attorney’s lawsuit and injunction request are without merit:
ACCJC has confidence in our judiciary to rule appropriately on the City Attorney’s motion. ACCJC will resist any efforts by any third party, including the City Attorney of San Francisco, to interfere with its internal processes, including those processes that relate to the CCSF decision.
Beno’s office later replied to queries about its sanctioning CCSF with a lengthy email attributed to ACCJS’s president. In that statement, Beno said:
“The accreditation process holds colleges accountable. This distresses some people. However, holding colleges to standards ensures quality, betterment and, in some cases, continued fiscal viability.”
“. . . there appears to be an effort to spread misinformation in order to politically pressure the Commission. Instead of joining forces to help improve City College of San Francisco, many purported supporters of the college are bent on disrupting the ACCJC operations. It is simple to blame the messenger of bad news.”
The ACCJC is one of seven regional accrediting bodies that evaluate community colleges around the nation. Accreditors are supposed to ensure that a college meets certain standards for high quality teaching, demonstrates sound management and fiscal practices. The ACCJC is responsible for accrediting California’s 112 community colleges and those in Hawaii and other Pacific locations.
The average sanction rate for America’s other accrediting agencies is about two percent. Ron Galatolo, Chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District, says that over a 10-year period from 2003-2013, the ACCJC sanctioned 66 percent of California’s community colleges undergoing accreditation. Galatolo believes ACCJC’s sanctions are way out of line with those of other accrediting bodies nationwide and has detailed the statistics in an interview with Capital & Main, and in correspondence sent to other community college chancellors.
Since 2007, for example, all 112 California community colleges were reviewed by the ACCJC, and 71 of 112 colleges were sanctioned (63 percent). In the last three years, 35 of 51 community colleges were reviewed by the ACCJC, and 69 percent were sanctioned.
From 2003 to 2008, ACCJC generated 89 percent of all sanctions nationwide.
“I truly think they are doing the right thing for the purpose of teaching and learning for member institutions,” Galatolo says in the interview. “The problem is that they have lost their way in trying to get there. They have an inordinately high sanction rate compared to the rest of the accrediting bodies throughout the nation.”
In its assessment of City College of San Francisco, the ACCJC identified several problems, stating that the community college did not have a prescribed process and timeline to regularly review its mission statement; that it had not developed a strategy for implementing its planning process; that it failed to properly track student outcomes and that it had run budget deficits.
The ACCJC has issued similar warnings to other community colleges across the state, including the College of Marin, L.A. Trade Tech, College of the Sequoias, Barstow Community College and the Peralta Community College District. Some of the sanctions seem particularly curious. In March 2013, Santa Barbara City College received a prominent national award by the Aspen Institute for “high achievement and performance in America’s community colleges.” In winning this award, Santa Barbara City College was chosen from more than 1,000 colleges nationwide. Nonetheless, the ACCJC had sanctioned the school two months earlier.
By identifying problems, accrediting bodies can present a roadmap for needed solutions. That’s what Rafael Mandelman, an Oakland attorney, anticipated when he was elected to the CCSF Board of Trustees in November 2012.
Mandelman says he began his tenure under the impression that there were problems that needed fixing at City College. But, he tells Capital & Main, he began to have serious doubts about the accrediting process after an unusual conversation with ACCJC president Beno in May 2013. Mandelman says he ran into Beno at a community college trustees conference held at the Ritz-Carlton in Lake Tahoe.
“I introduced myself and she congratulated me on being elected to the CCSF board,” Mandelman recalls. “Then she described CCSF as a ‘classic good versus evil battle’,” Mandelman says. “It was surprising to me. I wouldn’t have thought that the kind of language an accreditor would use.”
Beno has been known to rub state legislators the wrong way – and on a bipartisan basis.
“In all my career,” State senator Jim Nielsen, a Republican, testified about his dealings with Beno, “I have never dealt with a more arrogant, condescending and dismissive individual.”
Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has said Beno’s commission was “guilty of [having] no transparency and limited accountability, but also a conflict of interest with the director, Ms. Beno.”
This last reference was to Beno’s 2012 appointment of her husband to ACCJC’s evaluation team. According to an email from Beno’s office, the ACCJC was cleared of the conflict of interest charge by the U.S. Department of Education.
Mandelman says he was too shocked by Beno’s comment at Lake Tahoe to pursue the matter at the time. Looking back, he says that one way of interpreting Beno’s remark is, “They [the ACCJC] live in a good versus evil world. They feel the faculty and the teachers’ unions have their hands on the throats of City College and they are on a mission to save City College from the faculty.”
Mandelman says that while the accrediting board may have correctly identified certain problems, the solution is “you fix it, you don’t close it.” And he adds that the threat of a shutdown of the college has already had a negative impact on enrollment and revenue.
Community colleges enroll the state’s lowest-income students, according to the Foundation for California’s Community Colleges. Full-time students have an annual median income of $16,223 — with one-fourth having incomes of less than $5,544 per year. And more than 60 percent of Community Colleges are people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Shanell Williams, the student trustee on the CCSF board, epitomizes those demographics in her story of redemption.
“Community college is a lifeline,” she says. “It provides a way for people in poverty who are working class to get higher education at an affordable cost. I wouldn’t be able to go to a four-year college if I didn’t go to City College.”
Then, addressing the ACCJC’s sanctions, she adds, “It’s unfathomable that they would go this far and try and take away this invaluable resource.”
Gary Cohn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, and writes currently for Capital & Main.