“Unfathomable”: Why Is One Commission Trying to Close California’s Largest Public College?

1:10 pm in Public education by Gary Cohn

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.Illustration: Lalo Alcaraz

“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:

Read the rest of this entry →