Before sanctioning Southwestern College this month, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) was fighting for its own survival as the accreditor for California’s community colleges at a hearing in Washington, D.C.
Also in Washington was SWC trustee Tim Nader, who traveled to offer comments to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), an advisory board tasked with periodic review of the country’s regional college accreditation bodies. NACIQI makes recommendations to the Secretary of Education.
ACCJC was found to be out of compliance of 15 federal standards by the Department of Education in January 2014. It appealed the findings and in December 2015 NACIQI heard public comment during its review of that appeal from community college administrators, faculty, students and ACCJC representatives.
In January acting Secretary of Education John King rejected the ACCJC appeal and gave it 12 months to come into compliance with federal standards. King said ACCJC does not have wide support among educators and that they do not include enough academics on their appeals panels and visiting teams. Failing to meet these standards, according to Nader, casts doubts on ACCJC’s viability.
Findings by the Department of Education mirror those of a task force charged by the Chancellor of California Community Colleges to review ACCJC’s practices. It found that ACCJC had lost the support of educators and recommended California find a new accreditor for its community colleges.
Nader said his decision to travel to Washington for the NACIQI hearing was made after the ACCJC sent SWC what he called a “ransom letter.” ACCJC threatened to summarily take away SWC’s accreditation after the governing board initially refused to contribute money from the SWC budget to help fund ACCJC legal action against City College of San Francisco.
ACCJC has been embroiled in legal fights stemming from its attempted closure of CCSF, a school serving 80,000 students.
“Our student’s accreditation was threatened because they wanted us to subsidize litigation against our student’s interest,” Nader said. “If (their) position is upheld in that litigation, we’re all in jeopardy.”
SWC’s governing board initially voted against subsidizing ACCJC legal expenses, which resulted in an August letter stating that if SWC did not contribute, the school would no longer be considered a member institution and, therefore, lose accreditation. SWC’s board reconsidered and voted to pay.
Representatives from schools across the state also spoke in Washington about their concerns with ACCJC and said its standards were unclear and confusing.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Wayne State University, a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in physical chemistry and I was a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University,” said Dr. Jennifer Shanoski, a professor at Merritt College in Oakland. “Yet with all that experience in higher education, I still don’t have a clear understanding of how to implement the standards or achieve full accreditation from the ACCJC visiting team.”
At the hearing Nader spoke in support of the Chancellor’s task force report to replace ACCJC.
“Southwestern College has been experiencing some of the same irregularities,” he said. “The hours spent meeting ACCJC’s demands are diverted from education.”
Dr. Anita Grier, a former board member and president of City College of San Francisco, described the ACCJC as a “rigid, autocratic, arbitrary and destructive institution.”
Representatives from ACCJC at the Washington hearing included President Dr. Barbara Beno and board chair Dr. Steven Kinsella, who delivered rebuttals.
“What NACIQI heard was part of a concerted effort to manufacture discontent with ACCJC, an effort spearheaded by (the) California Federation of Teachers enjoined by the Chancellor’s Office and City College stakeholders,” Kinsella said.
Kinsella said state Chancellor Dr. Brice Harris’ position was “irrational” and his determination that ACCJC had lost the confidence of member institutions as “nonsense.”
Nader said concerns about ACCJC’s legitimacy do not mean SWC’s sanctions do not have merit.
“We acknowledge those are legitimate issues and we’re going to work on fixing them,” he said.
Nader said he hoped that findings against ACCJC’s leadership practices, which he described as “authoritarian,” would lead to a different accreditor for Califonia’s community colleges.
“The idea that you don’t have an independent judiciary that can review a bureaucrat’s decision is abhorrent to constitutional democracy,” he said. “Dr. Beno has made it pretty clear she’d rather there not be elected boards. By law we are governed by (one).”
Two months after Nader’s trip, SWC Academic Senate President Patricia Flores-Charter went to Washington on behalf of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.
“We met with the California contingent and the Department of Education,” she said. “We went to over 20 (congressional) offices.”
Flores-Charter said ongoing issues with ACCJC frustrated her and that it was important to bring these concerns to legislators in Washington.
“I have participated in four different accreditation cycles and site visits,” she said. “The last two, in 2009 and 2015 were, in my opinion and experience, adversarial. I felt like they came and looked for problems.”
ACCJC has until January 2017 to remedy deficiencies in their processes found by the Department of Education.
“I had been hopeful our October site visit would be different because of the pressure ACCJC is under,” Flores-Charter said. “It wasn’t. It was business as usual. Actually, it was worse.”
If the Board of Governors which oversee the state’s 113 community and junior colleges does move to change accreditors or if the Department of Education does not reaffirm ACCJC’s authority to accredit schools, said Flores-Charter, there are a few options for what comes next.
“The three options would be moving to WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges), which does all our four-year (colleges), look at other regional agencies, (or) create a new accrediting agency,” she said.
In November 2015, the California Community College Board of Governors directed the Community College Chancellor to begin planning a transition away from ACCJC.
“I think there’s a very strong possibility that 18 months from now ACCJC will have been replaced,” Nader said.
The Board of Governors has the final say in what organization will accredit the state’s community colleges.
“There is widespread agreement among faculty, staff, trustees and other leaders within our system that the current accreditation process needs significant improvement,” board president Geoffrey L. Baum said in a statement. “We look forward to examining a proposal for change early next year.”