Three governing board members who had earlier voted not to pay a legal assessment demanded by the college’s accreditation agency have had second thoughts.
Following a 3-2 vote in August to abstain from paying a special assessment for the legal fees demanded by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), the board voted 5-0 this month to go ahead and pay the assessment, which ACCJC is collecting to defend a lawsuit by the city of San Francisco. ACCJC is attempting to close the City College of San Francisco following a showdown over how the college is managed.
Board members said SWC received a letter from the ACCJC threatened that the college’s accreditation would be taken away if the legal assessment was not paid.
Trustee Tim Nader made the initial motion to refuse paying ACCJC’s legal assessment in response to the ongoing legal battle between City College of San Francisco and the ACCJC.
“As a legal matter, I think the authority to require a special assessment to compel supporting their litigation is dubious,” said Nader, a practicing attorney. “But as a practical matter, I don’t think it’s in the college’s interest for us to pick that fight right now.”
SWC President Dr. Melinda Nish agreed.
“If any institution refuses to pay any part of the amount invoiced by ACCJC, the ACCJC has a policy to administratively withdraw accreditation from the institution,” she said. “We need to be accredited. If we’re not accredited, your units don’t transfer to other accredited universities. You can’t get financial aid. If you are not accredited, for all intents and purposes, we wouldn’t be able to offer you any educational services. It’s not a small thing.”
SWC’s current accreditation cycle began on August 1. District administration submitted a self-evaluation report, the product of two years of effort by SWC faculty and staff. Administrators had to recall the initial draft due to mistakes in links included in the document, according to Nish, but a subsequent draft was corrected and resubmitted.
SWC also pays annual membership fees to the ACCJC. Payment toward the ACCJC legal fund, an estimated $2,000, is 10 percent more than membership dues SWC annually pays the ACCJC.
“I have a real problem with the idea that we’re compelled to spend money that’s supposed to support our students on litigation that has the opposite effect,” said Nader. “I don’t think we should be spending college funds or taxpayer funds to fund the litigation position of a private organization that is contrary to, in my opinion, our best interests, our students’ best interests and, frankly, is aimed at revoking the accreditation of another community college.”
SWC trustees are not alone in questioning the practices of the ACCJC. Assembly Bill 404, backed by the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges (FACCC), recently passed the California Senate. It is, according to sponsors, an attempt to improve communication between state community colleges and the federal government in areas concerning evaluations and accreditation. It is now on its way to the governor’s office for executive review. A California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Task Force on Accreditation released a report earlier this year which called the ACCJC to account for its rough treatment of colleges in the state, citing increased sanctions on schools across the region that it said were unjustified.
“The central focus of accreditation processes should be on providing excellent teaching and learning opportunities and on academic integrity,” the report stated. “The current accreditor for the California Community Colleges has failed to maintain such a focus. Over the past several years, numerous system constituencies have raised consistent concerns regarding various aspects of the accreditation process and the performance of the accrediting commission, especially in areas related to transparency, collegiality, and consistency. This task force finds little evidence that the accrediting commission has the ability or willingness to address these concerns.”
Compiled by community college administrators from around the state, the report listed ways the accrediting process could be improved. Recommendations included focusing on improvement rather than compliance, allowing reasonable time for improvements to be made and providing greater transparency in accrediting decisions.
“The time has come,” the report concluded, “for the California community colleges to address the wide range of outstanding and consistent issues that have been raised regarding accreditation and begin building a structure that is sustainable for the future.”
ACCJC President Barbara Beno did not respond to inquiries from The Sun, but defended the institution in a statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune that said the agency has already begun to make reforms.
“The task force did not meet or consult with the commission as it developed its report and recommendations,” said Beno. “And it is not clear whether it considered the ACCJC’s review process and resultant changes.”
In an email to Nish following the board’s first vote to not pay ACCJC’s legal expenses, ACCJC Vice President for Policy and Research Krista Johns, J.D. wrote that the policy regarding membership payments had been recently updated.
“The method by which institutions which do not remain current are removed from ACCJC accreditation was recently added into the ACCJC’s Policy on Commission Actions on Institutions,” read John’s email.
John’s cited ACCJC policy: “The accreditation of a member institution may be withdrawn administratively for nonpayment of dues, costs incurred as part of an external evaluation, or special assessments, following provision of notice to the institution of nonpayment and sufficient time to pay, and upon providing 60 days notice of the impending termination action.”
A reviewing committee from the ACCJC comprised of 14 educators from various California colleges is scheduled to visit the campus September 28 – October 1. SWC will cover all their expenses, said Nish.
“Every time we have a visit, we incur those costs,” she said. “Additionally, if the commission needs to raise revenues, they can change our dues or they can do a special assessment.”
Dr. Rebecca Wolniewicz, professor of communication studies and co-chair of the SWC Accreditation Oversight Committee, said she believes the visiting team will demonstrate that reforms to ACCJC are taking place as promised.
“As far as visiting teams are concerned, I do understand statewide people complained there was not enough faculty representation on the visiting teams,” she said. “And I do know, starting with this cycle, the ACCJC is purposefully ensuring they include faculty on their teams. And that’s good news.”
SWC’s accreditation process is more than just dollar signs, said Dr. Mink Stavenga, SWC Accreditation Liason Officer.
“For our western region, there have been a lot of questions regarding the role of the ACCJC as an accreditor for our region and for California in particular,” said Stavenga. “At the moment, there’s no option, you have to have accreditation…It’s much more than that, though. We’re looking forward to our visit. There will be 14 peers, faculty and administrators from other colleges coming to us and looking at all of our processes and what we do in terms of providing programs for our students and giving us feedback. They’ll tell us, these things are what you’re doing well, here are some areas that you could potentially improve, based on our collective opinion as a group of 14 people working at different colleges. It’s meant to be for improvement, in order to improve the programs again and the entire academic environment for students. The fact that there’s financial aid involved should really be secondary.”
Stavenga said he recognized the importance of the situation at CCSF and stated the outcome would only help to better the evaluation process in California.
“Equally important, and that’s part of this whole discussion, is improving the process of the peer evaluation,” he said. “One thing that has come out of the City College of San Francisco situation is that there now are more faculty members on the visiting teams, which in itself is an improvement.”
Nader said improvement is the ultimate goal of accreditation visits.
“Accreditation should be about helping all of us to do a better job providing educational opportunities for students,” he said.
SWC’s previous accreditation cycle resulted in the college being put on probation and barely avoiding “show cause,” the step before a college is closed. Nader said he expects SWC to fare better this time around.
“It shouldn’t be a game of ‘gotcha,’” said Nader. “It shouldn’t be an individual trying to impose their ideas over and beyond and outside of the law.”
Nader said the overall experience was good for the college as many internal issues finally came to light and were addressed formally. Actions taken to renew SWC’s accredited status brought the campus together, he said
“It’s an incredible testament to the quality of, not just the leadership we had at that time (2011), but virtually every employee of this college,” he said.
During a special meeting on August 27 the governing board unanimously voted to continue paying the special assessment fee towards the ACCJC legal fund.
“I usually don’t reverse myself on something I bring forward, and I have to admit it’s a real hold-my-nose vote, but I did read the ransom note from ACCJC,” said Nader. “I recognize when our students’ short-term welfare is immediately at stake, so I will join in voting to pay this fee. It’s a little bit like your brother’s kids are being held hostage, but then your own kids are being held hostage. So in short-term, I don’t think we have much choice, but I hope that at some point ACCJC will get back to its mission of academic-related accreditation.”