by Charla Bear and Jon Brooks
Update 2:10 p.m.
For those City College of San Francisco supporters who were hoping for a reversal of a commission’s decision to rescind CCSF’s accreditation: Not so fast. Their optimism was based solely on a Department of Education finding that the commission did not comply with a handful of federal regulations.
In an email to KQED’s Alex Emslie, the Department of Education said it could not overturn the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges’ decision.
“CCSF was unsuccessful in showing cause why its accreditation should not be removed,” DOE spokesperson Jane Glickman wrote. “The ACCJC voted to remove CCSF’s accreditation, and CCSF is involved in the processes the ACCJC has established following such a decision. The Department’s letter does not affect the decision directly; however, CCSF can and likely will appeal the AACJC decision, and the Department’s letter could become part of their appeal.
“The Department does not have the authority to reverse any decision made by an accrediting agency,” Glickman said.
The DOE also seemed to buttress the assertion of AACJC President Barbara Beno that it’s not uncommon for the federal government to find problems with commissions like hers.
“It is not unusual for us to find areas of non-compliance with some of the Secretary’s Criteria for Recognition through investigation of a complaint and through our reviews of agencies for renewal of recognition,” she wrote. “We did so within the last several months. Most often the agencies are able to come into compliance within the timeframe allowed.”
The Examiner had a pretty good headline this morning:”CCSF’s critics get a dose of their own medicine.”
And supporters of City College of San Francisco might be forgiven for experiencing just a titch of schadenfreude today. In a surprise move Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education criticized the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges for not following certain federal rules in coming to its July decision to terminate CCSF’s accreditation effective July 31, 2014.
At the time, the accrediting commission cited slow progress by the school in correcting deficiencies that the commission had identified. The college says it will appeal the decision, and it remains open as a state-appointed trustee scrambles to fix the problems the commission identified – from shaky finances to governance.
But yesterday the department cited the commission itself as out of compliance. The strict warning came in response to a letter filed by faculty union leaders at the school.
In response to that complaint, the DOE listed these areas in which the commission violated the federal agency’s criteria for recognition.
- The accrediting commission did not have enough academics on the CCSF evaluation team.
- A potential conflict of interest existed in the team’s inclusion of the spouse of the accrediting commission’s president.
- The accrediting commission did not provide “adequate due process” to CCSF when it characterized its complaints in a 2012 report as recommendations. “By using the term recommendation to mean both noncompliance with standards and areas for improvement,” the DOE letter reads, “the agency does not meet the regulatory requirement to provide a detailed written report that clearly identifies any deficiencies in the institution’s compliance with the agency’s standards.”
- The commission allowed CCSF to be out of compliance for more than two years.
The DOE said that the accreditation commission “must take immediate steps to correct the areas of non-compliance identified in this letter.” However, it’s unclear if the cited errors will have any impact on the commission’s decision to terminate CCSF’s accreditation, should the school be unable to correct the identified deficiencies by the July, 2014 deadline.
In a statement yesterday, the Accrediting Commission said it was “disappointed” that the DOE found it to be out of compliance in the four areas cited and that it would formally respond in December. It also defended itself against the DOE’s complaint about the dearth of academics on the CCSF evaluation panel, saying there were three, not one.
Accrediting Commission president Barbara Beno told KQED’s Ana Tintocalis yesterday that she took issue with the DOE’s letter, and called on the federal government to review its own rules before taking any action against the commission. “We think they have a new interpretation of the regulations that’s never been in print,” she said. “So that’s one of those surprises, I’d say, for sure.”
Beno downplayed any effect the DOE letter would have, saying that it’s not uncommon for the federal government to find problems with commissions like hers.
But in a conference call today, Josh Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said the union was looking into the possibility of legal action. “I think it’s a little premature to say we’re going to sue. But certainly the findings by the Department of Education suggest in a very powerful way that the decision on City College of San Francisco just cannot stand.”
Back to school
Meanwhile, students at CCSF are heading to school today to start what could be the college’s last year as an accredited institution. State law prohibits funding unaccredited institutions, so most observers expect the school to close, should it not be able to come into compliance.
Since last year, enrollment is down and a record number of faculty members have left. Students and instructors who have held on are doing their best to adapt to their uncertain future.
Todd Brewer, a second-year student at City College, says time is of the essence.
“It just makes you feel like you’re racing against the clock to get things done now,” he says. “I have not taken any of the math courses required. I’ve just been putting it off. Now I’m like, I have to get these done now.”
Brewer says he’s been anxious about his classes since the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges announced last month it was erasing its stamp of approval. If the appeal, or a review of the process, doesn’t reverse the decision by July, future students would no longer qualify for financial aid – and their credits would not transfer.
“It is discouraging to other students who haven’t yet put their foot into taking classes, knowing they could start and not get to finish,” Brewer says.
City College officials say enrollment has dropped by more than 25 percent in the past couple of years, in large part because of the accreditation crisis.
Student Danielle Ladd says, to her, it makes no sense to abandon the school now.
“I’m not going to worry about something that hasn’t changed yet,” she says. “Let’s keep going to school here and hope for the best.”
Administrators and instructors are trying to spread the word that City College is open and accredited. Its funding is based on enrollment. So are decisions about course offerings and, ultimately, jobs.
Alisa Messer, spokeswoman for the faculty union, says while most instructors are committed to riding out the accreditation issues, more than 50 full-time faculty members resigned or retired last school year, a record number for the school. Dozens of part-time instructors also left, she says.
Melissa Canlas, a part-time Asian American Studies instructor who teaches three classes at the school, says the accreditation process has been excruciating for faculty.
“We don’t, as faculty, have authority over the decision-making, the administrative things that were in the accreditation report,” Canlas says. “Almost none of the findings had to do with the quality of teaching. So the fact that we could be having a conversation about potentially closing our school, when that conversation has so little focus on the actual teaching and learning that’s going on in the classroom, has been really challenging to try and understand.”
Canlas says her biggest frustration with the accreditation issue, though, is the potential harm it could do to students.
“There are tens of thousands of students who might not have a place to go next year,” she says.
One thing that keeps her from getting too discouraged is the outpouring of community support. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, the state community college chancellor, and some legislators have thrown their weight behind keeping the college open.
In the meantime, instructors and students are doing their best to focus on getting the school year off to a good start.
Here is the DOE letter to the commission: