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Commission Meets in Private; Is Fate Sealed for Community College of San Francisco?

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“Off with their Classes!” – The Accrediting Commission’s zeal would make the Queen of Hearts proud.
Illustration by John Tenniel, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.

The commission charged with accrediting California’s two-year community colleges convened its three-day semiannual meeting in Sacramento yesterday morning. Conspicuously absent from the public agenda, however, is any mention of the action that has brought down an unprecedented firestorm of controversy onto the publicity-shy agency — its disaccreditation of the state’s largest community college.

At least the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) hasn’t included the fate of City College of San Francisco (CCSF) on its schedule for Friday’s public portion of the meeting. What’s on the program for the first two days — the sessions when the agency makes its substantive findings and decisions — is anyone’s guess. That part of the meeting is conducted in secret.

What is now certain is that no 11th-hour reprieve from the school’s approaching date with de-accreditation will be forthcoming. Supporters of the embattled college had been holding out hope that the commission would use the meeting to announce an extension to the July 31 termination deadline it set for the school’s accreditation during last June’s secret sessions.

That’s when ACCJC dismissed the school’s yearlong efforts to comply with the fixes ordered in a 2012 “show cause” sanction — fixes mostly dealing with administrative and fiscal deficiencies — as being insufficient and that the academic interests of CCSF’s 80,000 predominately low-income and immigrant students would be best served if they had no community college at all. (The actual academic quality of the education offered by the college was never in question.)

And while it characteristically took another month for ACCJC president Barbara Beno to notify CCSF officials that it was pulling the plug, both Beno and the commission quickly learned that one can’t unilaterally eliminate a college of CCSF’s size and importance to its community and expect it to go gentle into the good night. In the furor following the disaccreditation announcement, ACCJC quickly found itself embroiled in troubles of it own.

Those included an official reprimand from the U.S. Department of Education over irregularities in the commission’s vetting process, at least one Sacramento reform bill that sought to curb ACCJC’s power and provide oversight and transparency for its murky deliberations, and a superior court lawsuit filed by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera charging that ACCJC illegally allowed its advocacy and conservative political bias to prejudice its evaluation.

Herrera won an injunction that effectively puts CCSF’s fate on hold till at least October when the suit goes to trial. But that respite only added an additional layer of surreality as the commission’s increasingly confused and contradictory statements appeared to simply ignore the injunction along with the groundswell of public indignation and calls to give the college more time.

Last week, the California Legislature joined that chorus in resolutions passed by both houses that unanimously appealed for more time to allow the school to complete the estimated five percent of compliance work that remained unfinished by CCSF administrators. The resolutions were triggered by a DOE announcement that, contrary to repeated claims by Beno and the commission that their hands were tied by education department rules, ACCJC in fact had the authority to extend or rescind the July 31 deadline.

Giving voice to the rising frustration on both sides of the aisle over the commission’s truculence was Assemblymember Donald P. Wagner (R-Irvine), who cited his own experiences with ACCJC during twelve years as a community college trustee. “I have had to deal with the ACCJC many times,” the Orange County Republican proclaimed in support of the Democratic-sponsored resolutions. “The dealings are almost uniformly unpleasant. My guess is this resolution doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.”

CCSF English instructor Alisa Messer, who has been at the forefront of the fight to save the school’s accreditation (she stepped down this week as president of American Federation of Teachers Local 2121) couldn’t agree more with the Republican.

“It doesn’t go far enough,” Messer told Capital & Main about the resolutions. “We need more time for [ACCJC] to send the real team to do the real work on their end, because…they’re disaccrediting us based on [compliance] information that is more than a year old and simply refusing to reconsider. From our perspective, what really needs to happen is that they need to rescind the decision and start over.”

Messer’s sentiments echoed the anger in a sharp-worded joint statement also issued last week by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congresswomen Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) and Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) that was prompted by ACCJC’s refusal to acknowledge its ability under DOE rules to give CCSF a break.

“ACCJC’s faulty reliance on outdated analysis of the health of City College, and its pursuit of an unworkable policy that ends state and federal funding to CCSF and puts the students and faculty in academic limbo is professionally crippling and destructive,” the statement declared.  “The commission’s letter raises serious questions about its ability to properly execute the law and make informed decisions based in ensuring high-quality institutions of learning that benefit our students, our community and our state.”

The statement concluded by calling for new commission leadership and asking that the DOE reconsider ACCJC’s own certification as an accreditor.

In the meantime, both the commission and the college continue business as usual in a standoff whose resolution increasingly looks like a matter for the courts.

Messer and other community college advocates from around the state don’t intend to wait. They’ll be taking the fight to the commission for Friday’s public session. In a rally organized by AFT 2121 as a show of support for the college and as a protest against the continuing disaccreditation, CCSF supporters will gather in Sacramento’s Cesar Chavez Park, across the street from the Citizens Hotel where the commission is meeting.

The point, says Messer, is to drive home the reality that what’s happening in San Francisco is happening everywhere around the state. “Just to deal with the paper pushing and the accreditation process that the ACCJC is putting up,” she adds, “[means that] more administrators are being hired, more time is being spent working on bureaucratic record keeping, and much less, we worry, is being spent on working directly with students and on the quality of their education.”

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