Advocates of the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) have been locked in a lawsuit since 2013, when the commission attempted to revoke the college’s accreditation. Without accreditation, the school would not be eligible for state or federal aid and would likely have had to close down.
The college was not without its troubles, and its challenges may be even greater now that its fate has hung in the balance for years. Nevertheless, CCSF advocates say that it is possible to change the situation, just as long as the school has some time to institute reforms and rebuild.
To save the college from shutting down, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT/AFT) and the City Attorney of San Francisco filed suits against the ACCJC, seeking an injunction to keep the college open. City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s suit found favor with the San Francisco Superior Court, which granted the injunction in February. Last week, the CFT/AFT suit had a minor victory of its own in the Court of Appeals, when the court denied the ACCJC’s attempt to have the CFT suit dismissed.
Untangling the trajectory of the CFT lawsuit against the ACCJC is indicative of how convoluted the legal wrangling between CCSF’s advocates and the ACCJC has been. CFT and AFT 2121 filed suit against the ACCJC in 2013, alleging that the ACCJC violated California law, federal regulations, and its own policies in its review of CCSF. The ACCJC asked the court to dismiss CFT’s suit, arguing that CFT violated their right to free speech. The Superior Court denied ACCJC’s action, and the ACCJC appealed the denial in the Court of Appeals.
“This ruling clears the way for possible further legal action that builds on the successful City Attorney’s suit. It also bolsters the argument — now made by many elected officials — that the Legislature should reform our broken accreditation system,” CFT president Joshua Pechthalt said in a statement.
Now that the ACCJC’s appeal is out of the way, the CFT/AFT lawsuit is free to move forward, CFT communications director Fred Glass said on Thursday. Glass said that CFT is closely watching two community college accreditation reform bills that are being considered in the Senate currently.
California Assembly member Phil Ting is the principal author of two reform bills, AB 1397 and AB 1385, which would provide a measure of protection for community colleges. AB 1385 would prevent accrediting commissions from paying for their legal fees with funds derived from community colleges, except by a special vote. AB 1397 would change the composition of visiting accrediting teams, ensuring that persons with “conflicts of interest” are not on the team and that academics make up a certain percentage of the team.
In addition, AB 1397 would allow members of the public to attend the accrediting commission’s decisionmaking meetings. Currently, the ACCJC holds a three-day meeting twice a year. Members of the public have a limited to nonexistent role in the proceedings—20 members of the public are allowed to speak at the meeting in a 15-minute period.
“California needs AB 1397 because the status quo is indefensible,” Ting wrote in an op-ed published in the Sacramento Bee. “The bill requires the commission to make its meetings public and to stop taking public comment after voting on accreditation. It establishes a strict conflict-of-interest policy to ensure independence and objectivity. Finally, it establishes a right for colleges to appeal sanctions.”
The ACCJC effectively holds a monopoly over the state’s community colleges. Until recently, the ACCJC was written into Title V regulations as the sole legitimate accrediting body. The California Community College Board of Governors deleted that language in January, opening up the door for another accrediting agency to step in. That will not happen for several years at least, because the Department of Education has to approve the new agency.
As California reconsiders the community college accreditation process, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee is also considering what changes might befall accreditation in the reauthorized Higher Education Act (HEA). On Wednesday, the committee held a hearing on accreditation. Senators questioned witness Dr. Albert C. Gray, president and CEO of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), for his agency’s actions with regards to one of their accredited for-profit college systems, Corinthian College, Inc.
At the hearing, Corinthian was held up by some as an example of accreditation gone wrong. Although the corporation was accused of defrauding students and engaging in predatory lending practices, a number of accrediting agencies, including ACICS, backed it. After the Department of Education limited Corinthian’s access to federal financial aid in 2014, Corinthian went bankrupt and was forced to sell off its 120 campuses.
Gray noted that many of the former Corinthian campuses are still open, except for those in California and two in New York State. Corinthian bought the Heald College chain in California in 2010. Heald was shut down this spring. Coincidentally, the ACCJC accredited Heald from 2010 to 2012.
Some CCSF advocates say that the ACCJC treated CCSF and Heald in a seemingly contradictory manner. When Heald decided to become a four-year college in 2012, ACCJC handed the accreditation process over to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges with a recommendation for full accreditation. That same year, ACCJC put CCSF on warning. Although Corinthian and ACICS drew some criticism at the HELP committee hearing, ACCJC and other accrediting commissions that accredited Corinthian were not subject to the same level of censure.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.