Michael Short, Special to the San Francisco Chronicle
Faculty members sometimes grumble about the administrative burdens associated with accreditation, but a conflict between the accreditor and the faculty of City College of San Francisco may have set a new low for such relationships.
The dispute highlights the ambivalence that many in higher education feel toward accreditation. While most embrace the values and goals of accreditation, the process and procedures are seen as arcane and unwieldy, the result of layers of federal oversight that weigh down both the accreditor and its members.
In July the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges put City College on «show cause» status, giving the institution less than a year to prove that it is meeting the commission’s standards or lose its accreditation entirely. Without accreditation, the college would not be eligible to receive federal student aid and would almost certainly have to shut its doors to its nearly 80,000 students.
But the union that represents faculty members at City College, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has taken steps to discredit the commission and to preserve the college’s accreditation, including lodging a lengthy complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and filing a lawsuit.
On Thursday several faculty members and union representatives will ask a federal advisory panel to recommend that the accreditor lose its recognition from the Education Department, making it ineligible to serve as a gatekeeper for federal student aid. The department, however, has recommended letting the accreditor stay in business, as long as it tends to some problems of its own.
«If done properly, accreditation affords educators the opportunity to reflect on their work and collaboratively work to improve education,» Joshua Pechthalt, president of the union, the California Federation of Teachers, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. But the Accrediting Commission, he wrote, is an «unaccountable organization that operates with little transparency, has created a climate of fear and intimidation, and is not operating in the best interests of California’s’ community-college students or educators.»
The Union Cries Foul
There is little debate that state budget cuts and enrollment increases during the recession are the root causes of many problems at City College. But how the college ended up in such dire straits with the accreditor is a main cause of contention for faculty members, and hinges in part on the difference between «recommendations» and «requirements.»
In 2012 the commission identified six areas where the college had failed to meet the accreditor’s requirements and eligibility standards. The college also had not fully complied with any of eight «recommendations» made by the commission in 2006, the commission said in a letter to Pamela Fisher, then interim chancellor of the college.
The faculty union cried foul, charging that the accreditor had changed the meaning of the 2006 «recommendations,» which were now being considered as «requirements.» On top of that, union officials were angry that the accreditor had chosen the harshest possible sanction and had given the college just eight months to comply, rather than taking some intermediate step that would allow up to two years to comply.
The accreditor also ignored several conflicts of interest in reviewing City College and failed to follow its own rules in applying the sanction, the faculty union charged.
The California Federation of Teachers and San Francisco’s city attorney have filed separate lawsuits asking judges to issue an injunction that would preserve the college’s accreditation.
In an effort to turn the tables, the faculty union is also appealing to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity—an 18-member advisory panel that recommends to the U.S. secretary of education whether to recognize an accreditor for purposes of serving as a gatekeeper for federal financial aid. The advisory committee is the panel that faculty and union representatives are scheduled to address on Thursday.
Although the Education Department has identified more than a dozen areas where the accreditor is out of compliance with federal rules, the department has largely dismissed the faculty union’s complaints, with three minor exceptions. The department’s recommendation to the advisory committee is for the commission to retain its recognition and be given a year to remedy the problems.
The advisory committee is likely to accept the department’s recommendations.
The College System’s View
The federal response to the union’s complaint is evidence that the Education Department is still «extremely supportive» of the accreditor, said Brice W. Harris, chancellor of the California Community College System.
The system has undertaken a huge plan, with more than 350 items, to try to help the college meet the accreditor’s standards.
The union’s actions are not necessarily contrary to the system’s efforts, Mr. Harris said, but they «add some confusion.»
«The college is the students and the employees,» he said. «Organized labor does not constitute the college.»
If there is faculty discontent with accreditation, Mr. Harris said, it is largely because of the increasing role and requirements of the federal government in the process.
«Regional accreditation is still the most effective method for improving our colleges across the country,» he said.
Barbara A. Beno, president of the Accrediting Commission, said that the union’s stance did not reflect the view of many individual faculty members who are involved in carrying out the chancellor’s plan to comply with the accreditation standards.
In addition, faculty members across the commission’s region continue to serve on accreditation teams and participate in the commission’s efforts to improve its standards, Ms. Beno said.
«Everybody wants to get back into good standing,» said Craig P. Smith, director of the American Federation of Teachers’ higher-education division. «The people who are doing the lion’s share of the work to bring the institution back into compliance are our members as well,» he said.
But they also aren’t letting up on their opposition to the accreditor, he said, because the system itself operates on the accreditor’s terms and doesn’t allow for more give and take. «We have kind of said all along that it’s unfortunate that the accreditation system is structured in a way that requires litigation or a combative hearing.»