Published in the Sacramento Bee:

New community college accreditor needed now

State Community College Chancellor Brice Harris has released his long-awaited Accreditation Task Force report, and the news is not good for the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

The report, however, is good news for California, because it puts accreditation – the process of monitoring and reporting that provides assurance to students and taxpayers that a college offers a quality education – on a path toward renewal.

The blue-ribbon task force, comprising faculty, administrators, college presidents, elected officials and other expert stakeholders, has starkly exposed the commission’s problems and recommends replacing it with another accreditor.
This is a welcome development. Unfortunately, it may not happen overnight.

Two years ago, the California Federation of Teachers, representing a majority of California’s community college faculty, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education regarding the commission’s failure to comply with multiple accreditor standards – the behaviors by which an accreditor is measured to keep its own authorization. The department, agreeing, issued a letter detailing the commission’s lack of compliance with 15 standards. This opened the floodgates:

▪ The San Francisco city attorney won a court decision that the agency broke four laws in its effort to shutter City College of San Francisco. The college remains open.

▪ California’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee criticized the commission for its City College of San Francisco decision, absurd levels of secrecy, disproportionate rate of sanctions compared with other accreditors, and inconsistent treatment of colleges.

▪ The Community College Board of Governors rescinded regulatory language that had given the commission sole authority over accreditation of California’s community colleges.

▪ Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, authored Assembly Bill 1397 to make the commission more transparent and accountable. Receiving strong bipartisan support, Ting nonetheless placed it on hold until January to give the state chancellor a chance to move his task force’s recommendations forward.

The task force, finding the “California Community College system and its member institutions have lost confidence in the ACCJC,” concluded the colleges need to transition to another accreditor.

This represents a sea change in perceptions of the agency; the California Federation of Teachers’ critique has become mainstream opinion.

The faculty union’s formerly lonely position was partly due to the obscurity of accreditation itself. Necessary for students to earn transferable credits and financial aid, a college’s accreditation is always a complex process.

But in the hands of the commission, accreditation became needlessly bureaucratic, time-consuming, expensive, secretive and focused on things far removed from the classroom. It also became extraordinarily punitive, involving harsh sanctions leading to high levels of faculty anxiety, endless paperwork, student fears of disaccreditation and consequent enrollment losses.

As students fled sanctioned colleges, often to attend more expensive private schools, many endured terrible educational and financial outcomes.
Another reason the shift took so long was fear of the commission’s sanctioning powers and reputation for vindictiveness, which kept many college leaders silent. State Sen. Jim Nielsen provided a glimpse of what they were up against with the commission’s President Barbara Beno when he told colleagues, “I have never dealt with a more arrogant, condescending and dismissive individual.”

Change, finally, is coming. However, the path to another accreditor faces obstacles. The chancellor suggests the transition could take 10 years. This timeline contradicts his report, which notes, “Further delay in resolving the issues with the accreditor will have adverse effects on our colleges, on our students, and on California’s economy and future.”

Important considerations lie ahead, such as which accreditor makes sense. A new accreditor must agree to take on California’s 113 colleges, and the U.S. Department of Education must recognize the new accreditor’s expansion of responsibilities. These steps will take time, but not 10 years. The problem is clear. It needs fixing before more damage is done.

Joshua Pechthalt is president of the California Federation of Teachers.