Community college leaders reject accreditor

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Community college presidents in California have voted to oust their accreditor, striking the latest blow to an agency that's already been put on notice by the federal Department of Education. AFT activists, who have been integral in challenging the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, are counting the vote as a victory.

"The presidents' vote confirms what the [California Community Colleges] Chancellor's Office Task Force on Accreditation revealed last year: The ACCJC is no longer widely accepted in its community and does not meet the needs of California public higher education," says California Federation of Teachers President Josh Pechthalt, who is an AFT vice president.

Students testifying about CCSF accreditationThe ACCJC has been on the defense since it threatened the City College of San Francisco's accreditation in 2012. The sanction came on the heels of a contentious fight in the California Legislature during which the ACCJC advocated for narrowing the mission of California's community colleges, and City College's faculty union, AFT 2121, went to bat for broader educational access. The attention highlighted questions about ACCJC's integrity that had percolated through the state's educational institutions for years.

The CFT and AFT 2121 led the charge for an investigation by the Department of Education, and in January 2015, the department gave the ACCJC one year to correct 15 violations of federal accreditation standards or be stripped of its authority. Chief among the complaints were secretive operations, lack of accountability and an emphasis on internal college governance rather than on measures that promote student success and academic rigor.

Dozens of faculty members, chancellors and students (including those pictured above) testified before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the secretary of education, describing ACCJC accreditation reports as unclear and confusing, punitive and threatening. They said the ACCJC's review teams skew toward administrators and neglect faculty, and that its sanction rate is far out of alignment with other accreditors—a whopping 53 percent, compared with 12 percent among similar agencies. Many also connected ACCJC sanctions with a decrease in opportunity for underprivileged students. When the ACCJC threatened the City College of San Francisco's accreditation, students who had few alternatives did not enroll, fearing the school would be shuttered. Many wondered whether their programs would be canceled and suffered when student services were decreased due to budget cuts.

Others have also condemned the ACCJC: A California court ruled that the agency broke the law in four different ways when it tried to shutter City College of San Francisco. And the California Legislature's Joint Legislative Audit Committee accused the ACCJC of secrecy, disproportionate sanctions and inconsistent treatment of the colleges under its purview.

"The CFT has been fighting for a fair and appropriate accreditation system—in court, at the U.S. Department of Education, in the Legislature and in the streets—ever since the ACCJC unfairly and unlawfully sanctioned City College of San Francisco in 2012," says Pechthalt. "While a number of individual college presidents had already gone on record regarding the need to move to a new accreditor, this vote shows that a remarkable, unprecedented consensus has now emerged."

[Virginia Myers, Alyssa Picard]