Defending community colleges from rogue accreditors

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Dozens of faculty members, chancellors, students and union leaders spoke truth to power Dec. 16, taking turns at a microphone to describe the abuses their schools have suffered under the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. They described the agency as destructive, deceptive and a detriment to high-quality, accessible education. And they urged the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity to shut it down.

The next day, the committee, which advises the U.S. Secretary of Education, shortened the amount of time the ACCJC has to correct 15 different violations of federal accreditation standards from one year to six months. What's more, committee members began to discuss how the ACCJC might be replaced.

AFT local 2121 members who came to testifyMembers of California locals, who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the proceedings, are calling the recommendation a successful step on the way to fixing a terribly broken system.

"The ACCJC has systematically abused its authority and created a process that has actually gotten in the way of education," said Tim Killikelly, president of AFT 2121, the faculty local at the City College of San Francisco, during his testimony.

"The ACCJC has become a serious obstacle to providing the education our students deserve," said California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt, who also listed objections from authorities outside the union: The California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office Task Force on Accreditation issued a report earlier this year soundly condemning the ACCJC and recommending its replacement. A California court ruled that the agency broke the law in four different ways as 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.

Widely considered a rogue agency by colleges throughout the western region it covers, the ACCJC has been accused of focusing its accreditation reports too heavily on the internal governance of its member schools, and too little on measures that would promote student success and academic rigor. Testimony Dec. 16 described its accreditation reports as unclear and confusing, punitive and threatening. The ACCJC's sanction rate is far out of alignment with other agencies'—a whopping 53 percent, compared with 12 percent among its peers. Review teams skew toward administrators and neglect faculty voices.

Several people drew a bright line between ACCJC sanctions and a decrease in opportunity for underprivileged students. When the ACCJC pulled accreditation from City College of San Francisco, students who had few alternatives simply did not enroll in school at all. Others wondered whether their programs would be canceled, and suffered when student services were decreased due to budget cuts.

Several students testified that attending CCSF can be life-changing, and losing the opportunity attend would be devastating. "I owe all of my survival and successes to CCSF," said Allen-Deon Saunders, an engineering student there, adding that access to higher education has been his "only reparation" in a world still skewed to disadvantage young African-American men like him. He suggested that the ACCJC "fabricated" a crisis at CCSF and the result was diminished opportunities for at-risk students.

Martin Madrigal, a veteran of four tours in Iraq who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, stood at the mic in full uniform to credit CCSF student support services for helping him transition to civilian life. "I would not be where I am today without them," he said. Two undocumented students also spoke of the opportunities they'd been afforded at CCSF. 

The impact of sanctions against CCSF on students like these "should trouble us deeply," said Tarik Farrar, an instructor of African-American studies at CCSF and a member of AFT 2121.

The ACCJC defended itself before NACIQI, insisting its processes are clear and fair and countering that its member institutions are supportive. A handful of witnesses were added late in the meeting to testify in support of the ACCJC, but at least two of them were commissioners for the agency.

The overwhelming majority in the room called for removal of the ACCJC. Indeed, some suggested that the tide had turned on an agency that has abused its power among member organizations. "A culture of fear has given way to courage and clarity," said Alisa Messer, a CCSF English professor and former AFT 2121 president. "ACCJC has got to go."

NACIQI's recommendation regarding the ACCJC will be submitted to the undersecretary of education for a decision; the secretary of education would make the final decision.

Meanwhile, AFT activists met with congressional representatives Dec. 17 after the NACIQI hearing, educating them about the accreditation process and asking for a Department of Education decision on the ACCJC's appeal of prior findings that it was noncompliant—an appeal that members of the NACIQI committee described as two years old.

[Virginia Myers]