On paper San Francisco’s city attorney won a victory on Tuesday in his lawsuit against the accreditor that oversees City College of San Francisco.
In his final ruling in the dispute, Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow of the Superior Court in San Francisco ordered the accreditor to reconsider its decision after allowing the college the opportunity to provide a written response to some deficiencies identified by the commission.
The judge also ordered the accreditor to evaluate the college’s response "as well as the record as it existed in 2013." Then the commission may either modify or affirm its earlier decision to revoke the college’s accreditation.
Judge Karnow did not vacate the commission’s 2013 decision as the city attorney, the college, and a faculty union had requested.
But the union, the California Federation of Teachers, hailed the judge’s requirement that the accreditor now conduct its review of the college in public, making all of the documentation and deliberations open. That extra level of transparency applies only to the judge’s order, but the union thinks it may give lawmakers an incentive to require the approach more broadly.
"The judge mandated a more transparent process for such a reconsideration," Jeff Freitas, the federation’s secretary-treasurer, said in a news release. "This is important and helps pave a path forward."
The city attorney, Dennis Herrera, said in his own news release that he was "optimistic that these court-ordered protections will enable City College to secure its accreditation, and finally put threats of closure to rest."
The commission did not issue a response to the final ruling, and Judge Karnow wrote that the accreditor had declined to request a stay of his order to appeal the ruling.
An End to Conflict
While the lawsuit did not achieve everything that the city attorney and union leaders had sought, it bought the college time.
Judge Karnow kept the college open while the lawsuit progressed. And even if the accreditor repeats its 2013 decision to revoke accreditation, the college is proceeding with the "restoration process," created by the accreditor under political pressure from the city’s Congressional representatives and the Education Department.
Under that process, the college still has two more years to fully meet the commission’s standards. The college could also choose to not go forward with a reconsideration of the revocation, in which case it will remain in the restoration process.
The final ruling does, for now, put to rest a politically volatile confrontation between the college and its accreditor. The lawsuit took a novel approach for an accreditation dispute, accusing the accreditor of violating the state’s laws against unfair business practices. Typically, disputes over accreditation are heard in federal courts.
In his complaint, Mr. Herrera alleged that the accreditor’s process had been tainted by conflicts of interest and a political conspiracy to undermine the college’s open-access mission.
The complaint also relied on Education Department findings that the commission was not in compliance with several federal regulations, including its policy on the makeup of visiting accreditation-review teams and its policy on conflicts of interest.
Judge Karnow issued a tentative ruling in January that rejected the claims that an appearance of a conflict of interest by some of the commission’s members or by the visiting team had biased the accreditor’s decisions on City College.
"There is no evidence there was an actual conflict, and there is no evidence that the lack of correct procedures had any impact on City College," Judge Karnow wrote.
The tentative ruling also rejected the idea that the accreditor’s support for state legislation restricting waivers for student fees, which was opposed by some at City College, had affected the commission’s findings. The city attorney’s claims fell short, the judge wrote, because there was no argument or evidence that anyone at the accrediting agency had "acted improperly as a result of the political dispute. Nor is there substantial evidence that the alleged harm occurred."
What the accreditor had failed to do, the judge found, was to give the college a chance to respond to all of the commission’s findings on its deficiencies, some of which were revealed to the college only after the decision to revoke accreditation.
"We do not know if the commissioners would have exercised their discretion differently had City College been given an opportunity to address the additional findings in writing," the judge wrote in January.
But even that problem was not enough for Judge Karnow to reverse the accreditor’s decision.
"Having in mind that there was no violation of common-law fair procedure as to numerous deficiencies," he wrote, "my discretion is best exercised if I do not wholly undermine the federal accreditation process by vacating a decision that the accreditor had the discretion to make."
Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs.You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.