Legal

City College of San Francisco Wins a Reprieve in Its Accreditation Battle

January 14, 2015

The accreditor that oversees City College of San Francisco announced on Wednesday that the college would have two more years to meet all accreditation standards. Whether that decision has any relevance could depend on the outcome of a lawsuit over the institution’s accreditation status.

The accreditor’s announcement was the latest twist in the complex and protracted political and legal battles over whether the college should remain accredited and open.

In 2013 the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges voted to withdraw the college’s accreditation the following year. Loss of accreditation would make the college ineligible to receive federal student aid and would probably force it to close.

But the threat of losing accreditation caused a political backlash from the Bay Area’s Congressional members and other elected officials. Under pressure from local officials and the U.S. Department of Education, the accrediting commission created a new accreditation status, called "restoration." The college applied for that status last year, and the accreditor confirmed on Wednesday that the institution had been approved.

Restoration status gives the college extra time to reverse the termination decision, "provided the institution demonstrates it is able to come into compliance and is likely to complete all necessary improvements within the two-year restoration period," according to the commission.

What has complicated the matter further is that a state judge had already temporarily halted the accreditor’s decision to revoke the college’s accreditation, pending the outcome of a lawsuit by San Francisco’s city attorney, Dennis Herrera.

At the lawsuit’s trial, in October, lawyers for the city charged that the accreditor’s decision on City College had been unfair and tainted by conflicts of interest. They are asking the judge, Curtis Karnow of San Francisco Superior Court, to overturn the accreditor’s decision to revoke the college’s accreditation and to have the institution re-evaluated.

'Deceptive' Status

Judge Karnow is expected to issue a preliminary ruling sometime this month. If he rules against the accreditor, it’s not clear what remedy he would propose and whether the restoration status would have any relevance. But if he upholds the accreditor’s decision, then restoration status would keep the college from closing for at least two years, while the institution works to meet the commission’s standards.

Brice W. Harris, chancellor of California’s community-college system, issued a statement welcoming the restoration status. The chancellor’s office has already coordinated an intensive effort to help the college meet the accreditor’s standards.

"Through hard work and focused commitment by the college community, City College has entered a phase of stability and sustained improvement that will serve students well for many years to come," Mr. Harris said.

But officials in the union that represents faculty members at City College called the restoration status "deceptive," saying that it set a higher bar for accreditation than other colleges face and that it gave the college no way to appeal if the accreditor determined it had not met the standards at the end of the two-year period.

But they also acknowledged that restoration would be better than the alternative.

"If the choice is restoration or closing the college, obviously we’d like to have something where the college doesn’t close," said Tim Killikelly, president of City College’s faculty union, American Federation of Teachers Local 2121.

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 eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.