Government

Federal Panel Gives Controversial Community-College Accreditor a Clean Slate

February 23, 2017

Ian C. Bates, San Francisco Chronicle, Polaris
City College of San Francisco and its accrediting agency have been at odds since the accreditor announced it would revoke the college's accreditation, in 2013.

A federal advisory panel recommended on Thursday that the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges continue its status as a gatekeeper of federal student aid for 18 months. If approved, the recommendation would also allow the commission to accredit some baccalaureate degrees at two-year colleges.

The recommendation, by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, marks a new milestone in the long-running saga of the accreditor, which oversees community colleges in California, Hawaii, and several U.S. territories. A senior Education Department official must approve the recommendation for it to take effect.

The committee made its decision on Thursday morning, but on Wednesday it heard complaints from dozens of professors, students, and union officials who urged the panel to revoke the accreditor’s federal recognition.

Timothy Killikelly, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, which represents faculty members at City College of San Francisco, said that rejecting the accreditor’s status as a gatekeeper of federal aid would force the state to find a new accreditor for its community colleges.

The commission has been under fire from elected officials and faculty unions in California since its 2013 decision to revoke the accreditation of City College. That action was postponed by a lawsuit against the accreditor and eventually made moot after the commission created a new path for the college to retain its accreditation. The commission announced in January that City College had met its standards and would remain accredited for seven years.

As a result of the City College controversy, community-college leaders in California have formed two working groups: one to coordinate with the accreditor and suggest improvements in its policies and procedures, the other to consider the long-term accreditation needs of the state and recommend whether the commission should continue to be the gatekeeper for the state’s two-year colleges. Another regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges' Senior College and University Commission, accredits the region’s four-year colleges.

As part of the controversy over City College, the U.S. Department of Education has twice found the accreditor out of compliance with federal regulations. Each time, however, the advisory committee, which advises the education secretary on accreditation issues and recognizing accreditors, gave the commission time to fix the problems.

Most recently, the advisory panel gave the accreditor just six months to come into compliance on a handful of deficiencies and improve its process for approving baccalaureate degrees at the community colleges permitted to offer them by the California Legislature.

‘A Time of Transition’

Officials of the accreditor spoke before the advisory panel on Wednesday to explain the changes they had made to meet the federal regulations as well as their efforts to improve their standing with colleges in California.

“This has been a time of transition,” said the accreditor’s interim president, Richard A. Winn, and a time to “recalibrate relationships.” Mr. Winn has been in his position just two months, after the commission’s previous president, Barbara A. Beno, was placed on administrative leave in December, six months before she was scheduled to retire.

And he acknowledged the critics in the room, saying that they were “understandably upset” about the decision to revoke City College’s accreditation.

“The two sides are deeply polarized,” Mr. Winn said. “I suspect it will take time to build trust.”

Despite the change in leadership and the efforts the accreditor has made to reach out to its members, many faculty members remained skeptical.

Julie Bruno, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, said the accreditor is responding to some of the recommendations for improvement.

“We are taking a watchful stance,” she told the advisory committee on Wednesday. “I’m not even sure we could say we are hopeful or optimistic.”

Despite the hours of heated testimony from opponents, the advisory committee approved its recommendation on Thursday with little debate and just two votes in opposition.

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.