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Reprieve for California Accreditor

December 16, 2013

WASHINGTON -- A federal advisory committee on Friday recommended that the U.S. Education Department extend for one year its recognition of California’s community college accreditor and require the agency show that it is complying with federal standards.

The accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, has been under fire for its decision this year to revoke accreditation of City College of San Francisco. Many supporters of the college -- faculty unions, student advocates, and some elected officials -- had been pushing for the panel to recommend the Education Department strip the accreditor of its federal recognition.

More than two dozen students, faculty members, union leaders and other supporters of City College of San Francisco testified Thursday and Friday.

The issue before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity Friday was whether the ACCJC was meeting the federal standards for accreditors.

Education Department staff and the advisory panel had raised concerns about a range of issues, including how the accreditor reviews colleges, the composition of its site review teams, and whether the accreditor’s policies enjoyed “wide acceptance” of the education community.

In its recommendation, the advisory panel said that the accreditor should be required to produce a report over the next year demonstrating its compliance with the identified problems. One member of the panel, Anne D. Neal, dissented from the recommendation. Neal, who is the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said she thought the accreditor had undermined institutional autonomy and was not properly ensuring academic quality.

CCSF Battle Will Continue

For two days last week, the accreditation advisory panel’s meeting here -- usually a forum that delves into the intricacies of federal accreditation law and regulation -- became the focal point of a yearlong saga about the future of the City College of San Francisco and its 85,000 students.

Supporters of CCSF, unhappy with the ACCJC’s decision to revoke accreditation of their institution, brought their fight to the federal advisory board that has the political clout to essentially render the accreditor’s power ineffective. In emotional testimony to the panel, dozens of CCSF student leaders, staff and faculty members, and union representatives made their case against the accreditor.

Before Friday’s vote, Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, described the push to cut off federal recognition of the ACCJC as “important” but pointed out that the union “was certainly not putting all of our eggs in this basket.”

Although the accreditation panel provides guidance to the Education Department, the Obama administration is not bound by its recommendations. Two members of Congress, who represent the Bay Area, have been pushing for a meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to make their case against ACCJC.

The accreditor is also fighting three separate lawsuits about its CCSF decision from faculty unions and the city attorney of San Francisco. State lawmakers in California have also launched an inquiry into the accrediting agency.

Another Accreditor Also Renewed

In a separate decision, the federal accreditation panel voted to recommend that the Education Department also continue to recognize for a year an accrediting agency for institutions in the Northwest.

Education Department officials and adjunct activists had expressed concerns about how the accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, handled complaints from adjunct faculty members about their working conditions, among other issues.

The agency will have one year to resolve any problems and demonstrate its compliance with federal rules.

(A previous version of this section imprecisely described NWCCU as a community college accreditor. In fact, the agency accredits a range of institutions, including community colleges.)

Future of Accreditation

Last week’s meetings of the federal accreditation panel occurred against the backdrop of a larger debate over the future of accreditation that has begun to play out in Washington as Congress considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Policy makers have discussed, among other issues, whether accreditors are doing enough to promote innovation in higher education and whether they should do more to keep college affordable.

NACIQI in 2011 weighed into the debate on the future of accreditation, issuing a series of recommendations for how to improve accreditation in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

On Friday, outgoing Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter asked members of the panel to revisit those recommendations and make new suggestions as the department hammers out its policy positions on accreditation in the coming months. 

 

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