Angst for an Accreditor

June 7, 2010

College presidents, faculty/staff unions and state education leaders rarely agree about anything. But mutual frustration with a regional accreditor has united strange bedfellows in California’s community college sector.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, which accredits two-year institutions in California, Hawaii and numerous Pacific island nations and territories as part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, placed 41 (or 37 percent) of the 110 California community colleges on "sanction" from 2003 to 2008. A study of other regional accreditors in the United States shows that, during this same period, the percentage of their community colleges being sanctioned, or warned that their accreditation could be stripped, ranged from 0 to 6 percent. As of January, 18 California community colleges remain on sanction. (Still, in the history of the state, only one two-year institution, Compton Community College, has ever lost its accreditation.)

The unusually large number of penalties for California's community colleges prompted an array of interest groups from the institutions to form a task force last year to study the accreditor's actions; its recommendations covered a wide swath of issues but can be summed up as urging the commission to focus on institutional "improvement rather than compliance."

Leaders of the accrediting commission largely rebutted the task force's findings, saying that the agency, in taking a tougher stance on institutional performance, is responding to increased pressure (from the federal government and elsewhere) to hold colleges accountable. ACCJC officials also challenged the extent to which the panel represented the views of the accreditor's members: California's community college presidents. The dispute escalated last month when California's community college chancellor, Jack Scott, writing on behalf of the task force, complained to the U.S. Education Department that the ACCJC was not following its own bylaws in its process for selecting commissioners.

The issue at the core of the California clash – whether accreditation is designed to stimulate change within a college, or assure accountability to external audiences – is a fundamental one in the increasingly agitated national debates over higher education accreditation. And the dispute is the latest sign of tensions between the government, the agencies and their member institutions.

A Growing Conflict

The continuing dispute between the task force representing California’s community colleges and the ACCJC has grown out of what some officials, on both sides, describe as a lack of communication and collegiality.

After submitting their written recommendations in October and meeting with a small group of commissioners shortly thereafter, task force members were initially told that they were not allowed to speak before the entire commission at their next meeting in January. When that decision was eventually reversed, Scott was given five minutes to sum up the task force’s findings, after which there was no public discussion.

Weeks after the meeting, ACCJC officials wrote a detailed critique of the task force’s suggestions and largely considered the matter solved. But, in March, the task force again asked to meet with the commission, this time at its annual retreat. Receiving no response to their request, task force members took offense, and have sought some intervention from the federal government.

The task force’s recommendations deal primarily with the perception, due to the number of sanctions levied, that California's community colleges are falling short. One key recommendation is that the ACCJC provide more guidance to troubled community colleges seeking to avoid losing their accreditation – but it wants this communication provided out of the public square.

Currently, the ACCJC levies only “public sanctions,” or three distinct warnings that an institution could lose its accreditation. With each “public sanction,” local news media generally write articles that some community college officials believe unfairly worry students and their parents, who may not know much about the accreditation process.

By contrast, some regional accrediting bodies send informal letters to troubled institutions letting them know how they can reverse their fortunes before they come up for formal review again, essentially helping many save face while they privately correct potentially worrisome institutional issues.

“Some folks have reported these public sanctions as being something of a ‘gotcha’ moment for the ACCJC,” said Jane Patton, president of the Academic Senate of California Community Colleges and a member of the task force. Others have told her they found the sanctions damaging rather than helpful.

Other faculty representatives said the public flogging some institutions receive as a result of these “public sanctions” has generated a climate of fear among many college officials.

“Administrators are scared of asking questions [about the accreditation process] for fear that, when they’re up for evaluation, there will be some backlash putting their accreditation at risk,” said Ron Norton Reel, president of the Community College Association, a constituent faculty union of the National Education Association, and a task force member. “The spirit that exists right now is one of punishment. We would like that to change to one of accomplishment.”

In order to encourage this change in "spirit," the task force also suggests that the ACCJC should work collaboratively with community college officials to train faculty and staff who serve on accrediting teams investigating their own college or peer institutions. Some faculty groups already run their own voluntary training sessions out of concern that training from the accrediting agency is not sufficient.

“Some visiting teams are prepared and others aren’t,” said Patton. “There are cases where an individual is asked to evaluate, say, the student services of a college, but they have no background in such a program. Some teams have no faculty on them. There are people out there who are making judgments on institutions without being well-prepared.”

ACCJC officials stressed in their rebuttal to these recommendations that they receive “ample feedback,” positive and negative, from their members and that they provide plenty of opportunities for faculty and staff to learn more about the accreditation process.

“Accreditation is higher education’s system of self-regulation,” wrote Lurelean B. Gaines and Barbara A. Beno, the accrediting body’s chair and president, respectively. “It is a peer review process and [colleges' accreditation liaison officers], as well as faculty, college administrative leaders and trustees have a professional obligation to read, seek to understand, and apply the standards to their own institutions.”

Still, they argue that “it often seems to be the case that those individuals and institutions that most misunderstand accreditation are those who don’t take advantage of existing accreditation training activities.”

Defending the ACCJC’s use of “public sanctions,” Gaines and Beno argue that when the commission made use of informal warnings, they did not carry much weight and were easy to dismiss.

“The genie is out of the bottle on this issue,” they write. “The [ACCJC] moved to all public sanctions many years ago in response to pressures from the Department of Education. The increasing public, student and government interest in institutional quality has created a climate in which more information about accreditation decisions is demanded.… In this time of increased expectations of transparency, it is not in the best interest of higher education’s system of self-regulation to try to regain privacy or secrecy of accreditor actions on institutions."

There has been a greater push for openness from groups besides the Department of Education as well. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, for example, is in the process of revising its rules to require more disclosure of accreditors' actions.

Who Represents Whom?

Apart from the complaints about the accreditor's practices and their impact, the two sides also disagree about the standing of those complaining.

Beno does not view the task force as being representative of ACCJC’s constituency, even though it includes representatives from the Board of Governors, the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, the group of chief executive officers, the group of chief instructional officers, the Academic Senate, the California School Employees Association, the Community College Association and the chancellor of the state's two-year colleges.

“The institutions are our members, and we communicate through their presidents and their accreditation liaison officers,” Beno said in an interview. “These third-party analyses are important, but they can’t supplant the view of the individual institutions. Also, I don’t think our response to the task force was dismissive. I thought it was quite sincere. I just think their work could have been done differently.”

Scott vehemently disagrees with Beno, arguing that he cannot think of a more representative body than the task force and that any suggestions, no matter their source, should be welcome by the commission.

“Other commissions, including [the Western Association of Schools and Colleges], let people voice themselves at meetings,” Scott said. “I just can’t understand their unwillingness to sit down and talk. They should say, ‘come on in.’ But, to put up a barrier and say that they’re not willing to listen to recommendations that are designed to improve the process, I just don’t understand.”

Several community college presidents from throughout the state, however, believe that the task force’s view of the accrediting body does not reflect their views, even though an elected representative from the state’s group of chief executive officers is an active member. Many of these critics note that they were never given the results of the presidential survey from which the task force’s recommendations were supposedly culled. (Scott’s office provided a blank copy of the survey to Inside Higher Ed but not a report revealing its results.)

James Meznek, chancellor of Ventura Community College District, said he disagrees with most of the task force’s recommendations. For example, he argues that the current means of expressing complaints about accreditation process is sufficient. He also takes issue with the suggestion that ACCJC collaborate with various state-associated groups in the training of faculty and staff members who serve on accreditation peer-review teams. Mostly, however, he simply thinks this conflict is a needless distraction.

“The strength of accreditation is that it is not linked to the state government," Meznek said. "Some of these recommendations are a real departure from my view of what an accrediting body should do. This worries me. Honestly, I’m struck that we have bigger fish to fry in California. This is just a sideshow. We should be focusing on something else.”

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