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The first three months of City College of San Francisco’s year of limbo were busy. But it’s still too early to predict whether the college will be able to keep its accreditation and avoid shutting down.

Administrators and faculty members have made steady progress on 357 tasks they must complete to satisfy the Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges. The college last week tapped Arthur Q. Tyler, a veteran community college leader, as its new chancellor. And Brice Harris, the chancellor of the state’s community college system, praised City College for the changes it has made.

“It’s been an exciting and exhausting 100 days,” Harris said last week during a conference call with reporters.

For example, he said the college, which enrolls 80,000 students, has made strong steps to stabilize its precarious finances. College officials recently decided to suspend plans to build a new performing arts center. And, working with the mayor’s office, they strengthened weak fiscal controls by filling several key positions in payroll and auditing.

City College is also trying to collect on unpaid student fees. Roughly 27,000 current and former students owe almost $10 million in back payments, according to some estimates.

In the meantime, the college’s leaders filed a request for the commission to review its July decision to strip City College’s accreditation. The review is a chance for the college to try to prove that the accreditor made procedural errors. (The commission is the two-year college companion to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, although it operates largely independently.)

If the review fails, the next step would be an appeal, which could run beyond next July. Sources have said that the review and appeal are key steps for the college to buy time as it tries to come into compliance with the accreditor’s policies.

But the details of that review remain under wraps. The college was required to describe the reasons for its request in an August letter to the commission. That letter has not been made public.

Officials with the college and the chancellor’s office said the commission was behind the decision to withhold the letter.

“We’re not able to speak to that,” Jennifer Aries, a spokeswoman for the college, said of the letter. "That's what we were told."

Accreditation reviews generally are not public, experts said. And documents are often withheld as colleges work toward getting out from under sanctions.

Barbara Beno, the commission’s president, said in an interview that the review process is a dialogue. The college’s request document contains only “initial arguments,” she said, with plenty of back-and-forth looming. The commission does not want to encourage speculation about an ongoing review.

“It’s not meant to be a public popularity contest,” Beno said.

A hearing date for the review has yet to be scheduled, she said, but will be soon.

“We’re hoping to get it done before January,” she said, adding that the final decision will be public.

That doesn’t satisfy faculty unions, however. The California Federation of Teachers (CFT) is demanding that City College release the review letter, said Fred Glass, a spokesman for the group.

“We need to know what the decision process was,” Glass said. He said a legal challenge is a possibility.

Lawsuits and Federal Scrutiny

Faculty unions have already sued to block City College’s closure. The CFT and local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers last month filed a lawsuit claiming the commission had overreached in its decision to terminate City College’s accreditation, as well as in sanctioning other California community colleges.

San Francisco’s city attorney, Dennis Herrera, has also gotten involved. In August Herrera sued the commission, claiming that the accreditor’s alleged political bias unlawfully prejudiced its interpretation of accreditation standards. He also sued the statewide system’s Board of Governors for allegedly improperly ceding its authority to the commission.

In the lawsuit, Herrera claims that the accreditor has signed onto the national college completion agenda at the expense of student access. Lengthy sections of the legal challenge go after the Lumina Foundation, making pains to connect the dots between the commission, the foundation, for-profit colleges and conservative activists.

“The evidence is clear that the ACCJC ignored multiple conflicts of interest, flouted laws and allowed its political advocacy to color public responsibilities it should frankly never have been given," the city attorney said in a written statement.

Herrera is a political rival to San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Lee. While some in the city welcomed his lawsuit, others consider it to be a politically motivated distraction.

Hal Huntsman, a math instructor at City College and former president of the college’s Academic Senate, said it’s a moot point to debate the merits of the various legal challenges.

“We don’t have time to win a lawsuit,” Huntsman said. “Let’s live to fight another day.”

The commission said in a written statement that Herrera’s allegations are “without merit and an attempt to politicize and interfere with the ongoing accreditation process.”

The lawsuits probably aren’t even the commission’s biggest problem. That challenge comes from the federal government.

In August the U.S. Department of Education responded to a voluminous complaint from faculty unions about the accreditor. In that letter, which stunned many, the department said the commission was out of compliance with federal standards in several areas related to its punishment of City College, including possible conflicts of interest and a lack of clarity in the review process.

The commission is working with the department to resolve those issues, Beno said. It just received a “very detailed” staff report from the feds and is crafting a response. While she said the department’s initial letter “went too far” in places, the commission will make policy changes to stay in compliance.

Earlier this month the accreditor took some heat for asking business officers at California community colleges to draft letters of support it could share with the department.

In some ways the commission’s dilemma is similar to the one City College is facing, although less dire, given that the department often finds quibbles with accreditors.

Even so, the letter was unusual, said David Bergeron, vice president of postsecondary education policy at the Center for American Progress.

The commission is up for a regular review in December by the federal panel that oversees accreditors – the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. And Bergeron, who was recently the U.S. Secretary of Education’s top higher education adviser, said the complaints raised by the department in the letter are the sorts that are typically handled by the federal panel.

“It takes a lot to get the department to publicly slam an agency outside of the formal process of taking it to NACIQI,” Bergeron said in an e-mail.

Staying Positive

City College’s leaders and the system chancellor’s office have not waded into the debate over the commission’s actions. They have focused instead on complying with the lengthy list of problems the college must fix to stay open.

Harris in July replaced the college’s dismissed Board of Trustees with Bob Agrella, a “special trustee.” Agrella has a wide range of powers in the role, which expands on a more informal position he has had held since last year.

Joining Agrella in November will be Tyler, who takes over as the college’s first permanent chancellor in 18 months. He was most recently deputy chancellor and COO of the Houston Community College System, and has previously served as a top administrator at California community colleges.

Tyler has also worked on an accreditation meltdown in the state. He was a special trustee for Compton Community College in 2004-5, when the college lost its accreditation and was eventually absorbed by El Camino College.

While the nature of City College’s review remains a secret, the college has gone public with reams of information about its progress in complying with the commission’s requirements.

The college has created a website, dubbed CCSFForward, which includes updates on each of the 357 tasks it must complete.  

One important area is the ongoing work to better track student learning outcomes. That effort is about half complete, according to the website. The college has hired learning-outcome coordinators and is currently creating a new centralized reporting system.

“Yes, we will get the accreditation done,” Tyler told reporters last week.

Some faculty members, staff and students are doing their part to help out.

Earlier this month Huntsman joined a group of 60 volunteers who helped clean up the college’s Ocean campus. They picked up trash and pulled weeds, he said. And perhaps more importantly, they helped IT staff inventory the campus’s computer equipment. (City College needs to upgrade its technology as part of its compliance quest.)

Huntsman said the goal was to put a dent in the college’s huge deferred maintenance bills. He called it one of his proudest days working at City College. And he hopes the commission takes note of the group effort.

“We’re trying to be positive and do things that are going to change the college,” Huntsman said. “There are real things that need to change.”

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