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City College of San Francisco’s accreditation crisis has turned into a highly politicized game of chicken. Neither side is backing down while the fate of the college, its 77,000 students and even a besieged accreditor hang in the balance.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) will decide on July 31 whether or not to go through with its decision last year to revoke City College’s accreditation for a wide range of problems, including financial instability and concerns about governance and academic quality.

City College will have a grace period after the July ruling. That’s because the college will keep its accreditation until a lawsuit filed by San Francisco’s city attorney, Dennis Herrera, can be resolved. The trial is currently scheduled for late October.

The college has also filed an appeal with the accreditor. That decision could happen before the October trial.

In the meantime, the commission is fielding requests to grant City College an extension of several months. But this week the accreditor said it is legally bound to resist that option.

The commission’s stance has rankled Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who has called for an extension. And Pelosi, the top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, appears ready to take down the accreditor to help protect the largest college in her district.

“ACCJC’s faulty reliance on outdated analysis of the health of City College, and its pursuit of an unworkable policy that ends state and federal funding to CCSF and puts the students and faculty in academic limbo is professionally crippling and destructive,” Pelosi said this week in a written statement, which two other Bay Area members of Congress signed. “Should this failure of leadership persist, new leadership is needed at ACCJC. The U.S. Department of Education should also consider whether to recertify ACCJC as an accrediting body.”

The commission has proposed its own solution to the crisis.

In an opinion piece the San Francisco Chronicle published last month, the commission’s leaders said the college could voluntarily drop its accreditation and then apply to be accredited as a new institution would, reverting to “candidacy” status for two years. In exchange, the accreditor would rescind its termination decision.

What’s going to happen to accreditation if it is so politicized? What message does it send to colleges? -- Barbara Beno, ACCJC's president

City College could keep its federal aid eligibility this way, the commission said. But a new California law would be necessary for the college to receive state support and for its students to be eligible for a generous state-based aid program.

However, virtually all of City College’s supporters have roundly rejected the commission’s proposal, calling it messy and unworkable.

“Let me be clear: we are not considering withdrawing our accreditation,” Arthur Q. Tyler, the college’s chancellor said last month in a written statement. “To do so would severely harm our current and future students as well as undermine our current enrollment efforts.”

Political Realities

The commission is part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which is one of six regional accreditors. The agencies are essentially the government's outsourced gatekeepers of federal financial aid.

In recent years accreditors have taken plenty of heat from politicians, think tanks and pundits.

They are often accused of being soft on colleges. One supposed reason is because the volunteers who staff accreditation site teams typically work in higher education themselves. Some call this a conflict of interest, arguing that academics are unlikely to crack down on their peers.

Should this failure of leadership persist, new leadership is needed at ACCJC. The U.S. Department of Education should also consider whether to recertify ACCJC as an accrediting body. -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi

The debate over for-profits has also been a sore spot. Lawmakers, most notably Democrats in the U.S. Senate, have called out regional accreditors for allegedly allowing some for-profit institutions to run amok.  

But the lengthy fight over City College is a different test for the accreditation process. The college would lose state funding and federal aid eligibility if its accreditation is stripped -- a likely death blow. In recent history no public college of CCSF’s scale and regional importance has faced such an existential threat.

The ACCJC has made plenty of enemies over the years. A wide range of critics, including federal regulators, have accused the commission of making mistakes in its crackdowns on City College and other California community colleges. And few experts on accreditation are willing to wade into the complex debate over whether the commission is right to stand its ground.

But at least one is concerned about what impact the City College crisis might have on the perception and power of accreditors.

Robert C. Dickeson is a former college president who has often pushed for accreditors to play a stronger role in assuring academic quality at colleges. He said lawmakers’ defense of City College sends a worrisome signal to other accreditors, the rest of the academy and to the general public.

Dickeson said Pelosi’s intervention is “misplaced” and that the department’s support for an extension is motivated by political pressure. It’s another episode of a well-documented history of lawmakers pushing for accreditors to turn a blind eye toward underperforming or dying colleges, he said.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, agreed that politics often play a role in accreditation.

“Political pressure being brought to accreditors is nothing new,” he said. “It happens all the time.”

But the stakes are rarely as high as they are with City College.

"It's too important to fail," Tyler said of the public college, which serves many students who don't have other options. "This is not some fly-by-night for-profit institution."

Dueling Letters

Barbara Beno, ACCJC’s president, said in an interview that the level of political pressure on the commission has been “unprecedented.”

She said the commission was trying to be fair in its scrutiny of City College, treating the huge institution with the same unwavering approach that would apply to a small college. Bending the rules because of City College’s importance and political clout would be wrong, said Beno.

“What’s going to happen to accreditation if it is so politicized?” she said. If the commission is unable to enforce its standards, “what message does it send to colleges?”

However, Pelosi and many others, including leaders of City College and California’s community college system, have said the commission has ample reason to grant more time to the college. And public disagreement with the accreditor over City College’s end game marks a shift for some. For example, Brice Harris, the two-year system’s chancellor, had largely avoided criticizing the commission’s decisions until recently.

On Thursday both chambers of California's Legislature passed resolutions that call for the commission to give City College more time, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Even allies are backing away from the accreditor, said Fred Glass, a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, a faculty union, and a part-time instructor in the labor and community studies department at City College.

“The commission has now politically isolated itself and painted itself into a corner,” he said.

Earlier this month the Education Department appeared to give political and legal cover for the commission to back down.

In a May 19 letter to Pelosi, Lynn B. Mahaffie, a department official, said the accreditor could grant City College an “extension for good cause” and also change oversight policies that might prevent that action.

The commission wasn’t convinced. This week Beno and two other commission leaders also wrote to Pelosi. They said the department had contradicted itself over an earlier rebuke of the commission’s handling of the City College review.

Last year the feds told the commission it was out of compliance in several areas, including apparent conflicts of interest. The department also said the accreditor moved too slowly to sanction City College after a 2006 review. A federal panel that oversees accreditors later agreed with that criticism (see page 317 here). The accreditor was given a year to fix the identified problems or risk being stripped of its powers.

“The department took formal enforcement against ACCJC this year because it found that we gave CCSF too much time to come into compliance,” the commission wrote on Tuesday.

As a result, the commission said it can’t undo the decision to withdraw City College’s accreditation and give the college more time to come without violating federal laws and its own policies.

“The Mahaffie letter would not protect us from that result,” the commission said.

Pelosi and her Bay Area colleagues responded quickly. Later that same day they posted a fiery written statement condemning the accreditor for its continued “failure of leadership” and “outrageous” misinterpretation of federal policy.

“The ACCJC believe that it knows the Department of Education’s regulations better than the Department of Education itself,” Pelosi said, adding that the commission “refuses to provide City College the good cause extension it has earned.”

What's Next?

The City College saga began in 2006, or even earlier, depending on whom you ask. That’s when a team of reviewers from the commission identified a wide range of problems at the college. In 2012 the accreditor expanded its concerns to 14 areas.

The college had inadequate student services and crumbling buildings, and had failed to adequately track student outcomes, according to the accreditor. It was also operating with just three days’ worth of cash reserves.

The commission slapped a “show cause” sanction on the college, requiring it to make improvements to keep its accreditation.

That failed to happen, in the accreditor’s eyes, although faculty members and supporters of the college have argued that many of the supposed shortcomings were overstated, wrong or largely the result of state budget cuts.

It has been 14 months since the commission’s last review of City College. Much has changed since then, said college and system officials.

They created a website to document work on the more than 350 tasks the college must complete to be in compliance with the accreditor’s demands. So far 94 percent of those jobs are done.

The system’s Board of Governors cited that progress in an April letter to the commission. The board said City College’s finances are sound and that its management team is completely new. The college now tracks student learning outcomes in all courses, the letter said, and collective bargaining agreements have been reached with all unions.

“The action taken by the commission last July was the catalyst the college needed to make substantial and lasting change,” the board wrote. “As a result of these changes, it is now time for the college to be removed from the threat of loss of accreditation so that it can complete the restoration process.”

That’s not possible, said Beno, in part because the accreditor doesn’t have such a reversal option on the books.

The college-created task list includes many easy first steps, she said, adding that the college still faces a long road to meeting the accreditor’s requirements.

“The list itself isn’t a measure of meeting standards,” she said.

Beno said the best way for City College to buy the necessary time is through the candidacy option.

That solution might be viable, at least from a legal standpoint, said Dennis Cariello, a lawyer with DLA Piper and an expert on accreditation. He said the college should be able to keep its federal aid eligibility in that scenario.

“I’m not sure why what they proposed wouldn’t work,” said Cariello, although he acknowledged challenges with state funding. “When you’re a nonprofit in candidacy status you can receive Title IV funds.”

But Paul Feist, a spokesman for California’s two-year system, said the proposal was not realistic.

For starters, he said, it would be risky to assume that the state would pass a law to keep City College’s funding stream open. “That’s a heavy lift,” said Feist. “There’s no guarantee that would happen.”

Candidacy status would also create many complex problems for students, said Cariello and several community college officials in California.

They said colleges might not accept students’ transfer credits from City College, which would not be accredited, technically. Likewise, credentials from an unaccredited college would carry less weight with employers. For example, if a student earned a certificate as a dental hygienist from City College, that certificate probably wouldn’t pass muster under state licensing requirements.

Tyler said the college's enrollment would plummet under the candidacy option. It has already fallen by 27,000 students in recent years. 

"You become an unaccredited institution," he said, and "90 percent or more of your students are going to think about leaving."

For now, no solution has emerged that would appease City College’s accreditor or its supporters. And the saga’s resolution remains elusive.

“It’s far too early to see how this plays out,” said Hartle.

That means students, faculty members and other employees at the college probably will have to wait until at least late October to get a sense of City College’s fate. And, so far, the drama hasn’t stuck to any predictable scripts.

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