The tide appears to have turned in favor of supporters of City College of San Francisco in their long feud with the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.
A San Francisco Superior Court Judge last week issued a tentative ruling that is likely to give City College a chance to challenge a 2013 decision by the commission to revoke its accreditation. The judge said the accreditor failed to give the college due process. But he also plans to leave the final say over whether the college remains accredited to the commission.
Earlier in the week, the commission granted City College two years to attempt to restore its accreditation status by correcting remaining problems that the regional accreditor had identified. The college likely would shut down if it lost its accreditation, since students would no longer be eligible for federal or state student aid.
City College has been joined by faculty groups, policy makers and state community college leaders in fighting that outcome.
The politicized dispute has been watched widely, in part because it reflects broader debates about the role and limitations of accreditors. Meanwhile, the fates of the two-year college and its roughly 80,000 students and 2,000 employees hang in the balance.
The restoration path buys City College more time. But some faculty groups and others have focused on the court case, which could block the commission’s decision to yank CCSF’s accreditation.
Dennis Herrera, San Francisco’s city attorney, filed the lawsuit. It accuses the commission of a wide range of improprieties, including conflicts of interest and not granting the college due process.
One fact has not been in dispute, according to the judge, Curtis E.A. Karnow. All the interested parties “agree that when City College had its accreditation terminated in 2013 it was not in full compliance with accreditation standards,” he wrote in the 72-page ruling released on Friday, “and this after years of serious financial and other problems.”
The five-day civil trial last fall focused on questions about the process that led to the termination notice. Karnow’s much-awaited preliminary ruling found that the commission “violated certain federal regulations and a law known as the ‘common law fair procedure.’ ”
The federal regulations piece refers to the judge’s backing of allegations that the commission’s evaluation team for CCSF included too few academics as well as the appearance of conflicts of interest for various commissioners. However, Karnow decided not to factor those findings into his consideration of Herrera’s request for an injunction, in part because of power the federal government has granted to accreditors.
“Under federal law it is ACCJC, and not this court, which exercises its discretion with respect to accreditation decisions,” the judge wrote.
Even so, Karnow plans to issue an injunction based on the commission’s “significant unlawful practices” around the fair-procedure doctrine, which requires basic due process. Specifically, the ruling said the accreditor did not give City College an adequate chance to respond to allegations about its deficiencies before handing down the termination decision.
The ruling is not a done deal. The city attorney’s office and the commission have until Feb. 3 to weigh in on the scope of the injunction.
If the judge’s final decision goes forward as planned, it will give City College a chance to address some of its alleged deficiencies in writing and to ask the commission to reverse itself on the removal of accreditation.
Art Tyler, City College’s chancellor, on Friday said the college would pursue that option.
“We will take the opportunity to ask the commission to reconsider its termination decision,” Tyler said in a written statement, and “will present evidence, as we have for the last two years, of our continued progress and commitment to meeting the accreditation standards.”
State and faculty union leaders applauded the judge’s ruling, calling it a “vindication” of broad concerns about the commission’s behavior.
“ACCJC is not a fair and constructive overseer of accreditation for California’s community colleges,” said Joshua Pechthalt, in a written statement. “Its bad behavior was revealed in this trial, and demonstrates the need for reform of community college accreditation in California.”
Herrera also welcomed the ruling.
“This should serve as a loud, unequivocal wake-up call to accreditors -- that they are subject to laws, and will face consequences for breaking them,” Herrera said in a written statement.
The commission had a dramatically different take. It said the judge’s decision “largely discounts” the city attorney’s far-reaching accusations.
“We are extremely gratified that after a full evidentiary hearing and extensive briefing by the attorneys, Judge Karnow essentially found that the ACCJC did not do anything wrong with respect to its decisions regarding the accreditation of CCSF,” the commission said in a written statement. “Now the focus can hopefully return to the restoration of CCSF’s accreditation status.”
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