City College of San Francisco’s regional accreditor is now in the same existential bind as the college, having been told by its overseer to fix several problems, pronto, or risk being stripped of power.
The U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday notified the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges that it is out of compliance in several areas related to its sanctioning of City College. The commission must take “immediate steps” to avert the suspension or termination of its federal recognition as an accrediting body, according to a letter  from the department.
What this development, which stunned many in California, means for the fate of City College is less clear. Most involved parties said they were still absorbing the letter and its ramifications.
However, faculty union leaders said the department’s ruling could force the commission to rescind the penalties it slapped on the college, which is fighting for its survival .
Even if that prediction does not prove correct, the bombshell letter from Washington alters the politics and public-relations tussles over City College. And it will almost certainly be part of a review process the college can request within a week.
The commission last month voted to strip  City College’s accreditation after determining that it had not made enough progress to correct problems in 12 identified areas, ranging from failing to track student outcomes to operating with cash reserves that could keep the doors open for only three days.
The college would lose access to state funding and federal financial aid if that ruling stands. City College would subsequently be forced to close next June, leaving more than 80,000 students in the lurch.
However, the California Federation of Teachers and other faculty unions had filed a complaint  about the accreditor’s reviews of City College and other California community colleges. That voluminous document alleged that the commission, which is affiliated with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, had failed to follow federal and state laws while being overly stringent in its oversight of two-year institutions.
In its ruling this week, the department's Accreditation Group sided with the union in four areas, including over the commission’s potential conflicts of interest and its alleged lack of clarity about what constituted recommended areas for improvement versus serious deficiencies at City College. As a result, the commission is out of compliance, the letter said. It must demonstrate that it has fixed those problems and make related policy tweaks.
Barbara Beno, the commission’s president, said the accreditor was disappointed in the department’s findings.
“The ACCJC believes there are errors of fact in the letter,” she said in a written statement . The commission will respond to correct those alleged errors and “will, of course, make necessary policy changes to address the department’s concerns going forward.”
The department took issue with some of the commission’s actions during the City College review. That provides a basis for the college to appeal the accreditor's sanction to the federal government, said a spokesman for the department.
“This is a very encouraging sign,” said Fred Glass, a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers. “The Department of Education is validating some of our points.”
Specifically, the letter said the commission lacks a policy on the composition of its site visit teams. Faculty unions had argued that the two teams that came to City College were heavy on administrators and light on professors. The department agreed.
The faculty union's allegations of conflicts of interest in the City College review centered on Beno’s husband, Peter Crabtree, an administrator at a California community college who served on one of the City College site teams.
“The participation of the spouse of the president of the ACCJC on an evaluation team has the appearance to the public of creating a conflict of interest,” Kay Gilcher, director of the department's Accreditation Group wrote, meaning “an appearance of bias of the commission in favor of the team’s position over that of the institution’s.”
As a result, the department said it was unable to determine if the commission has “clear and effective” controls in place against such conflicts.
A third issue the agency identified was over whether the commission adequately spelled out if City College was out of compliance with standards in various areas or just needed improvements. The commission used the term “recommendation” in both cases, which was not sufficiently clear, according to the department.
Finally, the commission first found problems at City College in 2006. If the college was out of compliance at the time, the department said, those concerns needed to be addressed within two years.
In her statement, Beno challenged the finding on the composition of site teams, saying the department had made a “new interpretation of federal regulations different from its own guidelines.”
Beno also defended the decision to not take “adverse action” on City College sooner after the 2006 review.
“The commission feels it provided appropriate guidance for CCSF to address its complex problems between 2006 and 2012,” she said, “and acted [in a] timely [way] upon the 2012 evaluation team’s verification of CCSF’s continued deficiency in meeting standards.”
However, Beno said the commission was still reviewing the letter and could not comment beyond those responses. The department said the matter must be resolved within a year.
In addition to moving to correct the problems the department identified this week, the commission is up for renewal later this year by the federal panel that oversees accreditors. The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity periodically conducts those reviews, and the commission is due for one this fall.
In the meantime City College and the special trustee who is leading it  will continue to work hard to fix the college's many problems said Paul Feist, a spokesman for the system. "The important thing is to keep focused on the deficiencies at City College and keep an eye on the ball," he said.