The Chronicle Of Higher Education

June 6, 2013

California Union Seeks Federal Intervention in Battle With Accreditor

By Peter Schmidt

The California Federation of Teachers has filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, arguing that the accrediting body has brushed off accusations that it violated the law and was biased by conflicts of interest when it punished the City College of San Francisco and other community colleges in the state.

The complaint, sent to the Education Department on Tuesday, asks that the federal agency compel the commission to respond to concerns raised by the faculty union, and take the commission’s previous response to the union’s allegations into account in deciding whether to renew the accreditor’s federal recognition.

Although the union had previously kept the Education Department apprised of its objections to the accreditor’s penalizing of San Francisco’s 85,000-student, multisite community college, the union’s previous challenge to the commission’s actions had been registered with the commission itself, in a 288-page complaint submitted in late April.

Last week the commission roundly rejected the union’s accusations against it as “without merit,” characterizing some as unworthy of any response at all, in a seven-page report issued by the commission’s executive committee.

The union’s decision on Tuesday to file a federal complaint, formally appealing to the Education Department to pressure the accreditor, raises the likelihood that the federal agency will somehow intervene in the commission’s dealings with the San Francisco college.

The commission is expected to vote on Thursday whether to strip the San Francisco college of accreditation, effectively shutting it down, a year after placing it on “show cause” status for a long list of alleged problems in its governance and finances. The commission is not expected to announce its decision until July.

The union’s complaint to the Education Department also invites the federal agency’s review of actions taken against 27 other California community colleges by the commission, which is part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

A Willingness to Crack Down

The Education Department official sent the complaint—Kay W. Gilcher, director of the accreditation division in the department’s Office of Postsecondary Education—has already shown a willingness to crack down on accreditors if she feels they have not taken complaints seriously.

In April she accused the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities of violating federal standards by failing to show it had thoroughly investigated a complaint filed by an adjunct instructor against Olympic College, in Bremerton, Wash.

The complaint that the California Federation of Teachers submitted to the Education Department this week argues that the accreditor’s response to the union’s earlier complaint offered little evidence that the union’s accusations had been investigated fairly.

“To the contrary,” the new union complaint says, “the perfunctory response declares that most of the allegations are not even being addressed, and not a scintilla of documentary evidence was attached or referenced to support the ACCJC’s assertion that it actually reviewed and investigated the allegations.”

The complaint calls the commission’s response “particularly contemptuous of its legal obligations” and challenges the commission’s assertions that its president, Barbara A. Beno, recused herself from the investigation and that others involved lacked bias or conflicts of interest.

Among the other objections it raises, the complaint argues that the commission too hastily dismissed the union’s assertion that Ms. Beno’s husband, Peter Crabtree, should not have been part of a visiting team that evaluated the City College of San Francisco because his relationship with her created a conflict of interest.

The complaint rejects as irrelevant the commission’s arguments that Mr. Crabtree had no prior relationship with the college and that Ms. Beno played no role in his appointment to the evaluation team, saying that their marriage posed an unavoidable conflict and that much of Mr. Crabtree’s evaluation was informed by Ms. Beno’s previous letters to the college.