City College of San Francisco, facing closure in July, dodged a bullet Wednesday when a Superior Court judge ruled the school couldn’t lose its accreditation until a trial was held on the accusations against it.
Those accusations came from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which has been threatening the largest community college in California with sanctions since at least 2006. Last year, the commission gave the school an ultimatum: fix 14 specific deficiencies or face the death penalty. In a press release (pdf), the commission said the college fully responded to just two of the problems and corrected very little.
In July, the commission gave the school with 80,000 students one year to comply or face closure. But the next month, the commission’s own accreditation was challenged by the U.S. Department of Education and that action formed the basis of separate lawsuits in defense of the school filed by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and American Federation of Teachers Local 2121. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Dennis Karnow’s ruling addressed both lawsuits.
Specifically, the education department said the commission violated four regulations. The commission did not have enough teachers on its evaluation team; it had a conflict-of-interest because the commission president’s husband was on the evaluation team; the commission did not give the school a clear, detailed report on its failings; and the school was apparently allowed to be out of compliance for years before being punished.
The city attorney made it clear he thought the commission’s action was politically motivated by people trying to “restrict the mission of community colleges by focusing on degree completion to the detriment of vocational, remedial and non-credit education.” In a press release lauding Judge Karnow’s decision, the city attorney’s office said, “The accrediting body's political agenda—shared by conservative advocacy organizations, for-profit colleges and student lender interests—represents a significant departure from the abiding ‘open access’ mission repeatedly affirmed by the California legislature and pursued by San Francisco's Community College District since it was first established.”
The commission made its case last year in a 66-page report that cited a “veil of distrust among the governance groups” at the college and a “failure to react to ongoing reduced funding” among its complaints. More specifically, the report recommended the school add more classified staff and administrators, more efficiently operate and maintain existing facilities, secure its technology infrastructure, manage its finances better to avoid “excessive” short-term borrowing, improve assessments of student learning and achievement and do a better job of reporting its financial information.
The criticism came after the school had already closed two campuses, laid off more than 40 counselors and support staff, and cut faculty salaries 7%.
In reaching his decision to grant an injunction, Judge Karnow weighed the harm done by closing the school in July and the likelihood that the plaintiffs would ultimately win the case on its merits. The judge thought the city attorney had a decent shot at winning his case, but also thought it undeniable that the harm done by closure would be “catastrophic:”
“Without accreditation the College would almost certainly close and about 80,000 students would either lose their educational opportunities or hope to transfer elsewhere; and for many of them, the transfer is not realistic. The impact on the teachers, faculty, and the City would be incalculable in both senses of the term. The impact cannot be calculated, and it would be extreme.”