San Francisco's only community college and its 80,000 students won a victory this week when a private panel announced new rules that could allow the troubled institution to remain open.
The Novato-based Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges has come under great pressure from administrators, faculty, students, lawmakers and community leaders to grant the institution a reprieve. The agency had set a July 31 deadline when the school was to lose accreditation.
The panel appeared to acknowledge the enormous ramifications of displacing thousands of students who have no immediate alternatives.
"This change in policy to provide for an accreditation restoration status would protect the students" at the City College of San Francisco and it gives administrators time to correct problems, said Barbara Beno, president of the commission. "This is not a free pass, but a careful process of holding the college accountable for implementing new and sustained practices that meet standards of quality within two years."
Under the proposed policy, the college would be able to apply to restore its accreditation, make a case that it's made substantial improvements and, after an evaluation, be allowed up to an additional two years to fully comply with standards.
The 19-member commission will take a final vote after a two-week review period. The policy must also be approved by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure it wouldn't conflict with federal regulations. If approved, the changes would apply to all 112 of the state's two-year schools as well as campuses in Hawaii and the Pacific.
"The commission has met with the department on this, they have been productive meetings and we're hopeful they'll sign off," said commission spokesman David Hyams.
Officials at City College, the state's largest single education institution, said they were still reviewing the proposed policy change.
"We're cautiously optimistic," said spokesman Larry Kamer. "There's more analysis to be done, but as has been the case from the beginning City College is going to do everything in its power to keep its accreditation. The reason we're most optimistic is we have transformed City College in the last two years into a much more sustainable, accountable and responsible organization."
The panel's new action is poised to end a year of acrimony that saw the college's enrollment plummet, as student feared the institution would lose federal and state funding and, ultimately, close.
The commission had argued that it must move forward with the termination, citing federal requirements that colleges be given no more than two years to comply with standards or lose accreditation — despite an opinion from a senior education official concluding that it had authority to extend accreditation for good cause.
The commission last year cited long-running financial and governance problems at the school, including failing to track students' academic progress, not providing sufficient support services and failing to maintain adequate reserves.
In a presentation last week, systemwide Chancellor Brice Harris and City College Chancellor Arthur Q. Tyler, told commission members that the college has addressed 95% of the deficiencies and argued for more time to meet standards. The college also scores above the state average on graduation rates and other measures of student success, the officials said.
The state chancellor's office is "encouraged that that the commission appears willing to provide City College with a path forward to complete its recovery," spokesman Paul Feist said. "We want to be assured, however, that any action taken removes the immediate threat of loss of accreditation and allows City College adequate time to come into full compliance."
The commission, part of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, is one of seven private regional accrediting groups recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The California panel is made up of college faculty, administrators and members of the public.
Its record of aggressively sanctioning the state's two-year schools had been questioned, with critics alleging many actions are tainted by conflicts of interest and political bias — charges the agency has denied.
The July termination was on hold, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by San Francisco's city attorney questioning the panel's political motives and procedures.
In a December review, federal officials recommended that the commission maintain its authority, but outlined a number of problems that the panel must correct within a year, such as ensuring that its standards and policies are widely accepted, demonstrating that faculty are represented on its evaluation teams, and providing schools with more clearly written reports on whether they meet standards.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), said she still will press to hold the agency more accountable for its actions.
"I've been very critical of them … and they appeared to be tone deaf for a very long period of time," said Speier. "It appears they've found way to get this terrible situation under control by crafting a new policy that allows 80,000 students to continue their education."