Judge says accrediting panel denied San Francisco college a fair review

Judge: Panel engaged in 'unlawful business practices' when it revoked accreditation of San Francisco college

In revoking the accreditation of City College of San Francisco, a private commission violated the law in ways that denied the 80,000-student school a fair hearing, a judge tentatively ruled Friday.

Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow directed the San Francisco city attorney's office — which brought the lawsuit — to propose language for an injunction that grants the college "the due process to which it was entitled." He also asked the Novato-based Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges to submit input and objections.

But in a 72-page ruling, Karnow denied the city's request for a do-over — an injunction that would have reversed the commission's denial of accreditation and ordered the assessment to begin anew.

Accreditation is key to receiving federal aid, and without it the state's largest community college would effectively be forced to close.

Karnow rejected allegations that the commission, which accredits 133 schools in California, Hawaii and the Pacific, was rife with conflicts that influenced the outcome of its review.

The appointment of commission President Barbara Beno's husband to a City College evaluation team did not create a conflict of interest, he concluded.

And though he agreed with plaintiffs that the commission violated polices geared to protect against the appearance of conflict of interest in selecting its commissioners, he found "no evidence that the lack of correct procedures had any impact on City College."

Likewise, Karnow concurred that there were too few academics on the 2013 evaluation team but said its makeup had not "created any unfairness in the team's review."

Karnow's central finding: The commission engaged in "unlawful business practices" when in 2013 it departed from its evaluation team's findings to identify 10 additional deficiencies without providing details to the college or affording it an opportunity to respond in writing.

The proposed injunction would turn back the clock and require both, leaving open the possibility that the commission could come to a different conclusion about the college's standing.

"We do not know whether, if City College had had its rights observed in 2013, it would have made any difference; but we can find out — from the commission," Karnow wrote.

City Atty. Dennis Herrera acknowledged that Karnow "didn't go as far as we asked" but said in a statement that the tentative ruling "vindicates our view of the accrediting commission's unlawful conduct in evaluating City College.... 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."

Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) said Karnow's ruling affirms that the accreditation body is subject to state oversight, leaving "many openings for the Legislature … to look at whether we're going to reform or replace this process."

The commission celebrated the ruling, saying in a statement that the decision "has largely discounted the far-reaching accusations of the city attorney … including suggestions that Dr. Barbara Beno improperly influenced the decision" on the college's accreditation.

Karnow had put the termination of accreditation scheduled to take effect last summer on hold while the case was pending. On Wednesday, however, the commission granted City College a newly created "restoration status" that gives the school two years to meet all requirements in 32 areas where the evaluation team found continuing noncompliance or face termination with no possible appeal.

A commission spokeswoman said restoration status will remain in effect. But the city attorney's office said it plans to propose an injunction that would let the college pursue reconsideration under court guidance instead.

City College itself was not involved in the lawsuit. In a statement, Chancellor Art Tyler that when the ruling is finalized, the school will ask the commission "to reconsider its termination decision and will present evidence … of our continued progress and commitment to meeting the accreditation standards."


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