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Community college accreditation commission under scrutiny again

Colleges and UniversitiesU.S. Department of Education

SAN FRANCISCO — The nonprofit group that accredits California’s community colleges has come under fire again — this time for asking officials at the colleges it oversees to write letters of “support“ as it undergoes its own review by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges, or ACCJC, charged with oversight of  California’s 112 community colleges as well as those in Hawaii and the Pacific, moved earlier this year to revoke the accreditation of City College of San Francisco, which with about 80,000 students is the largest in the state.

The decision brought long-standing criticisms of the commission to light: ACCJC has been sued by San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera and the California Federation of Teachers, who allege the accrediting body has engaged in unfair business practices, violated conflict of interest laws and flouted its own policies during its reviews.

In response to complaints, the U.S. Department of Education in August faulted ACCJC for failing to meet a number of federal requirements during its review of the San Francisco institution, including not clearly identifying deficiencies, and having the appearance of a conflict of interest by appointing the husband of ACCJC President Barbara Beno to a review team.

The Department of Education is now conducting a routine review of ACCJC that will determine whether it should maintain its status as California’s accrediting body.

In a letter dated Oct. 8, Beno sought help from the Assn. of Chief Business Officers -- made up of business officials of California’s community colleges. Beno noted that the Department of Education had already received critical letters from a number of faculty organizations, and asked for “letters of support or broad acceptance for ACCJC’s standards, policies, procedures and decisions.”

She asked that the support letters be sent directly to the Novato-based ACCJC by this Friday, so that she could forward them to the Department of Education.

In an emailed response late Monday, Beno said the commission members -- the colleges it accredits -- pay dues, voluntarily adhere to its standards and policies and help craft those policies through a collaborative "vetting process."

"The 133 colleges that are members of ACCJC have an interest in helping to ensure their accrediting body achieves renewal of federal recognition," Beno wrote. "If it does not , the colleges will have to create or find a new accrediting body. ... Given its nature as a membership organization, why wouldn't the ACCJC ask its member institutions for letters of support?"

Critics of ACCJC were troubled by the overture.

“It’s completely inappropriate,” said Fred Glass, spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers. “Here’s somebody who sits in judgment of accreditation for these institutions, and she’s asking for help with her own accreditation from these institutions. There’s at least an implicit quid pro quo here.”

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for Herrera, the San Francisco city attorney, said Beno’s “propensity for retaliation” is among the issues raised by the lawsuits, “so one would assume ACCJC would think twice before shaking down the very same colleges it regulates for supportive testimonials.”

The Oct. 8 letter was addressed to Bonnie Dowd, president of the Assn. of Chief Business Officers and executive vice chancellor of business and technology services for the San Diego Community College District. Dowd called the letter “a surprise,” and said she is taking the matter to her board of directors.

Dowd said that if the association sends a letter as Beno requested it is not likely to be “a letter of support” or one of criticism, but rather one that lays out the group’s goals for a continued improvement of its relationship with ACCJC.

Dowd said her association has made some recent progress working with ACCJC and doesn’t want to “blow up” the relationship. However, she said, speaking as a college official, “I do think a review of ACCJC would be worth the time — a review that wouldn’t do what ACCJC did, which is to say, ‘Shut it down,’ but that says, ‘This is what you have to do to make it better.’ ”

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lee.romney@latimes.com

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