A panel that moved to revoke the accreditation of City College of San Francisco is under fire, accused of violating several federal regulations in its review of the campus.
In a letter to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the U.S. Department of Education took issue with many aspects of the agency's review process, including the lack of faculty on its teams, among others.
The accrediting agency decided in July to end City College's official recognition next year after finding that the two year-school had failed to improve its fiscal planning, administration and student support services, among other programs.
If the college, the largest in the nation, loses its accreditation, it also could lose state aid and could close. It remains unclear, however, what effects the education department's letter may have on the status of City College.
The accrediting agency was faulted for not clearly identifying deficiencies and allowing the college to be out of compliance with standards for more than two years. And the department identified the appearance of a conflict of interest because one of the evaluating team members was the husband of commission President Barbara Beno.
Beno could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The commission was given one year to correct the issues "in order to avoid initiation of an action to limit, suspend or terminate ACCJC's recognition," Kay W. Gilcher, director of the Department of Education's accrediting group, wrote in the letter that was sent Tuesday.
The education department launched its inquiry after faculty unions filed a 300-page complaint. On Wednesday, the faculty groups urged the commission to withdraw its action against the 78-year-old institution.
"This letter powerfully validates our complaints … and confirms what we have known now for some time, that the ACCJC has operated as a rogue agency and created a climate of fear and retaliation throughout the community college system," Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said during a telephone news conference.
The accrediting commission, a private, nonprofit regional agency that is part of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, must be recognized by the federal government to review colleges. An application to renew its authority will be heard in the fall.
In a press release, the commission said it was disappointed in the department's findings and would make "necessary policy changes to appropriately address the department's concerns."
But the agency said the findings included some factual errors. It defended its actions, saying, for example, that it acted in a "timely fashion" in moving last month to terminate City College's accreditation after a 2012 review.
The commission also questioned the department's finding on faculty representation, saying "directions to accreditors remain vague and will require clarification."
California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice W. Harris appointed a special trustee last month to govern the multi-campus institution, which traditionally has served more than 80,000 students annually.
The Department of Education doesn't have the authority to require the commission to change any accreditation decision it has made, spokeswoman Jane Glickman said.
Many educators and others have become concerned at the large numbers of community colleges cited by the commission for failing to maintain standards.
Harris created a task force to study ways to smooth accrediting procedures at two-year schools. Rather than wade into the commission dispute, he is focused on fixing the problems that exist at City College, spokesman Paul Feist said.
On the first day of classes Wednesday, enrollment of about 25,800 students was down 10% compared to last fall, Feist said. Fallout from the accreditation fight is one of many factors for the decline that officials said could also include more people choosing to work rather than attend college.
A City College faculty representative said spirits on campus were lifted somewhat by the recent events.
"The first day of the semester is really about focusing on students, getting them into classes, so the excitement of that first day of school is really there," said English instructor Alisa Messer, who is president of the campus faculty union. "The mood is relatively positive even under challenging circumstances."