Why This California College's Loss Of Accreditation Should Scare You

Earlier this month, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges announced its decision to revoke the accreditation of the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) effective July 2014. After a more than a week of vocal protests from faculty unions and advocacy groups, the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, Brice Harris, upheld the commission's decision, stating that the college must address the problems identified in its review within a year. Without accreditation, a public college cannot receive state or federal funding and would almost certainly have to close its doors.

While the ACCJC's decision could have a devastating effect on this urban college, it also has troubling implications for the future of public higher education. Unlike many other colleges and universities, CCSF has maintained a strong commitment to democratic egalitarian values. The college dedicates many of its resources to educating non-traditional students, has a strong faculty governance system, and offers good working conditions to part-time faculty. The ACCJC's review in effect targets these egalitarian practices, pushing the college to enact neoliberal reforms. Such "reforms" have already been enacted on most college campuses. They typically result in an administration-heavy structure, where low-paid instructors struggle to meet students' needs.

Serving 85,000 students and employing 1,700 faculty, CCSF is one of the largest community colleges in the country. Even during the financial crisis, the college continued to serves a diverse student population, resisting the push to focus narrowly on those more likely to graduate or transfer to a four year institution. The college has a robust faculty governance system in which department chairs, rather than career administrators, make many of the decisions that affect students. Though there is no parity between part-time and full-time instructors, the college offers its part-time faculty good working conditions.

It was the CCSF's refusal to back down on its commitments to quality public education and democratic governance that drew the ACCJC's censure. By the time of the review, the college had lost $53 million over several years due to severe state budget cuts (its annual budget is $200) million. Instead of taking the usual route of laying off faculty and slashing salaries, CCSF responded by cutting down administrative costs. The ACCJC cited CCSF for its lack of a streamlined administrative structure and for its budgetary shortfall. While the ACCJC could not fault CCSF for its quality of education, the agency complained that the college did not implement an outcome-based evaluation system. Although such mechanisms are widely used in K-12 and community college education, they rarely have a positive impact on student achievement.

The ACCJC's decision, and the Chancellor's statement of support, seem to be part of a larger program of neoliberal reform in public education. Such "reforms" approach education from a business perspective and tend to disregard education's role in a democratic society. Most colleges and universities are already permeated by neoliberal policies and values. Instead of democratically governed communities of learning, most colleges resemble corporations, headed by a powerful president or CEO. The contingent faculty who teach the majority of the courses often make 10 times less than the president and have little say in college governance. Such colleges spend a great deal of time and money on assessment mechanisms which are of little benefit to teachers or students. These were precisely the practices that CCSF sought to avoid, and the ACCJC penalized it for adhering to a more democratic model.

As public universities raise tuition, pricing out many students who had once been able to attend them, community colleges are becoming an important battleground in the struggle over the future of higher education. For many, the community college has become the only means of attaining a liberal post-secondary education, an education that many regard as the bedrock of a strong democracy. Yet business interests — as well as president Obama — urge community colleges to focus on skills-based training programs, often in partnership with a specific industry or corporation. There is frequently pressure to implement these as accelerated certificate programs that do not require students to take any general education courses. Such programs may generate statistics that show a "high completion rate," but they are of little benefit to the students, and may have disastrous consequences for the college.

In April, the California Federation of Teachers filed a complaint against the ACCJC for a violation of federal and state law and for a conflict of interest. An amendment to the complaint stated that the commission barred the public from attending one of its "public" meetings. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has long been critical of accreditation agencies for their exclusion of faculty from the accreditation process.

As higher education undergoes rapid changes, and the functions of different institutions shift, the accreditation procedures must become transparent and subject to public scrutiny. The SFCC crisis shows that the accreditation agencies wield a great deal of power. We have to make sure that the future of public higher education is shaped through public debate and the input of faculty and students, not by business interests and unelected bureaucrats.