City College accreditors try to dig out of a hole

    Sandra Serrano, head of the accrediting team, wanted a lower-level sanction
    Sandra Serrano, head of the accrediting team, wanted a lower-level sanction

    By Tim Redmond

    OCTOBER 29, 2014 – The president of the ACCJC tried to climb out of a deep hole this morning as her lawyers sought to undermine the dramatic testimony she had given yesterday.

    But evidence introduced later tended to support the claim that Beno had personally intervened to change part of an accrediting report to make it less favorable to City College.

    Barbara Beno had testified that City College was not given the type of due process that the ACCJC’s own regulations require. She also admitted to editing the final accrediting report – and that her edits led to the removal of language supportive of the school. After her review, at least two sections in which the visiting team of accreditors had concluded City College was in compliance with the agency’s standards were changed to reflect that the school was out of compliance.

    For much of the morning, ACCJC attorney Kenneth Keller sought to help Beno explain what she had meant when she said the school was never given the proper right to respond to the final report calling for termination of its accreditation.

    A lot of the discussion became technical and focused on minor semantic issues – specifically, the difference between “deficiencies” and “standards of noncompliance.”

    The courtroom was packed -- for the third straight day -- with a diverse group of City College supporters
    The courtroom was packed — for the third straight day — with a diverse group of City College supporters

    A deficiency, Beno said, is “a behavior that leads to noncompliance.” Under the ACCJC’s rules, if the panel finds new deficiencies after the final report is completed, the school is given adequate time to respond. But if it finds only noncompliance with standards, no such due process is required.

    In this case, she said, the panel only found new examples of noncompliance, not new “deficiencies,” so the due-process procedure wasn’t needed.

    Deputy City Attorney Ron Flynn asked Beno if the word “deficiency” was ever defined in the ACCJC manual. She said she knew of no such definition.

    Beno spend a lot of time talking about her role as a staff member supporting the visiting teams and the commission. The visiting team – whose members are volunteers — evaluates schools, and the chair of that team, chosen by Beno, is ultimately responsible for writing the report that goes to the commission.

    In the case of a dramatic decision, like termination, Beno said she always personally reviews the visiting team report.

    She said she made edits only for grammar, completeness, clarity, citations, and consistency. In some cases, she said, she made suggestions that the chair of the visiting team rejected.

    She also insisted, repeatedly, that the fact that she and City College were on opposite sides on a critical policy issue – state legislation that would have changed the mission of California’s community colleges – had no bearing on her actions related to accreditation.

    In fact, she portrayed herself as a fairly minor player in the process, just a staff member who helped the visiting team and the commission reach its own conclusions.

    Then the ACCJC called Sandra Serrano, chancellor of the Kern Community College District and chair of the visiting team that evaluated City College both in 2012 and in 2013.

    Serrano said that she took full responsibility for the reports that led to the “show cause” sanction and later the termination of accreditation. She chaired both evaluation panels.

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    She said, as has been previously reported, that her visiting team in 2012 debated two possible sanctions for City College – a warning and probation. The team decided to recommend probation.

    It was the full commission that went the step further and put City College into “show cause” status, the step that led to the loss of accreditation.

    In fact, Serrano said that she didn’t think City College should have lost its accreditation and noted that the school had made tremendous progress toward coming into compliance with the ACCJC standards.

    “The team did its work and made a recommendation. The commission felt differently,” she testified.

    She said that Beno had offered some suggestions on the 2012 report, but downplayed the president’s role in driving the results.

    Under cross examination by Deputy City Attorney Matt Goldberg, Serrano acknowledged that she and her team had never discussed show-cause sanctions, and that the people who actually went to the campus and spend five days evaluating every element of City College were convinced that the school could come into full compliance in two years.

    “You recommended probation and discussed warning,” he asked. “Was there any discussion of show cause?”

    “No,” she said.

    Then it got interesting.

    The timing of the accreditation, and the changes that were made in the various versions of the reports, is confusing. But the testimony made clear that in the spring of 2013, the ACCJC visiting team and staff were meeting and discussing the extent of the proposed sanctions, and thus the future of City College.

    By May, 2013 the visiting team had finished its work, including a couple of conference calls to iron out last-minute issues, and Serrano had sent a final draft to the commission – or at least, to Beno – for editing.

    On May 8, at 11:02am, Beno sent an email to Serrano with a list of suggested changes. Among them were the suggestions that the language praising City College for its efforts to comply with the standards be removed, and that two areas in which the team found the school in compliance be changed to non-compliance.

    The email, presented as evidence in court, included the following language from Beno:

    “Please try to make the suggested changes.”

    Q: “After that, you made changes to the report, right?”

    A: “Yes.”

    In fact, the exchange showed, in at least three areas, Serrano’s draft report had showed City College in compliance, but the edited version showed the school out of compliance.

    More interesting: Serrano and Beno both insisted that the reports were based on substantial input from all team members, and Serrano made clear that she would always run substantial changes by her colleagues. The final document, she said, reflected the consensus views of the entire team.

    But in this case, Serrano sent her final version, including Beno’s changes, back to the ACCJC at 9:51pm the same day.

    Q: “Was there any input from the rest of the team on May 8?”

    A: “I don’t recall.”

    Goldberg reminded Serrano that during an earlier deposition, she had produced some 7,000 pages of records showing all of her emails and communications with staff and other visiting team members. There were no records showing any communication May 8.

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    Serrano’s response: “I don’t know.”

    The final witness of the day was Krista Johns, who is vice-president for policy and research for the ACCJC. The discussion focused mostly on an issue that even the federal Department of Education found problematic: the number of academics – that is, teachers – who served on the evaluation panel.

    Everyone seems to agree that there ought to be people on an accreditation team who are classroom instructors and thus understand the basic issue – are students learning? Is the quality of teaching up to par?

    But the ACCJC has a rather expansive vision of how you define an “academic.” According to Johns, every accrediting agency adopts its own definition of teaching; in the case of the ACCJC, deans, department chairs, vice-presidents, and even student-services administrators could count as academics.

    The DOE, responding to a complaint from the teachers’ union, ruled that only one real academic was included on the City College accrediting panel. But Seranno claimed that, for example, a vice-president for academic affairs at an Oklahoma community college, a dean of planning at Sacramento City College, and a dean of instruction at Laney College should count as teachers.

    This is a key issue, since nobody disputes that the quality of education – actual classroom learning – is exceptional at City College. And the thrust of the ACCJC’s criticism of the school focused on non-classroom issues – among them the lack of enough administrators.

    It’s true that many deans and vice presidents were once classroom teachers, and some still teach a few courses. But many, if not most, college administrators once spent time in the classroom – and when they become administrators, they have a different job and perspective.

    For the ACCJC to say that someone who has the credential to be an academic – even if that person no longer teaches and now has the training and perspective of an administrator – counts as a teacher is a bit of a stretch.

    In some ways, the most dramatic element of the trial happened away from the bar and the bench. The room, once again, was packed – and today, a wide range of community organizations were present.

    Members of the Chinese Progressive Association showed up, along with some students from International High School. So did Young Workers United, SEIU Local 1021, and many City College students.

    Judge Curtis Karnow will be deciding the case on the facts, the law, and the testimony. Be he can hardly miss the outpouring of support for a community institution that is packing his courtroom to capacity every day.





    • Olga Osborne

      Thanks, Tim Redmond! I am so thankful you are covering this huge story about a college that is an integral heart of San Francisco!

    • Greg

      KPFA reported today that there’s a bill in Sac to prevent the ACCJC from passing their legal costs to taxpayers. If it passes, they’ll have no way to cover their costs unless private donors step forward. Sounds fair to me. I didn’t know this, but apparently ACCJC is actually a private organization. Publicly funded, but private… and apparently unaccountable to the public. The legislators are pissed that they don’t return their calls for months or submit themselves to any financial accountability. Hence the bill.

      Wouldn’t it be great if this lawsuit bankrupts them? They wanted to destroy City College… instead, City College will live on, while the ACCJC self-destructs from its own greed. Now that would be karmic justice!

      • Sam

        It would be a terrible idea because any city so affected could simply file a frivolous lawsuit knowing that the other party could not risk fighting it. That’s an ironic argument to make given that is usually a strategy wealthy people use to intimidate poor people from seeking legal remedies.

        If we are going to have an entity that assesses colleges and judges whether they meet the required standard, then you have to have a level playing field. The fact that you want to save CCSF no matter how bad it is is not a valid reason to adopt terrible law.

        The point being this – CCSF has to earn the right to endure, by meeting standards that theu do not set or control

        • jch

          It is true that CCSF must meet standards. The problem is that more and more people are concluding that the ACCJC has done a poor job of determining whether the college does meet appropriate standards. So far, the evidence in the trial suggests the critics are right.

          As for the legal costs, we limit payments for all kinds of government legal programs. Is there any reason the ACCJC should have unlimited access to the public trough?

        • Greg

          If you’re going to have an entity that assesses colleges and judges whether they meet the required standard, that entity needs to be public and accountable.

          ACCJC needs to earn the right to endure, by judging colleges fairly to standards that are open and accountable, not arbitrary based on the whims of wealthy funders licking their chops at the prospect of making a profit from selling off public assets. Thus far they have utterly failed to meet those standards. The ACCJC has lost the confidence of the public, and needs to be reformed from scratch at this point. And the corporate bureaucrats running it need to find real jobs.

          • Sam

            I hope you don’t mind if I trust a judge to make that determination, and not someone who is biased in favor of CCSF continuing to exist regardless.

            • Greg

              The whole city is “biased” in favor of CCSF continuing to exist. The whole problem is due to the fact that ACCJC has become a loose cannon shilling for real estate interests. In an ideal world, this would be decided by the people, through their elected representatives on the CCSF board. But the way things are looking, I’d be surprised if the judge didn’t agree with the vast majority of San Franciscans.

            • Sam

              You are in denial if you think CCSF has no problems. It has a large financial black hole, and voters are entitled to an assurance that they won’t have to keep throwing ever-increasing amounts of money at it just for it to pay its bills.

              You should at least be willing to believe that there are some circumstances under which CCSF should be shut down or scaled back. Otherwise your position can be seen as totally one-sided.

            • marcos

              The default position should be for accreditors to presume that an institution should continue to exist unless there is another, hidden priority at play here.

            • Sam

              Not if the default situation is an unfunded annuity on the taxpayers to sustain a fiscally unviable entity.

          • Greg

            You are in denial if you think ACCJC has no problems. It has a large financial black hole (from greedily trying to destroy City College for developers’ gain), and voters are entitled to an assurance that they won’t have to keep throwing ever-increasing amounts of money at it just for it to pay its bills.

            You should at least be willing to believe that there are some circumstances under which ACCJC should be shut down or scaled back. Otherwise your position can be seen as totally one-sided.

            • Sam

              Murderers often blame their victims, or society, so I hear.

      • grannygear


    • B. Brown

      Excellent jaw dropping details here of today’s proceedings. Thank you. Followed by my hypothetical question: If CCSF were forced to close who would get the real estate? Specifically the main campus?

      • Sam

        The city owns the land and so would presumably sell off that land to developers to help recoup the losses and ongoing liabilities of CCSF.

        At minimum, CCSF could be down-sized and some of the satellite campuses sold off to help balance the books.

        • Greg

          Thankfully you’re not the one making that decision.

          • Sam

            I am a taxpayer and, collectively, tax-payers will decide whether they want to keep on funding CCSF.

            In particular the pensions of CCSF staff, who pay NOTHING towards their unfunded liabilities.

      • grannygear

        Private developers to be sure!!

        • Sam

          Do those private developers have a huge staff whose generous non-contributory pensions are paid 100% by the hapless taxpayers struggling to provide for their own pensions?

          If not, then bring them on.

    • aj

      ACCJC should be judged in relation to the overarching purpose of accreditation set forth in ACCJC Bylaws and 34 CFR 602.1:

      ACCJC Bylaws Article I Section 2: stated purpose is “improving and validating the quality of…education…through the creation and application of standards of accreditation and related policies…”

      34 CFR 602.1: Why does the Secretary recognize accrediting agencies?
      (a) The Secretary recognizes accrediting agencies to ensure that these agencies are, for the purposes of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), or for other Federal purposes, reliable authorities regarding the quality of education or training offered by the institutions or programs they accredit.


      ACCJC is incorporated as a public benefit organization. However, In a Press Release dated 9/23/2014, ACCJC exposed that their true purpose was the preservation of its above-the-law unaccountable power. ACCJC was concerned about “great harm to the accrediting community”; it was not concerned with the much greater harm that has been, and continues to be, inflicted on our community and its students.

      Steven Kinsella wrote an impassioned 10/24/2013 e-mail to CCC CEO’s last year asking for support for ACCJC’s Petition for Renewal of Recognition. His letter showed no concern for the public/student/community interest. It revealed only interest in protecting the “system” [of accreditation].

      To paraphrase Tina Turner: What’s education got to do with it?! What’s education but a second-hand tool to power? Who needs education when you can build an empire?

      The City Attorney filed a Declaration citing the positive results of CCSF’s CCCCO Student Success Scorecard. ACCJC opposed the Declaration arguing: “This information [Student Success Scorecard results] is submitted to support the position that the college provides a quality education, which is not relevant to whether the college met the accreditations standards…”


      State Chancellor Jack Scott complained in 2010 to Dept of Education about Commissioners being hand-picked. ACCJC subsequently instituted changes in their Bylaws as a result of the complaint to USDE.

      Despite the change, member institutions’ role remain very limited. The selection of Commissioners remain controlled by a small group of people. The Commission is a peer membership body in name, but true power resides in a small Power Elite of President and Executive Committee.
      The Commissioners–except for one Commissioner elected recently via an at-large nomination—are pre-selected by an 8-member Nominating Committee appointed by the 3-person Executive Committee. The Nominating Committee then chooses candidates to populate a SLATE on the basis of ONE candidate per vacancy (in other words, if there are two vacancies, the Nominating Committee chooses 2 people to be on the Slate. Finally, institutions (represented by Chancellors/CEO’s/Presidents) then get the privilege of voting YES/NO for the SLATE. A new At-large candidate procedure is overwhelmed by the Slate procedure.

      Bottom-line: The procedure for Commissioner selection is, for all practical purposes, still hand-picked.

      A basic concept in the educational field is the concept of test validity: Does a test measure what it purports to measure?

      Similarly, the creation and application of standards and policies should be weighed against how much they contribute to “improving and validating the quality of education.” Are policies, eligibility requirements, accreditation standards valid measures of the quality of education?

      Policies, eligibility requirements, accreditation standards that do not contribute towards improving or validating the quality of education and that only have a function of enforcing discipline and obedience should be seen as unfair and contrary to the purpose of accreditation.

      Contrary to its own stated purpose in ACCJC Bylaws, ACCJC’s current leadership has exposed that its true purpose has been the preservation and expansion of its above-the-law unaccountable power. The creation and application of ACCJC requirements, standards and policies has been more about power projection, enforcement of discipline and obedience, and the building of a powerful and unaccountable agency than educational improvement and validation.

      Accrediting agencies are awarded the public trust by Dept of Education to be gatekeepers to federal funds to validate “quality of education or training.” Recognized accrediting agencies are given great freedom in setting standards and policies. However ACCJC has taken advantage of this freedom to abuse their power. The incommensurate sanctions on CCSF has caused substantial harm to students and community.

      34 CFR § 602.16 Accreditation and preaccreditation standards.
      (e) An agency that has established and applies the standards in paragraph (a) of this section may establish any additional accreditation standards it deems appropriate.

      34 CFR § 602.23 Operating procedures all agencies must have.
      (f) The agency may establish any additional operating procedures it deems appropriate.

      ACCJC has taken advantage of the apparent license and unrestrained authority given by § 602.16 (f) and 602.23 (f) to gain the keys to the kingdom. These two Sections give a “license to kill” to unscrupulous agencies. ACCJC is an unscrupulous agency. It has set up criteria, procedures and processes that are intrusive, prescriptive, costly, granular, and-–most importantly—unrelated to quality of education for institutions.

      ACCJC has created and applied requirements and policies that are oppressive and unscrupulous.
      At the June 7, 2013 “Public” Session, ACCJC added a new Policy Element #9 to their Policy on Institutional Integrity and Ethics. This new Policy Element states:

      “9. The institution makes complete, accurate and honest disclosure of information required by the Commission, and complies with Commission requests, directives, decisions and policies. The institution acknowledges that if it fails to do so, the Commission may act to impose a sanction, or to deny or revoke candidacy or accreditation.”

      ACCJC has given itself power normally reserved for governmental regulatory agencies and binding contracts in its Policy on the Rights and Responsibilities of ACCJC and Member Institutions:

      “A member institution has the responsibility to acknowledge that specialized accrediting agency recognition , local governmental requirements and/ or collective bargaining agreements, in and of themselves, do not abrogate or substitute [for] institutional and employee obligations to comply with Eligibility Requirements, Accreditation Standards, and Commission policies.”

      According to this policy, ACCJC dictates and policy take precedence over Federal Regulation, local law, and labor contracts. These two policy requirements combine to give ACCJC unrestrained dictatorial life and death power over the institutions that it accredits. It is because of this unrestrained power that Robert Agrella, CCSF’s Super Trustee, did not include the findings of ACCJC non-compliance in the 8/13/2013 Department of Education determination letter as part of CCSF’s Review/Appeal of Termination argument .

      ACCJC’s unaccountability and arrogance and resultant unfairness has been evidenced by its legal briefs arguing for safe harbor, immunity, and for its claims of lawful and rightful conduct despite violations of CFR violations.

      ACCJC needs a major reform of its leadership and Bylaws, Requirements, Standards and Policies,

      All member institutions, State Chancellors Office & Board of Governors need to work on removal of the rogue power elite that currently controls ACCJC. After the ouster of the Power Elite for cause pursuant to its Bylaws, it needs to institute a major overhaul of its Bylaws, Requirements, Standards, Policies to remove rules that only further power projection and discipline that have nothing to do with improving or validating educational quality.

      • Greg

        Wow. I agree with Max. Masterfully laying out the case for complete overhaul of the ACCJC.

      • Sam

        Attacking ACCJC is a smokescreen for defending the indefensible CCSF against charges of incompetence and malfeasance.

        CCSF is the entity whose existence is being questioned, assessed and judged here, and not those whose job it is to point out when CCSF fails

        • marcos

          The only official malfeasance at play here is that of the ACJJC, your unofficial malfeasance is an uncivil demonstration of internet trolling, the work of an amateur.

          • Sam

            If I were part of CCSF management or staff, and therefore responsible for its dire state, no doubt I too would throw stones at my accuser, in order to deflect criticism from where it really belongs.

            There is nothing civil about management and staff driving an educational institution into the ground on the taxpayers’ dime.

            • Max Parsley

              Sam, your comments smack of a politically predetermined position which facts will do nothing ti shift.

            • Sam

              LOL, Max, and nobody could ever make such an allegation against all the CCSF defenders here, right?

              No Sir, no bias there.

      • grannygear

        Thank you aj.

    • Max Parsley

      aj, a masterful summation of the situation.
      This should be a ‘must read’ for the federal and state DOE and all elected officials in the states and territories covered by the ACCJC.