ACCJC President Barbara Beno ducked and covered -- but had to answer the key questions
ACCJC President Barbara Beno ducked and covered — but had to answer the key questions

By Tim Redmond

OCTOBER 28, 2014 — In what could be a decisive moment in the City College trial, the head of the ACCJC admitted today that the agency’s decision to yank accreditation from City College violated the agency’s own standards and denied due process to the San Francisco school.

Barbara Beno, president of the accrediting commission, also admitted that she personally edited the report of the visiting team responsible for evaluating the school, and that her changes – which were detrimental to City College – were adopted in the final document.

Among those changes were the removal of language stating that the school administration, faculty, and board had shown “a high level of dedication, passion, and enthusiasm and provided compelling evidence to address the issues” that lead to a loss of accreditation.

Under the ACCJC’s rules, Beno — a staffer, not a commission member — should have had no role in deciding whether City College kept its accreditation.

She also denied that the commission’s decision to put her husband on the team that evaluated City College was a conflict of interest – and insisted that she had never once discussed the school’s accreditation with him. That, one City College supporter told me, “strains credulity.”

Beno was on the stand for more than two hours, and at times, it felt as if Deputy City Attorney Ron Flynn was a dentist pulling a painful and deeply impacted molar. Over and over, Beno resisted answering the questions. Over and over, she ducked and diverted and tried to avoid the key admission.

But Flynn persisted, taking Beno methodically through the ACCJC’s own processes, outlined in the agency’s own policies and procedures manual. A January, 2011, version of that manual notes that colleges subject to the panel’s oversight have the right to due process.

Here’s the key point: When the ACCJC sends a team to visit a school, that team – made up of volunteers who are supposed to be peers of the institution – writes up a report and makes recommendations. The school gets a copy of the draft report and has the right to respond.

But if the full commission recommends sanctions that are tougher than what the visiting team wanted, and bases that decision on information and conclusions not in the team report, the rules say the school gets additional time to respond in writing to that decision.

In this case, there’s no question that the visiting team recommended probation, a lower sanction than the “show cause” that led to the loss of accreditation. The final report of the ACCJC – after Beno’s edits – was changed; some areas in which the team said City College met the applicable standards were changed to say that the school failed to meet those standards.

And the termination report, everyone agrees, included new charges that City College never had a chance to challenge. That would certainly appear to be a violation of the ACCJC’s own rules.

Duck and cover

Three times, Flynn asked Beno:

Did the ACCJC follow its internal standards and afford City College additional time to respond to the new claims?

At first, she tried to change the subject. Then she said that she thought the ACCJC did, indeed, let City College respond.

Flynn went through the time frame again, demonstrating that Beno was wrong, and repeated his question:

“After the commission imposed termination, did it afford City College extra time to respond?” Flynn asked.

Beno paused. Finally, she looked up and said: “No.”

Tim Killikelly, president of the City College teachers’ union, told me afterward that “the answer she had to give was that she didn’t afford the college adequate time – an obvious violation of due process.”

Beno was today’s star witness, although she was, at best, hostile to the plaintiffs. Flynn started off asking her if she thought that completion rates – a standard that the state’s community college chancellor talked about yesterday – were a valid measure of success. She said they were one measure.

Flynn then asked her about the politics that some say are behind this entire trial – the move by some state officials, backed by Beno, to change the mission of community colleges in California.

The so-called Student Success Task Force, and a bill that sought to implement its recommendations, were aimed to limiting community colleges to a curriculum aimed at students who sought to gain two-year degrees or transfer to four-year schools.

The more open policy at City College – which offers continuing adult education, English as a second language classes, and a wide range of programs aimed at a diverse community – was at odds with the vision that Beno openly and actively supported.

At the same time that City College was under accreditation review, college students, administrators, and faculty were engaged in a strong battle to defeat the measure that Beno wanted to see enacted.

She said at first that she didn’t know City College was opposed to the bill, but then acknowledged that she was aware that two schools, City being one of them, were staunch foes of the legislation.

No pillow talk here

Then came a somewhat bizarre series of questions about the accrediting team that involved Beno’s husband.

Flynn asked if she thought that placing her spouse on a visiting team could create a conflict of interest. No, she said.

Q: Did you discuss with your husband what happened at the team visit?

A: No

Q: Did you discuss the report?

A: No

Q: Did you discuss the team recommendations?

A: No

It reminded me of the US Senate hearings on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who insisted that he had never discussed the Roe. v. Wade abortion-rights case with anyone, including his wife.

Which drove then-Rep. Barbara Boxer to ask: “Are they claiming to be the only married couple in America that has never discussed Roe v. Wade?”

And it drove Killikelly today to tell me that it “strained credulity” to think that the married couple never discussed what one of them was doing at work. “Unless she knew there was a conflict of interest,” Killikelly said.

Beno acknowledged – again, under tough questioning – that the US Department of Education had found that the role of her husband could create problems, and that the ACCJC has since changed its policies to avoid that type of conflict of interest.

Then Flynn started asking about how the visiting team report evolved. The first version of the report didn’t suggest the harsh level of “show cause;” the visiting team wanted to put City College on probation, and give the school two years to address its problems.

The ACCJC staff, including Beno, regularly reads those reports for style and clarity; that editing role, she agreed, should not involve policy changes.

“My job was an editor,” Beno said.

But she also admitted that she had offered very substantial changes to the team report – changes that included replacing at least two areas where the team found the school to be in compliance with ACCJC standards with new language showing the school not in compliance.

In fact, she asked the chair of the visiting team not to send City College the first draft of the report until she had a chance to read and edit it.

“It appears the chair took your comments and followed them, right,” Flynn asked.

“It appears so, yes,” Beno said.

Conflicts and interests

The day started with an expert witness who said that the situation Beno and her husband were in should have set off alarm bells.

David Bergeron, who spent a 30-year career with the US Department of Education, could not legally testify to whether the ACCJC was fair in its assessment of City College.

But when presented with a hypothetical scenario that was identical to the process at issue in this case, Bergeron said clearly that he saw it as a conflict.

Among other things, he said that the process of accreditation is by nature not very transparent, since much of the work is confidential – and therefore it’s crucial that the public not see any real or apparent conflicts.

“Having expectations about preventing conflicts of interest is critical to the process,” he said.

The ACCJC panel reviewing City College included the spouse of ACCJC President Barbara Beno, who is also a senior official at Laney College, which would stand to gain students if City College were forced to close.

A direct conflict of interest, Bergeron said, occurs when there’s a potential financial benefit to one of the parties. When asked if the situation described at City College would be a direct conflict, the witness said yes.

And even outside of that personal connection, Laney College and its senior staff would stand to benefit financially from the closure of City College.

Bergeron also testified that the main purpose of accreditation is to ensure academic quality – which is why evaluation teams need to include a reasonable number of academics.

For big, complex research universities, the teams might include fewer front-line academics. But for teaching colleges, he said, “you would want to have more academics.”

There was only one teacher on the panel that evaluated City College.

On cross-examination, ACCJC counsel Andrew Sclar went back to yesterday’s focus: Finance. He asked Bergeron if financial stability was a key part of accreditation, and Bergeron agreed that it was.

Sclar pointed to one of his big charts, this one tracking the communications between the ACCJC and City College around financial standards. Sclar kept pushing Bergeron to say that the school received adequate notice of its deficiencies.

But by the time Beno took the stand, all of that evaporated.

The defense will get a chance to examine Beno tomorrow.

Full disclosure note: While I try to raise enough money for 48hills to actually pay myself a living wage, I’m taking on outside work. I am a guest lecturer at City College, teach at San Francisco’s State’s Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning, and recently did a class at USF. I have been paid the princely sum of $50 to speak at a friend’s journalism classes at the Academy of Art University.

As a freelancer, I am helping edit the member newsletter of SEIU Local 1021, a union that has members at City College. I am also on the board of Legal Assistance to the Elderly, which is losing its office space in mid-Market because of tech-driven rent increases; I get paid nothing for my board service. I am volunteering to help the Bernal Heights Neighborhood center restart its bimonthly newspaper, The New Bernal Journal, although I am way behind on that effort.

I will continue to update any future conflicts in the unlikely event that anyone else out there offers to pay me for anything.