By Mary Strope, Michaela Payne and Arami Reyes
DECEMBER 18, 2014 — “No narrative would be complete without a worthy villain, and we have one here. Her name is Dr. Barbara Beno.”
That’s what Adam Westman wrote about the person in charge of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges back in 2009 on the California Teacher’s Association website. At the time, he was president of the Rio Hondo College Faculty Association and his college was going through an accreditation crisis of its own.
Over the past five years, Beno’s leadership has become the subject of increasingly harsh criticism. Her detractors have accused her accreditation agency of:
- Disproportionate sanctioning of colleges
- Conflicts of interest
- Failure to follow federal guidelines
- Lack of transparency and accountability
- Unwillingness to cooperate with elected officials and the media
- Connections with powerful advocacy organizations
Beno is no stranger to controversy. She has been roundly criticized by students, faculty, and administrators, as well as state and federal representatives since 2001, when she took over as president of the ACCJC.
Now, on the hot seat in a lawsuit that is causing her actions to be even more closely scrutinized, calls for her resignation have begun to surface.
Assemblyman Phil Ting, whose district includes City College’s main campus, feels steps must be taken to protect the college.
“Beno should resign,” he told us. “The ACCJC organization has inconsistently imposed accreditation standards and their leadership should be changed.”
Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who has been actively involved in the fight to save City College, knows the impact that its closure would have upon her district. She and Ting have come to the same conclusion.
“Barbara Beno should resign,” Speier told us. “She has failed to follow federal rules on multiple occasions, and cannot be allowed to arbitrarily redefine the rules to disadvantage community colleges that don’t agree with her on various subjects.”
Tim Killikelly, president of AFT 2121, the local teachers’ union, said Beno’s leadership has been a violation of the public trust.
“If there’s a grade lower than an F, that’s what she deserves,” the City College political science instructor said.
“The ACCJC has been involved in a litany of abuses,” he said. “It’s supposed to work with colleges to improve the quality of education. Instead, it’s instilling a culture of fear across the state community college system.”
Beno seems aware that many people feel that way.
“The use of the term ‘climate of fear’ often is expressive of people’s emotions, and those can be generated by news stories, by misinformation, or just by anxiety,” Beno told the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.
“I would say it is true that our service as a gatekeeper for federal aid creates a pressure on institutions…The pressure is there, but it’s for the good…Meeting standards is good for the institutions and for the quality of education.”
In the fall of 2013, Beno asked colleagues, CEOs and other high-level business and school administrators from member institutions to write letters specifying “support or broad acceptance for ACCJC standards, policies, procedures and decisions.”
She forwarded the letters to the Department of Education, which was in the midst of evaluating the commission for recertification. Though she received criticism for soliciting the letters, more than two dozen responded with praise for the commission.
California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris wrote:
“I am extremely supportive of the continued authorization by the U.S. Department of Education for the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.”
At the time, the state chancellor indicated that ACCJC utilized “collaborative teamwork, open dialogue, transparency, and effective communication.”
Former City College interim chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman also wrote in support of the commission’s work, indicating City College would benefit from ACCJC’s hard-line approach.
“The renewed effort of the college to utilize the accreditation standards as benchmarks is clearly transforming this institution,” she said.
At a public meeting a year ago, City College’s current Chancellor Arthur Tyler gave his verbal support to the accrediting commission for its recommendations “to improve the quality of instruction.”
“I’ve been asked ‘Was the process fair?’ My response is, I haven’t found any of the 356 discrepancies that were invalid,” he said.
ACCJC supporters and critics are deeply divided. School administrators who enforce accreditation standards, and the accreditors themselves, seem to agree with Beno’s approach. Critics, who are predominantly students, teachers and lawmakers, feel burdened by stringent regulations that they say are ineffective.
Beno’s approach hasn’t eased the situation. In fact, it has irritated several lawmakers.
When state senators Jim Beall (D) and Jim Nielsen (R) requested documents for an audit of the ACCJC in August 2012, Beno’s uncooperative response prompted Nielsen to speak out at a hearing on the state Senate floor last year.
“Senator Beall and I met with President Barbara Beno in my office,” Nielsen said. “In all my career, in my thousands of meetings with agency individuals – representatives, secretaries, etc. – I have never dealt with a more arrogant, condescending and dismissive individual.
“That does not give us comfort that all is well in how they’re (the ACCJC) treating our California Community Colleges,” he said. “That attitude being reflected by such a senior person raised huge red flags for me.”
Beall also pointed out that Beno refused to work with legislators during the audit.
“Our view is that since she does not want to work with us, we will work around her,” the state senator said.
California Federation of Teachers president Joshua Pechthalt spoke out last year after three lawsuits were filed against Beno’s commission.
“The reckless actions of the agency and its president, Barbara Beno, have not only imperiled an education for 85,000 San Francisco students,” he wrote, “but also diverted enormous amounts of time and money in all our community colleges away from instruction and toward ‘compliance’ with the ACCJC’s unreasonable demands.”
Answering only to God
Little is known of Beno, whose influence is far reaching. Her commission interprets and implements the Department of Education’s goals with impunity. Its decisions are not subject to review. It’s unclear who Beno and the ACCJC answer to.
One City College dean guessed with a shrug, “God?”
The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office does not seem to have authority over the ACCJC. The U.S. Department of Education certifies accrediting agencies, but has little if any power over Beno or the ACCJC’s decisions.
As a private, non-profit organization, the commission’s meetings are closed and its minutes are unavailable to the public. Its most significant decisions about colleges are made in private.
The California State Auditor recently reported that the commission is not subject to state or federal open-meeting laws. Issues concerning accreditation are considered confidential – though 84 percent of the schools it accredits are public institutions.
Compounding her agency’s lack of transparency, Beno’s distant relationship with the media has made her critics distrustful.
Repeated email and phone requests to her office for information and an interview with us were denied.
Her direct work phone number and email are unlisted. Located in Novato, a small suburb north of San Francisco, her office is miles away from the colleges that she and her agency serve.
The small amount of biographical information that is available about her is limited to a few paragraphs on the ACCJC website.
She earned a B.A. in History and her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D in Sociology from Stony Brook University in New York.
Before joining the commission as president in August 2001, she served as commissioner for both the ACCJC and the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
Beno also served as president of Vista Community College (now Berkeley City College) for 12 years, assistant chancellor of the San Mateo Community College District, research and planning director for the Peralta Community College District, and as a sociology instructor. Later, she chaired the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions from 2006 to 2009.
The ACCJC’s website indicates that its president supervises, directs and controls its business and accreditation operations. According to Beno’s non-profit organization’s tax returns, she made $317,000 in 2010.
The impact of her 19-member accrediting commission is far-reaching – affecting 2.3 million students throughout the state.
The sanctions imposed by the ACCJC can financially make or break a college. Without accreditation from her agency, colleges cannot receive federal funding.
Nearly half of California’s 112 colleges reportedly were under sanction in 2012. In contrast, the national average is disproportionately lower – around six percent.
Although its region covers only California and the Pacific Islands, ACCJC accounted for 64 percent of all sanctions nationwide from June 2011 to June 2012.
Part of the pending lawsuit against ACCJC involves conflict of interest charges.
Her husband, Peter Crabtree, was one of the commission members who evaluated City College. As dean of Career and Technical Education at Oakland’s Laney College, he represents a school whose enrollment could benefit from City College’s closure.
“She violated the rules,” said Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who indicated that Beno should not have allowed her husband on the review panel.
At a community forum in City College’s Diego Rivera Theater last year, Speier was also critical of the commission Beno directs.
“I think the ACCJC has run amok. They have lost their vision – if they ever had one,” the congresswoman said. “They are riddled with conflicts of interest and arbitrariness.”
Although little is known about Beno, one thing is clear. If the decision made by her accrediting commission had not been challenged in court, City College would already be shut down.
The real world
When City College’s closure appeared imminent last year, the San Francisco City Attorney’s office filed suit on behalf of the People of the State of California.
The Superior Court lawsuit states that ACCJC has violated “nearly every federal regulation that guides it.”
On the witness stand, Beno’s restrained demeanor contrasted with her reputation.
She addressed Judge Curtis Karnow as “Sir” and responded in a soft-spoken voice to Deputy City Attorney Ronald Flynn’s questions.
Dressed in a conservative black cardigan, skirt and blue silk scarf, Beno’s short blond hair framed a face with little trace of makeup. Her pearl earrings and wedding ring were the only jewelry she wore.
The 63-year-old smiled and adjusted her glasses while examining court documents during her testimony in October.
As the enforcer of the Department of Education’s accrediting regulations, Beno’s approach is unbending and by-the-book. On the stand, she avoided answering directly by referring to her guidelines.
When Flynn asked Beno if the ACCJC gave City College sufficient time to address additional accreditation deficiencies identified late in the process, she didn’t respond specifically to the question.
Judge Karnow interrupted her.
“Ma’am, Ma’am, excuse me. Listen, I’ll repeat the question. He’s not actually asking you a question about a text. He’s asking you about what happened in the real world.”
Beno quietly answered “no,” City College was not given enough time.
The next day, Beno changed her testimony. She told the judge that City College had been given an appropriate amount of time.
The price tag: $23 million
When the school’s administrators needed to focus on how to deal with dramatic state budget cuts, the ACCJC’s sanction diverted their attention and added to the college’s financial burden.
The lawsuit argues that City College has been forced to drain funds from its limited budget to address the commission’s demands. Employing consultants, filing reports and hosting evaluation teams adds up.
In addition, state funding – based on a school’s number of full-time students – was affected when City College’s enrollment dropped dramatically due to the sanction, and its resulting bad press.
“When you look at that in terms of dollars and cents,” City College Chancellor Arthur Tyler reported last spring, it “probably means somewhere in the neighborhood of $23 million to $26 million in less funding.”
This loss – coupled with draconian state budget cuts – has put tremendous pressure on City College, the largest community college in the state.
At the start of the accreditation crisis, in fiscal year 2011 to 2012, City College’s annual budget estimated that state funding for enrollment would be reduced by $13.38 million.
The college’s financial shortfalls led to the City College Parcel Tax initiative (Proposition A), which voters passed by a 73 percent margin in 2012. Prop A noted at the time that the state had reduced funding to the school by more than $53 million over a three-year period.
The state Community College Board determined that City College’s current revenues are inadequate to fund community college education in San Francisco.
The sanction and press speculation have cost City College about $6.5 million, according to the lawsuit complaint.
Since public funds are awarded only to accredited institutions, City College would be forced to close its doors if ACCJC’s decision is upheld in court.
The school’s closure would impact about 75,000 students and nearly 2,500 faculty and staff on 11 campuses throughout the city. The college contributes about $300 million to the local economy every year, according to a recent study by San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst.
City College would be the largest U.S. institution ever to lose its accreditation, the American Association of University Professors reported last year.
Threat of closure caused by the ACCJC sanction has contributed to significant drops in enrollment. Between 2012 and 2013, enrollment dropped by 15 percent, according to the college’s enrollment report. This semester alone, statistics reported by the City College Chancellor’s Office indicate that more than 170 classes were cancelled.
Despite repeated requests from the school’s administration and supporters to extend the school’s deadline for meeting ACCJC’s requirements to lift its sanction, Beno refused, stating her agency was legally prevented from doing so.
But the U.S. Department of Education confirmed earlier this year that the ACCJC could legally grant City College a good-cause extension of accreditation.
This contradictory finding prompted an angry response from Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi, Jackie Speier, and Anna Eshoo, who viewed the ACCJC’s continued refusal to grant the college more time as an indicator.
In a joint news release, the congresswomen questioned the commission’s ability to execute the law.
They indicated change was needed regarding both the agency’s leadership and its very existence as a valid accrediting body.
Furthermore, in the extensive audit commissioned by senators Nielsen and Beall, the State Auditor’s office found that ACCJC was inconsistent in applying its accreditation process, allowing more than a dozen other institutions two years to come into compliance, while refusing to give City College more than one year.
In response, ACCJC defiantly released a statement this summer claiming the State Auditor’s Office “did not have the authority to audit the ACCJC” because it is a private nonprofit organization. Their “lack of expertise in accreditation regulations and practices created difficulties,” the press release said.
This sort of response has contributed to the agency’s uncooperative reputation.
In the past few years, Beno’s organization has received votes of “no confidence” by several community college organizations.
The California Community College Independents, a coalition representing a quarter of the state’s community college faculty, gave ACCJC a unanimous vote of “no confidence” in 2010.
The coalition charged that ACCJC’s accreditation process “has become an instrument of punishment rather than improvement” with sanctions too often imposed over issues “not directly related to student benefit or improved instruction.”
After filing its lawsuit, the San Francisco City Attorney’s office sent out a news release last year interpreting the accrediting commission’s motive.
“The ACCJC has been a leading advocate to dramatically reshape the mission of California’s community colleges,” it said.
New restrictive policies it has put in place focus on degree completion, eliminating many vocational, remedial and non-credit offerings.
According to the lawsuit, the ACCJC’s political agenda echoes the philosophy of conservative advocacy organizations, for-profit colleges and corporate student lenders.
This, the lawsuit states, “represents a significant departure from the abiding ‘open access’ mission pursued by San Francisco’s Community College District since it was first established.”
To help demystify the process of college accreditation, Congresswoman Speier invited the ACCJC president to a Save CCSF Rally last fall. Speier told the audience that Beno refused to participate.
“Her lack of responsiveness is emblematic of the problem,” Speier told the booing crowd.
The systemic problem
Beno’s elusive behavior adds to the growing dissatisfaction with her performance.
“I don’t care for what she’s done, but the key problems tend not to be individuals, but systems,” Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said. “The way ACCJC is currently set up is a problem. You can ask almost any community college administrator in California. We need to see ACCJC reformed, or removed from oversight.
“I doubt she will resign,” Ammiano said of Beno. “That doesn’t seem to be her modus operandi. She is proud of what she’s doing.”
Assemblyman Ting thinks Beno should resign, but says the problem is systemic.
“We need an accreditor focused on students and solutions to conclude City College’s accreditation process. We need to protect precious education dollars from being squandered.”
Congresswoman Speier agrees.
“This is a truly unaccountable agency – unaccountable to anyone,” she said at the City College forum last year. “This is an institutional problem, meaning we have to take a look at accreditation generally.”
Rafael Mandelman, a member of the deactivated City College Board of Trustees, once supported the school’s efforts to work with the ACCJC, but has since had an epiphany.
“I think they are incredibly stubborn, petty and vindictive people,” he said. “They’re an accrediting commission gone wrong.”
“I don’t think it’s just Beno, though,” he said. “It’s not just about removing one person, it’s about changing the approach.”
Co-founder of the Save CCSF Coalition and long-time critic Wendy Kaufmyn insists there’s a political agenda.
“The ACCJC is just a tool in the education reform agenda,” she said. “Without it they will just try other ways to downsize public education.
“Barbara Beno created the crisis in the first place,” said the engineering instructor. “Of course she should resign.”
This story first appeared in the fall 2014 issue of Etc. magazine, City College of San Francisco’s award-winning student publication. For information about journalism classes at City College, check out ccsf.edu.