Accrediting Commission Provokes Critics After Compton Threats

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday May 09, 2006

A statewide education revolt is growing against the agency that accredits California community colleges in part because of recent actions the agency has taken against the Peralta and the Compton Community College Districts.  

Linda Handy, the president of the Peralta Board of Trustees, said that ACCJC operates “without a lot of oversight,” and said that the accrediting organization backed off of its warning to pull the Peralta colleges’ accreditation only under the threat of a discrimination lawsuit by Peralta. 

And Michael Mills, the president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers union, says that the leading administrators of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) have a vendetta against the Peralta college district, and that the ACCJC is “operating like a star chamber” with a “process that is out of control.” 

The top two staff members of the ACCJC are former Peralta staff members who reportedly left under less than amicable circumstances. ACCJC President Dr. Barbara Beno is a former president of Vista College in Berkeley (now Berkeley City College). The ACCJC Vice President, Dr. Deborah G. Blue, is a former president of Laney College in Oakland. 

The ACCJC is a 19-member state commission that evaluates community colleges every five years in California, Hawaii, and several Pacific Island territories under the authority of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Because schools cannot receive federal or state funding without ACCJC accreditation, the organization’s power over community colleges is enormous. 

But the ACCJC commission is largely a self-appointed body, with the commission chair holding the power to appoint three of the seven-member body that selects commission members. 

Last March, that led the California Federation of Teachers to pass a resolution at its annual convention calling the ACCJC “a private organization that is accountable to no one it serves” and charging that the organization “often causes colleges to implement changes that reflect the current biases of the accrediatation team.” The CFT resolution called on the California Community College System Office and “other appropriate bodies” to “investigate the operations of AACJC-WASC and consider possible alternatives for evaluating and accrediting the state’s community colleges.” 

A spokesperson for the CFT said by telephone that the “other appropriate bodies” was meant to refer to the state legislature. 

Late last month, the California Community College Academic Senate passed a resolution “in support of the [CFT] and other . . . bodies who have expressed their unhappiness with the ACCJC,” and joined the call for an investigation into alternatives to the organization. 

Representatives of the ACCJC could not be reached in connection with this article. 

The two state education organizations’ resolutions were sparked by the ACCJC’s actions pulling accreditation from the 6,600-student Compton Community College in Southern California. That action is currently under appeal by Compton, and the college is currently being administered by a trustee appointed by California Community College Chancellor Mark Drummond.  

After failing to get Southern California community college districts to intervene, Drummond asked the Peralta district to take over as administrative manager for Compton College, and last March the Peralta trustees authorized Peralta Chancellor Elihu Harris to investigate that possibility. 

But Peralta Trustee President Handy said that since Peralta announced that action, three Southern California districts are considering assisting in the administrative takeover of Compton, and the issue “is now moot” for Peralta. “We shamed them,” Handy said, adding that publicity from the Peralta trustee vote “caused WASC to back off” from their accreditation threats against Compton. 

PFT President Mills said that Compton “had real problems” related to their trustee board and administration. “So the state chancellor came in and suspended the board, and put a trustee in charge,” he said. “You would have thought that would have been enough to satisfy the accreditation team, but instead they went ahead with pulling Compton’s accreditation anyway.” 

Mills said that “there was no warning by ACCJC against the Compton faculty or its instructional program,” adding that the accrediting team had moved “far afield” from its original purpose of “assisting community colleges in improving their education programs.” 

Mills said that was the same criticism Peralta officials and representatives had when ACCJC issued warnings against the four Peralta colleges early last year. The warnings would have led to a loss of accreditation if they were not corrected within two years. 

Mills said that the four Peralta colleges were put on warning because of unfunded medical liabilities by the district, for “micromanaging” by the district board, and for not having a strategic plan. 

“None of these were accreditation standards,” Mills said. “In addition, [Peralta Chief Financial Officer] Tom Smith was already working on a plan with the federation of teachers and other groups to fund the district medical liabilities. That plan was put in place, but the warning was not taken off. And even though almost every community college and public school in the state had the same issue with unfunded medical liabilities, Peralta was the only one to have unfunded liability used as a judgment standard.” 

Mills also criticized the fact that the official warning against the Peralta board continued even after a majority of the board was replaced in elections. 

In a separate interview, trustee President Handy said that the ACCJC warnings against Peralta “had nothing to do with what was going on inside the colleges themselves. The process needs to be looked at.” 

Handy said that ACCJC President Barbara Beno and Vice President Deborah Blue “should have recused themselves” from the accreditation process because of their past association with Peralta. “Barbara Beno has an axe to grind,” Handy said. 

Mills said that Beno was fired from her position at Vista and that when Blue left Laney “there was not a great deal of admirers wringing their hands.” He called Blue “a nice person, but during her tenure, Laney was not considered to be soundly led.” 

Mills said that while he does not know the extent of Beno and Blue’s involvement in the Peralta accreditation warnings, “any involvement by those two individuals would be suspect,” and said that adds fuel to the drive that the ACCJC be investigated and alternatives considered.  

In January of this year, the four Peralta colleges were removed from the ACCJC warning list. 

But Peralta insiders say that only occurred after a fierce political struggle led by Chancellor Elihu Harris, a veteran of Sacramento political wars from his years as Assembly representative from Oakland. Included in the struggle was a threat by Peralta to sue the ACCJC..