by Nanette Asimov
AdjunctNation reported in July 2013 that at the City College of San Francisco, 1,464 part-time faculty jobs are on the line. One month later, we also reported on the Department of Education’s harsh criticism of the accreditation report that led to the threatened shut down of the institution. A statewide faculty union filed suit in late-September to try to stop a commission from revoking City College of San Francisco’s accreditation next summer, which would shut down the venerated but troubled school of 80,000 students.
The lawsuit by the California Federation of Teachers follows a similar suit filed last month in Superior Court by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Both suits claim the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges acted improperly in the year leading up to its shocking announcement in July.
But the union’s suit hits the commission with accusations that go “further and broader” than Herrera’s, said its attorney, Bob Bezemek, at a news conference at San Francisco’s City Hall that drew faculty and student leaders, five city supervisors and a state assemblyman.
Among the union’s claims:
— It was a conflict of interest for the commission’s president, Barbara Beno, to appoint her husband, Peter Crabtree, a Laney College dean, to the team that evaluated City College in 2012.
— The commission “was coercing colleges” to deposit funds into an irrevocable trust for retiree health to which the commission was tied.
— The commission improperly barred the public from the public portion of its June meeting and directed staff to destroy documents related to college evaluations.
— The commission voted to revoke City College’s accreditation earlier than its own policy allowed.
The decision “is causing tremendous harm to students and all city residents,” said Joshua Pechthalt, the union’s president.
Registrations at City College are down by about 3,000 students this fall, resulting in the loss of state funding at a school where money management is already in disarray – from payroll headaches to an inability to figure out how much each of its 11 campuses costs to run.
The commission cited City College in July 2012 for a range of fiscal and governance deficiencies, though not for its instructional quality. A year later, it determined that City College still failed to comply with all accrediting standards.
A quasi-private agency, the commission is overseen by the U.S. Department of Education. Not known for its open communications, the commission has especially clammed up as criticism has intensified.
The commission issued an unsigned response to the lawsuit that said: “The public needs to know that there is a federal regulation that mandates that an accrediting body terminate the accreditation of an institution found in noncompliance with any standard or provide a time frame of no more than two years for the institution to bring itself into compliance.”
The three-paragraph statement credited the college’s leadership and “some faculty and staff” with working hard to comply with requirements, while “others appear to be trying to reverse the commission’s actions rather than meet accreditation standards.”
The commission said it hasn’t seen the lawsuit and could not comment on its specifics.
Beno has previously denied that placing her husband on the City College evaluation team was a conflict.
However, the Education Department, which is conducting its five-year review of the accrediting commission, said in a letter to Beno on Aug. 13 that the commission should not have let the president’s spouse judge the college and that the commission was out of compliance with other regulations. It ordered the commission to correct its problems immediately.
Meanwhile, state college officials have replaced City College’s elected Board of Trustees with a special trustee empowered to make college decisions unilaterally.
The special trustee, Robert Agrella, opposes the lawsuits and is trying to comply with accrediting requirements to avoid closure.
He has also begun a lengthy appeal process that asks the commission to reverse its decision. The commission has demanded that those documents remain private.
Yet many at City College prefer to take matters into their own hands through protests, complaints and, now, the lawsuit by the statewide union and City College’s Local 2121, representing faculty.
The commission’s “sleight of hand, secrecy and subterfuge will continue to do damage to students at City College,” Alisa Messer, president of Local 2121, said at the news conference. “This suit is the way to stop them.”
Backing those efforts Monday were city Supervisors David Campos, Scott Weiner, John Avalos, David Chiu and an aide to Eric Mar, as well as Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who took the mike with a message for the commission: “City College will not close. Stay out of our backyard.”