City College of San Francisco's accreditor lacked clarity regarding the severity of its sanctions against the school, the City Attorney's Office alleged Thursday in the trial to save CCSF from closure.
The City Attorney's Office filed suit against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges in August last year, a move that temporarily stayed the commission's efforts to revoke the accreditation of CCSF, which remains open and accredited. City attorneys allege CCSF was unfairly evaluated by the ACCJC, and that it was politically biased against the college.
In the fourth day of trial Thursday before Judge Curtis Karnow, a war of words erupted over the commission's 2006 accreditation evaluation report, which warned the college of areas it needed to improve in order to retain its accreditation.
The City Attorney's Office, however, alleged the warnings were not warnings at all, but "recommendations." The language was so vague, it claimed, that the college did not realize noncompliance would lead to its closure.
Deputy City Attorney Ronald Flynn instructed ACCJC President Barbara Beno to inspect the evaluation report carefully in her third day on the witness stand.
Beno repeatedly maintained the warnings were clear, and backed up by evidence within the report. Flynn tasked her with providing language to back up her denial of vague instructions, which she did not do.
He asked, "It did not tell City College it failed to comply with [two accreditation standards], is that correct?"
She paused, then said "That's correct."
While CCSF's accreditation woes apparently had their beginnings in 2006, the college did not perceive them as woes at the time. When the accrediting commission re-evaluated the school in 2012, the commission suddenly changed its wording to more dire language related to accreditation actions.
The recommendations transformed into "deficiencies," which under ACCJC bylaws command a much harsher sanction. CCSF was placed on show-cause status, one step away from losing its accreditation and effectively shuttering.
A sample of one of the original recommendations reads: "To fully meet Standard II.B Student Support Services, the team recommends that the institution systematically assess student support services using student learning outcomes and other appropriate measures to improve the effectiveness of its support services."
By not following that recommendation, the ACCJC's attorneys allege, the school doomed itself to close.
The U.S. Department of Education has sanctioned the ACCJC for using vague wording, stating "what is not clear ... [is] how an institution, an evaluation team, the Commission or the public is to know the difference."
Beno shrugged off the department's sanction, saying it was "preliminary."
The ACCJC's attorneys also counter that CCSF misled the commission in its self-evaluation report. The college's own self-evaluation report was "less than honest," said Gohar Momjian, CCSF's accreditation liaison officer.
But on the witness stand, Momjian also alleged an ACCJC visiting team member was biased against CCSF, and did not listen to evidence she provided that may have saved the college.
Beno has been additionally accused of bias following the ACCJC's decision to close CCSF, but in court she again denied her ability to sway the 19-member commission's decision.
"As a member of the staff, do you make decisions on accreditation?" ACCJC attorney Kenneth Keller asked Beno.
"No, I do not," she said.
When ACCJC Commissioner Marie B. Smith took the witness stand, an attorney representing the commission asked if she was swayed by Beno to vote to close CCSF.
"No," she said under penalty of perjury, "it was our responsibility."
She also said CCSF did not meet all eight of its original sanctions.
"It troubled me," she said.
But the question of the original intent, clarity and severity of those sanctions remains. The argument is a major leg of the City Attorney's Office central allegations that the ACCJC gave an unfair evaluation of the college.
CCSF's fate may lay in Judge Curtis Karnow's interpretation of a single word: "recommendation."
Live testimony in the trial to save CCSF ends today. Karnow will then determine a period of time to examine evidence by both parties.