A is for Accreditation: The New Scarlet Letter


This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the Academic Senate Plenary Session on Thursday, April 16, 2009.

Accreditation. There is palpable fear among community colleges when they encounter the word, and this is hardly surprising given our current experience. Twenty percent of all California community colleges are now on sanction. We have a college that has gone from reaffirmation to the penultimate level of sanction, "show cause," in one visit. While we understand that only colleges are accredited, not districts, we face the inconstancy of having lone colleges in a multi-college district being cited for district deficiencies. We have heard from several colleges that the accreditation visiting team ended its visit with a positive exit summary only to have those colleges later find that they had been put on sanction.

Accreditation is not supposed to be like this. Accreditation has at its roots the power of a professional peer review process by which academic quality can be judged and improvements can be made. Judith S. Eaton, President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, reaffirmed the centrality of peer review in the accreditation process in the January 2009 edition of Inside Accreditation:

Peer review is acknowledged throughout the world as the most appropriate and desirable approach to the evaluation of such a complex area as higher education. Peer review serves as a rich and diverse resource for quality improvement for a college or university. It is a vital asset to institutional leaders as they carry out their responsibility for academic quality, continuing the longstanding tradition of institutional leadership as central to the success of higher education.

Sadly, the accreditation process that community college faculty in California and their institutions face today has been reduced to compliance monitoring of the worst kind. It is no longer a thoughtful, reflective process. The value inherent in the process of accreditation still exists in theory, but given this climate of fear, it's hard for many to see value in accreditation in light of the actions of our regional accrediting body, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).

The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges has always valued both the principles and the process of accreditation, and during my tenure as your president, we have focused on the inherent value of peer-review based accreditation. The role of student learning outcomes (SLOs) in accreditation remains a contentious issue, but the Academic Senate has strived to take SLOs and make them our own, placing the development, evaluation, and revision of SLOs firmly in the hands of faculty and casting the process in the context of peer review. In addition, the Academic Senate has been cognizant of the move to federal accreditation and the importance of our regional accrediting body in keeping a college-level version of No Child Left Behind at bay.

It is annoying and exasperating to report that the work of the Academic Senate is not supported by ACCJC. Much of the work of the Academic Senate has come about to fill the vacuum left by the paucity of guidance provided by ACCJC as our colleges struggle with the 2002 Standards. However, in more than one conversation, ACCJC has told the Academic Senate that it cannot endorse or support the Senate's work. What is left is a regional accrediting body that provides guidance that most would characterize as simply a thumbs-down or a thumbs-up, with little to show you how to get from the former to the latter.

However, the approbation of ACCJC matters little to the Academic Senate. What is painful for the Academic Senate is the growing perception by our faculty and colleges that in our support for the process of accreditation we have become apologists for ACCJC and its actions.

We realize that we must make a clear distinction between the theory and purpose of accreditation and the actions and behavior of our accrediting commission. While we may support the first, we can no longer sit by and allow the latter to employ a dysfunctional process that is destroying the quality of the institutions it purports to support.

What we need to do next is not yet clear. Fortunately, we are not alone. At the March Consultation Council meeting, the board which represents college presidents and district chancellors joined with the Academic Senate in bringing forward concerns about the system's relationship with ACCJC. As a result, the Consultation Council will be conducting a facilitated discussion at its May meeting to come up with a strategy for how to respond to the challenges of working with ACCJC.

It is definitely time to figure out how to bring our colleges out from under an increasingly arbitrary and unresponsive regional accrediting body. The urgency with which we need to act cannot be overstated as colleges expend large sums of money, not to mention time, from our ever-dwindling resources to respond to accreditation sanctions.

At the same time, the Academic Senate will not and can not relinquish its responsibility to provide guidance and support for our colleges in their pursuit of a meaningful and powerful accreditation process. Therefore, we will continue to offer institutes, workshops, and college visits, even as we contemplate actions with regards to our regional accrediting body.

Today, accreditation is a dirty word, a mark of shame for 20% of our colleges, much like the scarlet letter in Hawthorne's famous short story. Working with our colleagues-our union partners, college presidents, the Chancellor's Office, administrators, staff, and students-we can restore accreditation to its valued place in the life of any quality institution of higher education.