Looking Forward: the Chancellor’s Office Task Force On Accreditation Report

November
2015
David Morse, President

The Chancellor’s Office 2015 Task Force on Accreditation released its final report to the public in late August.  As the report itself notes, this task force built on the work of two previous Chancellor’s Office task forces from 2009 and 2013 as well as on previous studies and resolutions from the Research and Planning Group, the Community College League of California, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, the California State Auditor, and others.  However, the 2015 Task Force Report takes a new direction from those of previous statements and looks toward the future of accreditation in the California Community Colleges.

The task force had a broad representative membership that included the ASCCC, chief executive officers, trustees, bargaining units, chief instructional officers, chief student services officers, and college accreditation liaisons.  The representatives from all of these constituencies unanimously agreed to and supported the report’s content and conclusions.  All agreed that the report should focus not on mistakes or difficulties of the past but rather on the structure of accreditation that is needed and desired by the community college system as we move forward.

The conclusion of the report states in part the following:

The central focus of accreditation processes should be on providing excellent teaching and learning opportu­nities and on academic integrity. The current accred­itor for the California Community Colleges has failed to maintain such a focus. . . . In addition, developments such as associate degrees for transfer and the beginnings of a community col­lege baccalaureate degree effort have led California community colleges to become more integrated with 4-year colleges and universities. For this reason, the community colleges system would benefit from a closer, more formalized collaboration with the other institutions of higher education in the region, including service on evaluation teams. Further delay in resolving the issues with the accred­itor will have adverse effects on our colleges, on our students, and on California’s economy and future and will prevent the timely development of the robust accreditation structure that other regions enjoy and that California lacks.

Based on this conclusion, the task force offered the following recommendations to the chancellor and the Board of Governors:

  1. The Chancellor’s Office should investigate all available avenues for establishing a new model for accreditation, including options such as the following:
    1. Form a combined single accrediting commission with community colleges joining WASC Senior College and University Commission, in keeping with the prevalent model for regional accreditation.
    2. Identify other regional accreditors that could serve the California Community Colleges.
  2. The Chancellor’s Office should evaluate possible accrediting agents for the California Community Colleges in a thorough yet expeditious manner and, working through the system’s established consulta­tion processes, bring a recommendation for action to the Board of Governors by Spring 2016.
  3. Until a new accrediting agent for the system is identified, system constituencies should continue to work in a cooperative and proactive manner with the ACCJC to ensure the continuity of the accredita­tion process for all colleges within the system.

In short, the task force recommended exploration of all options that would allow for a more effective and beneficial accreditation structure that could work in conjunction with other higher education partners while also noting the importance of colleges working with the current commission to maintain their accreditation until such exploration and any subsequent actions or changes can be completed.

All About Us

The report of the 2015 Task Force on Accreditation is not intended as an indictment of the current accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).  It is not a reflection or discussion of the difficulties experienced by City College of San Francisco or any other single institution.  It is not a list or analysis of past grievances against ACCJC in either a positive or a negative sense.  The report also in no way questions the value of accreditation in general.  The community college system and its faculty value an accreditation process based on peer evaluation, and the task force clearly reaffirmed this commitment to a strong accreditation process.

Rather, the report offers a vision of the accreditation structure and process required by the California Community College System at present and moving into the future.  With California community colleges now offering baccalaureate degrees, with an increased focus on transfer to the university level, and with greater demand than ever for workforce development, the community college system must have an accrediting structure that works cohesively with partners at both the university and the K-12 level.  The system requires an accrediting agency that focuses on academic quality and in which all member institutions have confidence.  The task force report concludes by stating, “The task force therefore urges the Chancellor and the Board of Governors to seek other accrediting options that would provide the collabora­tive and credible approach to accreditation that the California Community Colleges require and deserve.”  In other words, the report is not about ACCJC or any other accrediting body, nor is it about any individual institution; it is about the California Community College System and what that system needs from an accreditor in order to achieve the mission delegated to it.

What Comes Next?

The task force report was presented to the Board of Governors as a first reading on September 21 and is planned to go to the Board for consideration of action in November.  Prior to the November Board meeting, various constituent voices, including the Academic Senate, are expected to discuss endorsement of the report.  All such endorsements from all bodies within the system should be forwarded to the Chancellor’s Office in order to support the chancellor’s efforts to move the recommendations forward.

At the November Board of Governors meeting, Chancellor Harris will recommend further possible actions to the Board.  At the September Board Meeting, the chancellor expressed his intent to honor the timeline suggested in the report and bring forward to the Board a recommendation for specific action by Spring 2016.

Nothing Changes Overnight

Assuming the Board of Governors provides further direction in November, the Chancellor will begin a process of exploring options and will bring those options forward through appropriate consultation processes.  Any actual changes will depend not only on agreement among system partners but also on the cooperation of external agencies.  Such a process will take significant time.  No change will happen this year, and in fact the system may very possibly be looking at a process that could take six, eight, or even ten years for full implementation.

This extended timeframe has raised concerns with some constituent groups.  Certainly a more rapid path toward change would be desirable, but all of us as individuals and as members of our institutions must remain realistic.  The process for implementing the task force recommendations depends on too many external factors for anyone to expect instant results. The Chancellor’s Office and all other involved parties will work as expeditiously as possible to achieve results, and if all system constituencies endorse the report as expected, then the impetus for substantive change begun by the creation of this report will continue to grow.  No one in the system has an interest in postponing or delaying action.  But even if work toward a change begins in the current academic year, instituting that change will take time.  Without careful planning and implementation, the ability of students to transfer credit and many other important aspects of colleges’ programs could be jeopardized.

For these reasons, no institution or individual should expect immediate change, and the task force recommendation that “system constituencies should continue to work in a cooperative and proactive manner with the ACCJC to ensure the continuity of the accredita­tion process for all colleges within the system” is especially important.  All colleges must continue their efforts to maintain positive accreditation status, and for the foreseeable future such work must involve cooperation with ACCJC.  All colleges will need to show patience and must continue to meet all current accreditation mandates until the report’s recommendations can be implemented.

Any Changes Will Involve More Process Than Content

As colleges continue to work to maintain their accreditation, one important factor to consider is that the ACCJC standards are not significantly different in most cases from those used by other accreditors.  The task force report talks little about the standards themselves and more about how standards are applied and decisions are made.  Common complaints regarding the current accreditation process have involved lack of transparency, clarity, and consistency in the process rather than the standards by which the colleges are judged.

For this reason, any change that may occur as a result of the task force report will more likely involve the process and structure for accreditation rather than the content.  Institutions should be prepared to meet substantially the same standards to maintain their accreditation no matter what body finally takes on the role of the accreditor.

Change will take time, and the basic standards through which institutions are judged will likely remain substantially the same.  Until any changes can be realized, colleges must work with the current accreditor to retain their accreditation.  Yet the Chancellor’s Office 2015 Task Force on Accreditation Report provides an important step toward establishing an accreditation process which will better serve the California Community College System.  As the chancellor and the Board of Governors consider the report and evaluate potential avenues for change, the entire system will be watching to see what the future structure of accreditation will be.

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