by Matt Dorsey
San Francisco (Jan. 2, 2014) – A San Francisco Superior Court judge has granted a key aspect of a motion by City Attorney Dennis Herrera to preliminarily enjoin the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges from terminating City College of San Francisco’s accreditation next July. Under terms of the ruling Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow issued late this afternoon, the ACCJC is barred from finalizing its planned termination of City College’s accreditation during the course of the litigation, which alleges that the private accrediting body has allowed political bias, improper procedures and conflicts of interest to unlawfully influence its evaluation of the state’s largest community college.
“It’s terrific to know that the judge looked at arguments and confirmed what we knew: Closing City College of San Francisco would cause irreparable harm to thousands of San Franciscans,” said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a leader in the fight to save and improve City College on behalf of its 85,000 students – City College is the second largest collegiate institution in the U.S. – and its outstanding faculty.
“Because of that harm, Judge Karnow said the accreditation commission cannot terminate City College’s accreditation while the court proceedings continue,” Ammiano continued. “I have questioned the commission’s process all along and I expect that City College will be fully vindicated by the court in the end.
“In the meantime, the state Board of Governors should return control of the college to the board that San Franciscans elected to do that job, and all elected officials for San Francisco should stand in support of the college,” declared Ammiano.
Judge Karnow denied Herrera’s request for additional injunctive relief to prevent the ACCJC from taking adverse accreditation actions against other educational institutions statewide until its evaluation policies comply with federal regulations. A separate motion for a preliminary injunction by plaintiffs representing City College educators and students was denied.
In issuing the injunction, the court recognized that Herrera’s office is likely to prevail on the merits of his case when it proceeds to trial, and that the balance of harms favored the people Herrera represents as City Attorney. On the question of relative harms, Judge Karnow’s ruling was emphatic in acknowledging the catastrophic effect disaccreditation would hold for City College students and the community at large, writing: “There is no question, however, of the harm that will be suffered if the Commission follows through and terminates accreditation as of July 2014. Those consequences would be catastrophic.
“Without accreditation the College would almost certainly close and about 80,000 students would either lose their educational opportunities or hope to transfer elsewhere; and for many of them, the transfer option is not realistic. The impact on the teachers, faculty and the City would be incalculable, in both senses of the term: The impact cannot be calculated, and it would be extreme,” the judge ruled.
“I’m grateful to the court for acknowledging what accreditors have so far refused to: that the educational aspirations of tens of thousands of City College students matter,” said Herrera. “Judge Karnow reached a wise and thorough decision that vindicates our contention that accreditors engaged in unfair and unlawful conduct. Given the ACCJC’s dubious evaluation process, it makes no sense for us to race the clock to accommodate ACCJC’s equally dubious deadline to terminate City College’s accreditation.”
Judge Karnow’s ruling was emphatic in acknowledging the catastrophic effect disaccreditation would hold for City College students and the community at large.
Judge Karnow adjudicated four separate pre-trial motions in today’s ruling following two days of hearings on Dec. 26 and 30. Herrera filed his motion for preliminary injunction on Nov. 25 – three months after filing his initial lawsuit – blaming the ACCJC for procedural foot-dragging and delay tactics, which included a failed bid to remove the case to federal court and its months-long refusal to honor discovery requests. Judge Karnow granted in part and denied in part Herrera’s motion, issuing an injunction that applies only to the ACCJC’s termination deadline for City College’s accreditation, and not statewide.
Apart from Herrera’s motion, AFT Local 2121 and the California Federation of Teachers also moved for a preliminary injunction on Nov. 25, citing additional legal theories. That motion was denied.
“I’m grateful to the court for acknowledging what accreditors have so far refused to: that the educational aspirations of tens of thousands of City College students matter,” said Herrera.
A third motion by the ACCJC asked the court to abstain from hearing the City Attorney’s lawsuit for interfering with complex accrediting processes largely governed by federal law; or, failing that, to stay Herrera’s action pending the outcomes of City College’s accreditation proceeding and ACCJC’s own efforts to renew its recognition with the U.S. Department of Education.
A fourth motion, also by the ACCJC, requested that the court strike the AFT-CFT’s case under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute, which enables defendants to dismiss causes of actions that intend to chill the valid exercise of their First Amendment rights of free speech and petition. (SLAPP is an acronym for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.”) Both of the ACCJC’s pre-trial motions were denied.
The ACCJC has come under increasing fire from state education advocates, a bipartisan coalition of state legislators and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier for its controversial advocacy to dramatically restrict the mission of California’s community colleges by focusing on degree completion to the detriment of vocational, remedial and non-credit education.
The accrediting body’s political agenda – shared by conservative advocacy organizations, for-profit colleges and student lender interests – represents a significant departure from the abiding “open access” mission repeatedly affirmed by the California legislature and pursued by San Francisco’s Community College District since it was first established.
Herrera’s action, filed on Aug. 22, alleges that the commission acted to withdraw accreditation “in retaliation for City College having embraced and advocated a different vision for California’s community colleges than the ACCJC itself.” The civil suit offers extensive evidence of ACCJC’s double standard in evaluating City College as compared to its treatment of six other similarly situated California colleges during the preceding five years. Not one of those colleges saw its accreditation terminated.
The City Attorney’s case is People of the State of California ex rel. Dennis Herrera v. Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges et al., San Francisco Superior Court No. 13-533693, filed Aug. 22, 2013. The AFT-CFT case is AFT Local 2121 et al. v. Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges et al., San Francisco Superior Court No. 534447, filed Sept. 24, 2013. Documentation from the City Attorney’s case is available online at http://www.sfcityattorney.org.
Matt Dorsey, communications director for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, can be reached at the firstname.lastname@example.org. Bay View staff contributed to this report.