Volume 44, Number 4 - June/July 2009
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction
By Adam Wetsman, Ph.D.
Rio Hondo College Faculty Association President
Once upon a time, Rio Hondo was placed on warning by the accrediting agency that visited our school last year. Since that time, we have been working hard to correct the cited deficiencies before our next site visit in October. What most are unaware of is that there are some strange circumstances surrounding the accreditation process in general. So gather around and listen to this wild tale.
First, we need to have an appropriate setting for our fable. There are six regional associations in the United States that accredit public and private schools, colleges, and universities. Ours is named the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and covers California, Hawaii, and various schools in the Pacific (such as Guam). The wing of WASC covering community colleges is the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). This is the group that put Rio Hondo on warning.
A worthy villain
No narrative would be complete without a worthy villain, and we have one here. Her name is Dr. Barbara Beno. She has been the president of ACCJC since 2001. Under her leadership, ACCJC has been on a tear, slapping colleges with sanctions at an alarming rate. Since 2003, 37 percent of colleges reviewed have received some kind of reprimand ("Warning", "Probation", or "Show Cause"). This contrasts sharply with the other five accrediting agencies in the United States, whose rates have gone no higher than 6 percent during the same period. In other words, ACCJC has been sanctioning schools at a rate that is six times higher than anywhere else in the country.
If this is not enough cause for alarm, consider the plight of two California schools, Diablo Valley and Solano Colleges. Both have received the harshest reprimand of "Show Cause," which is the step just short of losing accreditation.
These are the only two in the entire country that have been given the designation, the only two. Coincidentally, these schools fall in the district of U.S. Congressman George Miller from California. He happens to chair the House Education and Labor Committee, which, in 2008, decided to omit student learning outcomes in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, something apparently dear to Dr. Beno. One can hardly believe that mere chance led to the two schools in Congressman Miller's district being the only ones in the U.S. to receive a "Show Case" status. It makes you wonder whether Dr. Beno is wielding her power for good... or for evil?
ACCJC has been sanctioning schools at a rate that is six times higher than anywhere else in the country.
The answer is money
What could be the motivation behind ACCJC's high rate of sanctioning? The answer is arguably money. The agency is a 501(c)(3) organization, an IRS-sanctioned non-profit group. Even though no taxes have to be paid by such organizations, there are certain limitations, such as those on employee compensation. Unfortunately, we do not have much information about ACCJC's finances since they have not filed the appropriate tax returns since 2000, according to research conducted by a former Solano College trustee. Rio Hondo has paid a little over $16,000 per year for the last two years just for annual fees. Site visits cost extra, like the one from October where we were billed close to $11,000. The more difficulties schools have, the more fees ACCJC can collect.
There is little transparency in the decision-making processes that lead to recommendations for colleges. Investigations by CCA have revealed discrepancies between the preliminary reports filed by visiting accreditation teams (who, by the way, receive no compensation) and the final recommendations given by ACCJC. There is also little consistency among the requirements ACCJC imposes for getting accreditation affirmed. For example, some California colleges have emphatically refused to engage in any work involving Student Learning Outcomes and have been fine, while others have done a lot of work in the area and have been required to do more.
The strange state of affairs has led state-wide groups, including CCA, to mount investigations into the workings of ACCJC. As more information becomes available, we will pass it along to you. For now, we can only wish for a happily ever after. In the meantime, I leave you with the words of American humorist Mark Twain.
"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."
Adam Wetsman is a professor of Anthropology at Rio Hondo College in Whittier.
This is reprinted from the faculty association newsletter at Rio Hondo. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily CTA.