Chan­cellor backs CCSF on witness stand

The chancellor of California community colleges testified in Superior Court Monday┬áthat he believes a commission’s decision to terminate the accreditation of City College of San Francisco “was not an appropriate action.”

Chancellor Brice Harris told San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow:

“I believe the college does not deserve to have its accreditation terminated and to do so would be a tragedy for the community and, most importantly, for all the students involved.”

Harris, who oversees the state’s 112 public community colleges, testified on the first day of the trial of a lawsuit filed by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera against the western regional branch of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

Herrera claims the commission violated the state’s Unfair Competition Law by using unfair, biased and illegal procedures when it decided in 2013 to terminate the college’s accreditation. He is seeking a court order overturning that decision and requiring the Novato-based commission to start a new evaluation process.

The termination was originally due to take effect on July 31, but in January, Karnow issued a preliminary injunction suspending the termination until the completion of trial proceedings. Karnow is hearing the case without a jury and is expected to issue a written decision sometime after the close of the five-day trial.

Herrera filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of the people of California. City College itself is not a party in the case.

The unfair practices alleged by Herrera include a perceived or actual conflict of interest in the appointment of Commission President Barbara Beno’s husband, Laney College Career and Technical Education Dean Peter Crabtree, to a 2012 committee evaluating the San Francisco college.

The lawsuit also alleges that committee and a follow-up committee in 2013 had too few academic members, as opposed to administrators; that the commission failed to provide the college with due process to respond to its charges; and that it was biased against the college’s mission of “open access” to the community.

The commission in court filings has denied that it was prejudiced or unfair and contended the decision to withdraw the accreditation was “absolutely correct” and was based on “enormous problems facing CCSF.”

The group’s 2013 decision cited alleged problems with financial accountability, institutional governance and compliance with standards for instructional programs and student support services.

During cross-examination by commission attorney Andrew Sclar today, Harris said that when the commission issued its report in July 2013, he believed the college was “significantly out of compliance” with accrediting standards:

“That’s what the report reflected. I took that at face value,”

The report and conversations with Beno led him to urge the community college system’s board of governors to appoint a special trustee, Robert Agrella, to replace the college’s elected board of trustees in leading reforms, he said.

Since then, however, Harris testified:

“I’ve learned that there is a tremendous amount of teaching and learning going on at the college and it is serving students in the community. … I think the teaching and learning at the college continues to be excellent and it gets better all the time.”

Harris also said the college is now in “considerably better shape financially.”

Herrera’s first witness today was City College English professor and faculty union leader Alisa Messer, who said she was shocked to learn after the evaluation that Beno’s husband was on the committee:

“I was shocked, frankly, to discover that the commission president’s husband had been to visit City College and was making decisions about the college. … It strained credulity to believe there was no conversation at the dinner table or anywhere else and that the decision was independent.”

Messer said that if the college is forced to close:

“It would be a huge, huge loss for San Francisco and for hundreds of thousands of students and our community overall.”

Both sides in the trial have said in court filings that they plan to call Beno as a witness. Lawyers from Herrera’s office expect to call her to the stand Tuesday afternoon, according to an office spokesman.

In addition to the preliminary injunction granted by Karnow, the college received a second reprieve in July when the commission granted its application to seek a newly created status known as “restoration” while it attempts to meet accrediting standards.

A new evaluation team is scheduled to visit the college the week of Nov. 17 and the commission is expected to decide in January whether to grant the status, which could last for up to two years.

The commission has argued in a brief filed with Karnow that the new process gives the college the second chance for evaluation that it wanted, and that further court orders are unnecessary.

But the city lawyers contend the restoration option puts the college in a precarious position because the commission’s future decision can’t be appealed and because the college would have to be in full compliance with all accreditation standards, rather than the normal, substantial compliance.