A Conspiracy on Accreditation Matters at Coast Community Colleges?
Guest Editorial by a Coast Community College Insider
Community Colleges like all institutions of higher learning must be accredited by a regional accrediting body. Without Accreditation, the degrees of a college become worthless and students have are not able to transfer their coursework to other institutions. Accreditation is completed through a peer-review process. Sadly, this process community colleges is in need of reform, as the community college accreditor in California, described below, has become under the heavy influence of District chief executives and other senior managers, minimizing the views of faculty members, staff and in students within the peer review process. Coast Community College District, and other entities throughout the process, have fallen victim to this slanted, biased process that is used not to promote the ideals of higher education, but instead to be wielded as a tool to enhance the power and prestige of senior community college managers across the state, at the expense of students, faculty, staff, and their respective communities.
In July 2013, the three colleges of the Coast Community College District, Orange Coast College, Coastline Community College and Orange Coast College were put on “Warning Status” from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), a regional accrediting entity based in Novato, California. These “Warning” notifications are flawed and are largely based on a conspiracy of top Coast administrators, and disgruntled staff members, in conjunction with ACCJC leaders and site-visit team members to paint the Board of Trustees of Coast Community Colleges as “unethical” and “micromanaging.” This could not be farther from the truth.
Most recently, the ACCJC has been reprimanded by the Federal Government for its practices surrounding the Accreditation of City College of San Francisco. This is not a unique problem and many of the same issues that arose in ACCJC’s handling of the San Francisco matter show the same bias and targeting in the Warning status issued to the Coast Colleges. ACCJC’s determination at Coast is a stark reminder that its processes are flawed, heavily influenced by college senior managers, and in serious need of review.
Here is a history of background items that led to the institution of the Warning Notice from ACCJC:
In 2008, the Coast Community College District placed its Chancellor on leave and instituted significant reforms in its governance structure to become more open and transparent, protecting the interests of taxpayers, students, faculty and staff from corruption, abuses of power and pension abuse. These changes involved creating an administrative officer position reporting to the governing board, appointing a General Counsel to ensure the District’s legal compliance with the Brown Act, land development procedures, and administrative contracts, as well as developing a structure of committees to allow the Trustees to review items that would come before them in advance. Because of corruption and wrongdoing in student advising, the oversight of the governing board’s student representative and District’s student government was also placed under the oversight of the Trustees with a professional staff member assigned to provide day-to-day guidance. The new board also sharply reduced the pay of District executives in a bid to raise accountability and preserve District funds in a time of financial crisis. The board also reformed the operations of District foundations, requiring them to comply with the Ralph M. Brown Act and to be more transparent in all of their fiduciary responsibilities.
These changes were instituted for a number of compelling reasons after years of abuses and wrongdoing including but not limited to the following:
- In October 2007, the governing board required all District executives to be hired in compliance with the provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s Open Meeting Law, in a bid to reduce favoritism and to create more fairness in the hiring of District senior managers, but prompting one administrator to call a governing board member, in public, “a fucking liar.”
- In 2008, the Minutes of the governing board were changed illegally by a senior administrator to raise his pay;
- In 2007, a secret deal was made between two Trustees, a corrupt college president and City of Huntington Beach representatives to open a Costco on a college campus,a proposal that nearly received approval until it was voted down in a contentious public meeting with over 250 residents facing down the Board;
- In 2008, two Trustees and a college president met in secret to plan what is now the Coastline Community College Newport Beach Learning Center, in a violation of the Ralph M Brown Act, and whose transaction had to be completely revised to comply with California Education Code Standards in 2009 before the project could legally be instituted;
- In 2008, District foundation funds were used to purchase a “lifetime membership” to the Association of Community College Trustees for outgoing and disgraced Trustee Armando R. Ruiz, without approval by the governing board;
- For years, contracts of district administrators had an “automatic renewal” clause contained in them creating a culture based on cronyism and degrading the principles of excellence and performance in pursuit of Higher Education values;
- In 2008, the student representative of the governing board appeared in a campaign mailer photo and received controversial coverage in the local news media violating the Coast board’s Code of Ethics and numerous provisions of student governance regulations;
- Was the law firm Rutan & Tucker paid millions of Dollars in Coast District funds because one of its senior partners was the college roommate of a Trustee who was shamed out of office in 2010 for pension abuses?
- A Warning Notice from the ACCJC for Orange Coast College was hidden from the governing board in 2008 by the District’s administration;
- Aside from these specific examples of wrongdoing and conflicts of interest, Coast Colleges also had a culture of nepotism and favoritism, with friends and relatives receiving special favors, promotions and plum positions in exchange for their loyalty to corrupt administrators and governing board members. Many recruitments were predetermined and in one outrageous example, two senior administrators at the District Office were promoted to their six-figure positions without formal recruitments; a possible violation of state law.
Because of these dire circumstances of fraud, wrongdoing, unethical hiring, conflicts of interest and criminal behavior, the governing board had little choice but to right these many wrongs and instituted many of the changes noted above. In spite of this, many administrators complained that the board’s moves, while legal and appropriate, violated “Accreditation” standards, even though the governing board itself had established an Accreditation Committee to ensure compliance with all Standards and laws that relate to Accreditation matters.
By 2010 and 2011, administrators at Coast Colleges began using “Accreditation” as a reason to challenge policy directives by the board. Numerous contacts were made to the ACCJC by Coast Administrators without the Board’s knowledge or the consultation of its Accreditation Committee. ACCJC President, Dr. Barbara Beno, was invited to speak to the Board by an administrator in 2011, without the consultation or approval of the Board. Accreditation was used in numerous senior leadership meetings to undermine and criticize the policies of the governing board. Complaints were made by senior managers in the District about “Board Employees” even though the board has the legal right to hire any employee it wishes.
All of these issues led to the colleges’ Accreditation self-studies in 2012 and site reviews in 2013. During this time, the ACCJC revised its process from previous Accreditation visits to Coast and established a “special representative” a CEO an ally of numerous Coast administrators, to review governance matters at the District level. As a result of this process, the three colleges of the District were placed on Warning pertaining to governance Standards. A specific citation in the Warning Notice focused on “four employees of the Board” and the possible interference with the Chancellor’s running of the District. This Warning occurred, after members of the District staff complained to the ACCJC special representative that the Trustees moves to reform the governance processes and restore transparency in 2008 were “unethical” and designed to “usurp the authority of the administrator” and to “micromanage the District.” These statements were made in spite of the governing board’s close collaboration with its District leaders on many issues, its committee structure to provide consultation to both governing board members and staff, and the board’s policy requiring its administrative officer to consult regularly with the District’s senior leadership on issues.
Given the makeup of ACCJC and its heavily reliance upon, and influence from senior college executives throughout the state, an immediate investigation is needed of ACCJC’s actions in the Coast Colleges site-review to address the following concerns:
- What is the nature of the relationship between Coast senior executives and the “special representative of ACCJC” in the Accreditation process? How many times were contacts made between them in advance of the site-visit?
- How many times did senior administrators at Coast phone or write to the office of Dr. Barbara Beno to discuss Accreditation “concerns”? What would District phone records reveal?
- What were the actions of Coast Colleges staff members at the District Office to prepare for their “interview” with ACCJC “special representative” at his site visit? Are the notes/transcripts of those interviews available for review and inspection?
- Why was as the ACCJC site-visit procedure changed at Coast Colleges from the 2007 ACCJC site-visit?
These are serious issues. The governing board of Coast Colleges remains committed to the Accreditation process and its colleges. There is little doubt, however, of a conspiracy to undermine the board’s practices and policies of transparency and openness, its commitment to following the law, and its prudent use of fiscal resources. In the aftermath of the findings from the ACCJC, a senior Coast administrator threatened the jobs of Board staff members.
What other actions of corruption and abuse will occur in the aftermath of this case?
Just as with the ACCJC’s cited wrongdoing with City College of San Francisco, a serious investigation is needed in this matter concerning the Coast Community College District and the apparent efforts of administrators and staff, in conjunction with the ACCJC, to undermine the principles of high integrity and transparency established by the governing board in the aftermath of the 2008 election, and by years of wrongdoing and abuses by Coast administrators and trustees who used the District as their personal fiefdom.