A Tale of Two Accrediting Commissions

Accreditation Ad Hoc Chair

The following article is concerned with responses to questions put forth by faculty to the chairs of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Within the two sets of responses exist two distinct philosophies for dealing with faculty concerns. First, a little background information is in order.

WASC is the umbrella organization for the Accrediting Commission for Schools (K-12), the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, and the ACCJC. WASC is one of six regional accreditors and is responsible for determining the accreditation status of institutions in California, Hawaii, and a variety of territories, islands, and areas of the Pacific and East Asia. While each of the three Commissions operates under WASC, they do so with relative autonomy-each with different standards, commissioners, and chairpersons. In fact, WASC is the only regional accreditor in the United States to have separate accreditation commissions for community colleges and for senior colleges and universities, a situation that may not be in the best interest of our students and our profession. While the Educational Master Plan and state legislators expect a seamless unity between segments with regards to courses, programs, and transfer, efforts to create such a flawless reality are mitigated by a system that focuses on our differences.

This and other issues related to faculty primacy were the subject of exchanges with both chairs. The two exchanges were established as follows. In preparation for the Academic Senate's Accreditation Institute (January 2007), ACCJC Executive Director Barbara Beno was presented with ten questions from the Academic Senate. The questions were responded to through an ACCJC PowerPoint and shared at the Institute. (The Academic Senate's questions and ACCJC responses may be viewed in full at [www.asccc.org.]; click on Standing Committees, then Accreditation Ad Hoc Committee and scroll down to the section reserved for the 2007 Accreditation Institute). In an entirely different venue, Ralph Wolff, the Executive Director of WASC, met with a body of faculty for a conversation, as reflected by my notes taken during that exchange. As you will see, two distinct attitudes are revealed concerning collegiality. Aside from being the President and Executive Director of WASC, Wolff is responsible for setting goals, priorities, and policy for the Senior College Accrediting Commission. While WASC includes ACCJC and the Senior Commission, the two commissions act autonomously, so Wolff could not speak for (or in opposition to) ACCJC policies, standards, or procedures. Though his remarks centered largely on Senior Commission policies, his stated belief that accreditation should consult with faculty senates and councils on appointments to teams and on the content of standards suggests that the philosophies which govern WASC and the Senior Commission represent a significant contrast to those that govern the ACCJC.

Questions addressed in each venue centered on the commissions' relationships to local and statewide senates. Topics specifically addressed to Wolff, included (1) the selection and preparation of faculty to represent their colleagues and the adopted positions of their local and statewide councils and senates within the accreditation process, including their selection to participate on visiting teams and at the Commission; (2) the increasing investments of time and resources to satisfy compliance with the new standards, particularly during times of diminishing support and funding for public higher education; and (3) the unique difficulties posed by WASC having two sets of accrediting standards for higher education.

Additional questions directed to the ACCJC involve faculty concerns with Standard III.A.1.c, which attempts to require that faculty evaluations involve compliance with outcomes-based assessment-a matter for local bargaining. Other questions request a response concerning the Academic Senate's position that the placement of student learning outcomes or objectives in course outlines of record is a disciplinespecific choice.

As the Chair of the recent 2007 Accreditation Institute, I appreciate the ACCJC having provided answers to our questions and for participation in the Accreditation Institute by Lurelean Gaines, Vice Chair for the ACCJC, and by Commissioner Norv Wellsfry, both of whom are community college faculty. Their presentation of ACCJC perspectives was a well attended breakout session. However, to these and other issues, the ACCJC's responses indicate a one-sided perspective. "The Commission is a private, independent organization." "It has relationships with institutions, not with systems, constituencies, membership groups, or governments." "The Commission has no relationships with any other constituency groups." Regarding Standard III.A.1.c, the ACCJC does not address the issue of bargaining rights but simply states that "The Standards reflect a concern about the quality of teaching and learning on campuses-key elements to educational quality." "The intent of Standard III.A.1.c is to `close the loop' between assessment, planning, and improvement." "The Commission hopes this standard will draw attention to the ongoing needs for faculty professional development."

While everyone understands the need of any accreditation commission to work with one membership institution at a time, the ACCJC's unwillingness to actively collaborate with local senates and the Academic Senate remains perplexing and stands in sharp contrast with views expressed by Ralph Wolff.

On February 1, 2007, Ralph Wolff spent several hours in conversation with members of the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates (ICAS). ICAS meets every-other-month and is attended by the elected executive members of the statewide senates of each of California's three public higher education segments: CCC, UC, CSU. ICAS had extended its initial invitation to both Beno and Wolff, and it was Wolff who accepted.

Essentially, members of ICAS stated their position that faculty and WASC should work more closely together.

Faculty have primacy in areas that relate directly to serving students and local missions; faculty remain while administrators come and go; faculty are protected by tenure and are therefore free to raise difficult questions and offer minority opinions. Also, it was mentioned that it was largely faculty organizations which conducted the research and provided responses to Secretary of Education Spellings' denunciation of regional accreditation and the full-time professoriate. For those and other reasons (60,000 California community college professors in California, for example), it was suggested that a natural alliance exists between the Commission and faculty. Just as with local governance, faculty believe that the relationship of their statewide senates and councils with WASC should be collegial and advisory. Through such communications, doors could open that move compliance with accreditation to something closer to a partnership in the service of students and local missions.

To the delight those in attendance, Wolff engaged all topics with enthusiasm. He never ducked any issue, nor did he hesitate to explain where he had to place legitimate limitations on what he could and could not say. For example, he was clear that he could not represent the views of the ACCJC, nor would he condemn or defend their actions. He said that while the Senior Commission, (the commission over which he has direct decision making responsibilities) will work with issues that relate to both the ACCJC and the Senior Commission, it will not get involved in the internal politics of the ACCJC. His conversation dealt with accreditation in general and with WASC and the Senior Commission specifically. He added that accreditation has its primary relationship with college presidents, but other than that, he was forthright in his desire to work more closely with faculty senates and to respect our processes of governance in California.

That being said, Wolff expressed a desire for ongoing dialogue with ICAS and asked to be invited back, and ICAS's Chair for this year, Michael Brown, was charged to work with Wolff and arrange future meetings. Wolff made it clear that the Senior Commission needs faculty, not just discipline faculty but those who have extensive committee and senate experience. His expressed hope was to increase the pool of faculty to participate in various aspects of accreditation. When asked if it would be possible to base selections of faculty for visiting teams and seats at the Senior Commission on local and statewide senate recommendations, he was absolute in his agreement and stated that when such selections are made, they are always in consultation with local senates.

ICAS raised the fact that outcomes based assessment fails to address certain issues that matter to faculty. For example, while we conduct SLO research, libraries, labs, computer centers, and other areas remain under-funded-none of which is addressed by the new standards.

Wolff said that current pressure from various presidents and chancellors is to eliminate capacity review all together, a perspective that he continues to resist even as funding for libraries and various services continue to decline.

Wolff also stated his concern for the continuing problem with the increase in use of part-time faculty, particularly as the majority of credit awarded is from courses taught by part-time and contract faculty. His wish is to conduct research to revise data and establish criteria for review of the integration of part-time faculty. Questions for research include if part-time faculty are invited to seminars on assessment. Wolff wants to consider how one creates a standard that gets at such an issue.

As for community college issues, he said that he would address concerns that relate to transfer. He stated that his vision of accreditation is that it is a learning organization, and he wants to include community college faculty in the Senior Commission's annual meeting, a four day conference with breakouts and general sessions in support of educational effectiveness. Interestingly, when asked why community colleges were accredited under different standards than the senior colleges and universities, he said that he could see no good reason for the division. As stated previously, Wolff is enthusiastic in his support for working with local senates, was happy to meet with ICAS, and wants to keep the dialogue going. He made it clear that he fully appreciates that where the community colleges and WASC have common interests, there should be a channel of communication.

Overall, the ACCJC's responses provide some information, but they also suggest in several instances that genuine dialogue is not encouraged. On such topics as establishing a "working relationship" with the State Academic Senate and its member senates, in discussing its "relationship" to our System as a whole, in reviewing its role with regards to bargaining agreements and faculty evaluations, and in its belief that SLOs be included in course outlines of record, the ACCJC responses suggest a communication style wherein it speaks and we comply. What is interesting is how much could be gained by a willingness to think together. In contrast, while listening to Ralph Wolff speak at ICAS, one of my colleagues on the Academic Senate Executive Committee leaned over and whispered, "The difference with Wolff is respect."