Responding to a complaint from the South Orange County Community College District, the federal government said the agency that accredits two-year schools in California must tighten its conflict-of-interest policies and better train its evaluators.
Officials of the embattled district said Monday that the findings vindicated their position that the work of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, was biased against them.
Karen Kershenstein, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Accreditation and State Liaison, said her office did not look into the substance of the allegations, only checked if the process was carried out correctly.
"We evaluated how the agency reviewed the schools for compliance with the accrediting agency's standards and found they did a very thorough job of evaluating the school," Kershenstein said.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 19, 2000 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Education official: A May 9 story incorrectly identified the executive director of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges. His name is David B. Wolf.
Last year, the Accrediting Commission placed the district on "warning status" and called it "wracked by malfunction." In February, however, the commission seemingly reversed itself and accredited the district's two schools, Irvine Valley and Saddleback colleges, for six years.
Loss of accreditation can cause a school to lose federal grants and hurt students' ability to transfer credits to four-year schools. The accreditation panel evaluates 138 schools in California, Hawaii and the Western Pacific Islands.
Much of the accreditation panel's concern was the continuing battle at Irvine Valley between the administration and faculty. The fighting has resulted in several lawsuits, with the college and its administrators losing some cases and being ordered to pay six-figures-worth of attorneys' fees.
While colleges and individuals have complained about accreditation to the Department of Education before, this was the first time an entire district had taken its case to the federal government.
In their complaint, community college district officials pointed to the role of San Diego Mesa College President Constance Carroll, chairwoman of the panel that imposed the warning status. District officials said that Carroll, president of Saddleback for the decade ending 1993, should have recused herself.
Kershenstein said the Accreditation and State Liaison office did not investigate Carroll's actions to determine what stands she had taken. But the agency's report said that "there were sufficient facts to give rise to an appearance of a conflict of interest." At a minimum, the report said, the agency should have investigated whether a conflict or an appearance of one existed.
Nancy Padberg, president of the South Orange County district's trustees, said the district is considering a lawsuit against Carroll for violation of a nondisclosure clause signed when she left Saddleback.
John Williams, another member of the district board, said many of the body's allegations were difficult to prove because the accrediting commission does not make its documents public. David Fox, executive director of the accrediting commission, could not be reached for comment Monday.