United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division
ANTHONY J. TRENGA United States District Judge
Plaintiff Bristol University ("Bristol") challenges the decision of defendant Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools ("ACICS") on March 18, 2016 to deny Bristol's application for renewal of its accreditation. On March 22, 2016, this Court entered a Temporary Restraining Order [Doc. No. 12] requiring ACICS to reinstate Bristol's accreditation, with conditions. On April 13, 2016, the Court held a hearing on Bristol's Motion for Preliminary Injunction [Doc. No. 17], following which it took the matter under advisement. For the reasons stated herein, the Court will preliminarily enjoin ACICS from suspending Bristol's accreditation pursuant to the decision dated March 18, 2016 of ACICS' Review Board or the Council Action dated December 22, 2015; provided, however, that Bristol's accreditation shall remain subject to ACICS' further review, evaluation, and decisions made in accordance with its Accreditation Criteria, applied in a manner consistent with this Memorandum Opinion. This action will also be stayed pending further Order of the Court, upon application of either party.
Founded in 1991, Bristol is an educational institution in Anaheim, California that serves primarily underserved, low income, and international students. It offers one-, two-, and four- year programs in business administration and certificate programs in legal studies and hospitality operations. ACICS is a nonprofit Virginia corporation recognized by the United States Secretary of Education as a national accrediting agency under the Higher Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1001 et seq. In California, where Bristol operates, accreditation is mandatory for an institution of higher education to lawfully operate.
A. The Accreditation Process
When evaluating an institution for accreditation, ACICS conducts on-site visits to ensure compliance with certain criteria called the "Accreditation Criteria, Policies, Procedures, and Standards" (the "Accreditation Criteria"). The accreditation review framework is enumerated in Title II, Chapter 3 of the Accreditation Criteria governing "Council Actions." The overall process is summarized in the Introduction:
When the Council has considered all of the information and reports submitted as a result of the accrediting process, it will make a judgment as to an institution's compliance with the Accreditation Criteria. The Council's decision is based on the extent of an institution's compliance. The judgment made is referred to as a "Council action." The actions which the Council may take are described in this chapter. Procedures available to institutions to challenge those actions and the maximum time frames for achieving final disposition of those actions by the Council also are explained. There are four general areas of Council actions: accreditation granted, accreditation deferred, accreditation denied, and accreditation withdrawn.
If the Council determines that an institution is not in compliance with the Accreditation Criteria, it will take prompt adverse action against the institution, or it will require the institution to take appropriate action to bring itself into compliance with the Accreditation Criteria within a time frame specified by the Council after the institution has been notified that it is not in compliance. That time frame will not exceed the following:
(a) twelve months, if the longest program is less than one year in length;
(b) eighteen months, if the longest program is at least one year, but less than two years in length; and
(c) two years, if the longest program is at least two years in length.
The above time frames may be extended at the sole discretion of the Council for good cause, including evidence that there has been significant improvement in the deficient area(s) and the applicable time frame does not provide sufficient time to demonstrate full compliance, e.g., significant improvement in completion or placement rates.
Sections of Title II, Chapter 3 describe the accreditation process in greater detail, including the procedures to be followed. Specifically, the Council may defer further consideration of an institution's accreditation if it determines that there is not sufficient information to make a decision for that purpose. See § 2-3-200 ("When Council determines there is insufficient evidence available to make a decision, they may defer action until a later date pending receipt of additional information.")- In cases where ACICS defers action, "the Council will provide in writing the reasons for the deferral, state what the institution needs to provide with sufficient time for the institution to respond, and specify the response date." Moreover, "[b]ased on the nature and/or number of identified deficiencies, the Council may require attendance of key administrators at a workshop and/or consultation." Id. § 2-3-210. Because no substantive decision on accreditation is made by way of deferral, the Accreditation Criteria make clear that "[d]eferral is, in effect, 'no action at this time' and is not a negative action." Id.
Once the Council determines that an institution is not in compliance, presumably after the institution has had the opportunity to provide the requested information, the Accreditation Criteria set out a structured progression of requirements that may be imposed on the institution that provide opportunities for the institution to come into compliance. First, the Council will issue a "compliance warning" consisting of the following information and requirements:
The institution will be provided in writing with the areas of noncompliance and will be required to demonstrate ...