MORAGA -- Concerned about "the appearance of racism and discrimination" at St. Mary's College, accreditors have threatened to sanction the school if it does not reduce incivility on campus.

Accreditors were alarmed by the school's lack of progress on racial issues, the president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges said in a letter to St. Mary's leaders made public this week. The commission first asked St. Mary's to improve in 1990 and re-emphasized its concerns in 2004.

"After some two decades of discussion and planning ... the commission is deeply concerned that there is so little evidence of tangible results," Ralph Wolff wrote to Brother Ronald Gallagher, the president of the Catholic school. "The matter now needs to be seen as urgent, requiring immediate attention and moving beyond words and future plans."

Although the commission credited St. Mary's leaders with discussing race issues among themselves, Wolff said actions had not gone beyond "the level of brainstorming." The school needs to quickly develop a plan for reducing racism and sexism on campus, he said.

The details of the concerns remained a mystery. A scattering of students interviewed Wednesday generally had no adverse experiences to report, although two top campus leaders accepted the commission's rebuke.

"The criticisms aren't anything we didn't expect," Gallagher said. "I think (the report) is really going to help us go where we want to go." The threatened sanction will add to the school's momentum for change, he said.

The commission, the primary accrediting body for California colleges, also noted an "increasing and sustained lack of civility" on the Moraga campus. Without mentioning specific incidents, a longer report accompanying Wolff's letter urged administrators to take immediate steps or risk the college's accreditation.

"There is evidence that a significant proportion of the St. Mary's community does not feel respected and has been subjected to behaviors that are unacceptable," the report said, recommending that the college hire a consultant to help improve relations.

The report gave no specific instances to support this allegation.

Among the college's most promising measures, Gallagher said, was the recent hiring of Provost Beth Dobkin, who was credited with improving race relations at her previous school, the University of San Diego. Dobkin, who arrived on the Moraga campus in February, said she has been encouraged by St. Mary's commitment to improving itself.

"St. Mary's has, in fits and starts, done quite a bit," she said. "But I think the WASC report is a call to attention."

Dobkin and others theorized that St. Mary's students, who are encouraged to speak their minds, may be offended by some of their peers' comments. But students of several races said Wednesday that they had not encountered racism, at least not verbally.

"At first, people shy away from you," said Christian Freeman, an African-American sophomore from Berkeley. "I felt it was because I was a minority, but I'm not 100 percent sure."

Some students said they appreciated the school's diversity. Just over half of St. Mary's 3,700 students are white.

"We're not Berkeley; there's not every nationality represented," said junior Taylor Warner. "But, for a small school, we're pretty diverse."

In an interview, Wolff said St. Mary's -- which prides itself on enrolling minorities and low-income students -- needs to do a better job helping its students feel welcome.

"The college has made a very strong statement in support of diversity," he said. "We just want to make sure their actions back that up."

Fifty-six percent of St. Mary's African-American students graduate, according to college statistics, compared with 70 percent of white students and about two-thirds of all students. And nearly a quarter of last year's freshman class did not return to St. Mary's this year, a startling bump from the usual 15 percent attrition rate.

Although the accreditors' report was short on examples of the school's problems, it cited campus surveys revealing concerns over sexual and racial discrimination. Dobkin also acknowledged that minority professors are asked to serve on race- and diversity-focused committees more often than white colleagues, which contributes to feelings of discrimination.

Biology professor Carla Bossard, chairwoman of the college's Academic Senate, said she had nearly turned down the St. Mary's job after visiting the campus 17 years ago because of the homogeneity.

"The student body looked like they had been made by cookie cutters," she said, noting that diversity has improved dramatically since then. "It was frightening."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or mkrupnick@bayareanewsgroup.com.