Late on the afternoon of July 3, as San Franciscans were preparing for a four-day holiday weekend, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits two-year institutions in California, dropped a bombshell. The commission announced that it was revoking its accreditation of City College of San Francisco (CCSF), effective July 2014. Because non-accredited institutions may not receive public funds, this decision, if not rescinded, will compel CCSF, with 85,000 current students and eleven campuses and sites, to close its doors, leaving more than 2,700 faculty and staff without employment and the city of San Francisco without a public community college. CCSF would be the largest US institution ever to lose its accreditation.
What happened to produce such a dramatic decision? First, it’s important to clarify what hasn’t happened. ACCJC has not questioned the quality of the education offered at CCSF. Yes, you read that correctly. In fact, there is considerable evidence that education at CCSF is not only sound but in many respects even exemplary. Data from the state’s community college system shows that CCSF almost uniformly scores better than most other community colleges in the state on common metrics. For students deemed unprepared for college, the completion rate at CCSF is one of the five best among California’s 112 community colleges. And CCSF graduates are more likely to succeed at four-year institutions than the typical California community college alum.
CCSF is virtually unique among community colleges in its commitment to rely on tenure-track faculty for as much of its teaching as possible. Sadly, this has somehow been seen as a fault by many commentators, including the administrator-heavy ACCJC accrediting team. Part-time contingent faculty at CCSF tend to be compensated more fairly than at comparable institutions and enjoy greater reappointment rights. All these practices help CCSF maintain a sound educational environment, and contribute to its above-average results.
ACCJC’s concerns were not really about education, but about finances, administration and assessment.
With respect to finances, CCSF, like all higher education institutions in California, has faced daunting challenges. In the last few years it has been hit with budget cuts amounting to $53 million at an institution with an annual budget of about $200 million.
At a December 2011 board meeting, then-Chancellor Don Griffin described the college’s chosen response: “We’re going to concentrate the money on the students,” Griffin said. Some call for deep cuts in classes, but, he said, “We don’t believe in that. Cut the other stuff first, cut it until it hurts, and then talk about cutting classes.”
In a July 2012 report, the ACCJC found CCSF deficient in 14 areas, and issued a “show cause” order – the most serious sanction short of withdrawing accreditation. “The commission gave the college credit for a committed, student-centered faculty and high-quality libraries and counseling, but said the college’s governance, planning and leadership were inefficient,” labor reporter David Bacon wrote in the California Federation of Teachers’ community college magazine. “The unions and previous chancellors had avoided layoffs through temporary concessions. But the ACCJC said there had not been enough cuts or cancelled classes, that too much (92%) of the budget was spent on personnel, and that too few administrators were on staff. In other words, CCSF was faulted for keeping the cuts away from the classroom.”
As CCSF Trustee Chris Jackson wrote in 2012, “The commission is asking City College to shrink its mission of providing a high quality, affordable education to all who come to its doors. The ACCJC wants City College to step away from its San Francisco value of ‘chopping from the top’ – cutting administration instead of teachers.”
“We will not apologize for resisting the downsizing of our students’ educations, for saving jobs, and for protecting educational programs that benefit...our most vulnerable students,” Alisa Messer, an English instructor at CCSF and president of AFT Local 2121, said in July of this year.
Community colleges in California have multiple missions. In addition to helping students earn terminal degrees in important fields like nursing, they prepare many students for transfer to four-year institutions. They also provide vocational training and non-credit-bearing courses for continuing adult education – the latter including English as a Second Language and citizenship courses for California’s many new immigrants.
In the wake of huge state budget cuts, CCSF sought ways to sustain all these missions. The college had already committed to building a network of off-campus centers, which offered mainly non-credit courses. These are extremely popular in the community, but can be costly to maintain and staff and it was difficult to retrench on this front just as new facilities, planned before the financial crisis, were opening. Administrators were thus compelled to dip into reserves, and at the time of ACCJC’s initial review CCSF’s financial picture was troubled – albeit far from what AAUP would categorize as financial exigency.
But the electorate responded. California voters in November passed Proposition 30, which began to restore needed state funding to public higher education. That election also saw the passage in San Francisco, with 73% support, of Proposition A, which enacted a property tax generating $16 million a year for CCSF. The college may not be fully out of the financial woods, but its situation is vastly improved.
“The San Francisco City College district is financially secure,” wrote CCSF Board of Trustees President John Rizzo. “This year’s audit was ‘clean’ and the budget is balanced, thanks to multiple cost-saving reorganizations [and] large spending cuts.” City College now “has a healthy reserve fund well above that of state requirements,” he added. City College is also increasing spending in areas that ACCJC wanted, such as $3 million a year for new technology and building maintenance.
Finances are linked to the question of administration, and ACCJC has faulted CCSF for how cuts have been made. “The college had more than 70 [top] administrators before 2008, and it now has fewer than 40,” according to the SF Bay Guardian. Given the usual response of administrators to financial stress, this is not only quite admirable, it’s astonishing. Faculty at other institutions, who work under a seemingly metastasizing array of vice-presidents, associate and assistant vice-presidents, deans, deanlings, and deanlets, may read this and shout, “Hallelujah!”
And in fact CCSF has been not so much under-administered as it has been at times poorly administered. It’s questionable whether administration and trustees have always handled the pressures facing the school as well as they might. One problem CCSF faced during its accreditation review was that Griffin, its respected and popular chancellor, suffered a brain tumor in the middle of the process. For some time, the institution’s response to the review was therefore leaderless and mismanaged.
But quality or effectiveness of administration does not appear to be ACCJC’s true concern. Instead, they seem to fault CCSF’s system of shared governance, its powerful department structures and academic senate, and most of all its faculty and staff unions. ACCJC seems to think the strength of these faculty groups means that the inmates are running the asylum. But to most faculty, it means that educators, not itinerant managers and privatizing trustees, are in charge – at least in the sphere of curriculum and academic standards.
To be sure, shared governance can be messy. But overall, shared governance at CCSF has been effective: the school’s completion rates and other measures testify to that. Whatever disagreements they may have among themselves, CCSF faculty get to choose their representatives democratically. And in the main they have supported those representatives.
In fact, the ACCJC seems somewhat allergic to democracy. In April, an ACCJC visiting team warned CCSF Trustee Rafael Mandelman about an op-ed he wrote that was critical of the commission. Their message, Mandelman told the SF Chronicle, “was that my piece was a troubling violation of the accrediting standard that the trustees speak with one voice.” Mandelman was amazed. “I don’t think accreditation requires elected officials to give up their First Amendment rights,” he said. “And if that’s what the standards require, there’s a problem with the standards.”
A major part of the ACCJC’s critique of CCSF has to do with assessment. California’s community colleges have seen the growth of elaborate Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) for each course and program. (At CUNY, the heavy emphasis on SLOs in the administration’s Pathways curriculum is one of the many sources of its unpopularity.) Apparently CCSF had lagged somewhat in institutionalizing such a system of assessment. But in the past year, much progress in meeting the ACCJC’s demands on SLOs has reportedly been made.
Unfortunately, progress is not enough for the ACCJC. “To the commission...a college is either in compliance with its accrediting standards or it is not,” the SF Chronicle reported. “There is little in-between.”
One reason ACCJC seems deaf to faculty concerns is that it does not appear to involve faculty adequately in its work. The AAUP has stated that “appraisal of the academic program should be largely the responsibility of faculty members.” Faculty, the AAUP has stressed, should be well represented on visiting accreditation teams and should be responsible for assessing curricular matters at institutions they visit. Yet of the 17 review team members who visited CCSF, 13 were active or retired college administrators, 1 was a trustee, and only 3 were faculty.
The California Federation of Teachers (CFT) reports that at community colleges across the state, there is a “widely shared perception that the people at the top levels of the ACCJC are vindictive and vengeful, and are believed to have bumped sanction recommendations...up to higher levels ‘to teach people a lesson.’” In private, professors note that ACCJC Chairperson Sherrill Amador was the subject of a faculty “no-confidence” vote when she headed Palomar College.
SF Bay Guardian reporter Joe Fitzgerald quotes ACCJC President Barbara Beno as saying that pressure from the US Department of Education is the source of her commission’s hard line. That statement could be viewed as self-serving, and the CFT charges that the ACCJC is a “rogue agency,” severely out of step with other accrediting bodies.
Some 25% of California community colleges are now on some sort of sanction by ACCJC. Although ACCJC oversees just 5% of US community colleges, some 35% of US two-year institutions on sanction have been placed in that status by ACCJC.
In April, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) filed a complaint with the US Department of Education questioning ACCJC’s impartiality and its compliance with its own policies as well as state and federal law, and challenging the ACCJC’s treatment of CCSF and all California community colleges. Meanwhile students, faculty and staff are mobilizing to demand that the school remain open, and are pressing San Francisco politicians to take action.
Certainly if the ACCJC follows through on its decision with respect to CCSF, they will only be hurting the very students they are supposed to serve.
Hank Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, and first vice president of the AAUP. Peter Hogness is editor of Clarion. Another version of this article was published July 8 at academeblog.org. For a PSC solidarity statement on CCSF and more info on the crisis, go to psc-cuny.org/CCSF-info.