What happened at City College of San Francisco?

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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 Because non-accredited institutions may not receive public funds, this decision, if not rescinded, will compel CCSF, with 85,000 current students and eleven campuses and sites, to close its doors, leaving more than 2,700 faculty and staff without employment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 U.S. 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. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to suggest that educationally CCSF is not only sound but in many respects even exemplary. According to data posted by the Chancellor’s Office of the California Community Colleges, on the most commonly cited metrics for community college student success, including transfer and completion rates, CCSF almost uniformly scores better than most other community colleges in the state. And CCSF graduates tend to succeed at four-year institutions as well as or better than the typical California community college alum.

It also should be noted that 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 been seen as somehow a fault by many commentators, including the administrator-heavy ACCJC accrediting team. Moreover, part-time contingent faculty at CCSF tend to be compensated more fairly than at comparable institutions and enjoy greater reappointment rights than commonly found in higher education generally. Part-time working conditions, which, after all, are student learning conditions, also tend to be much better at CCSF. These all surely contribute to a positive educational environment.

No, ACCJC’s concerns were not really about education but about finances, administration, and assessment.

With respect to finances, CCSF has, like all higher education institutions in California, faced daunting challenges and, to be sure, it’s questionable whether their administration and their trustees have handled these as well as they might. Community colleges in California have multiple missions. They are charged with preparing large numbers of students for transfer to four-year institutions, mainly the University of California and the California State University. They also are charged with producing terminal degrees in important fields like nursing and with providing vocational training. The community colleges are also supposed to offer advanced placement credits for high school students and non-credit-bearing courses for continuing adult education, including, importantly, English as a Second Language and citizenship courses for California’s many new immigrants from Asia and Latin America, who are especially numerous in San Francisco.

In the wake of huge state budget cuts amounting over several years to $53 million to an institution with an annual budget of $200 million, CCSF sought ways to sustain all these missions. The college had already committed to building what some called extravagant 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 in that area just as new facilities, planned before the financial crisis, were opening. With respect to credit-bearing programs, CCSF tried to limit cuts to the instructional budget, deciding instead to trim the administration. Given the usual response of administrators to financial stress, this was not only quite admirable, it’s astonishing. Unfortunately, to do this administrators were compelled to dip into reserves and there can be little doubt that 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 CCSF’s faculty and staff as well as the electorate responded. Faculty and staff unions agreed to significant reductions in compensation. California voters in November passed Proposition 30, which began to restore needed state funding to public higher education. That election also saw passage in San Francisco, with 73% support, of Proposition A, which enacted a parcel tax that will generate approximately $16 million per year for eight years for CCSF. As a result, CCSF may not be fully out of the financial woods yet, but the situation is vastly improved. Certainly an imminent closure is hardly a solution and the threat of it will no doubt exacerbate remaining problems.

Then there’s the question of administration. ACCJC’s position has been characterized in the media as charging that CCSF has “too few administrators.” To that claim faculty at most institutions, who work under a seemingly metastasizing array of vice-presidents, associate and assistant vice-presidents, deans, deanlings, and deanlets, might shout, “Hallelujah!” But the reality is that CCSF is less underadministered than it has sometimes been poorly administered. This does not seem to be ACCJC’s main concern, however. 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. ACCJC’s charge that “some faculty feel strong pressure, even intimidation, to defer to designated faculty leaders even when they feel that a different approach should be considered” may well reflect some degree of truth. Imagine, a faculty of thousands where not everyone agrees! It’s more shocking than gambling at Rick’s! But shared governance at CCSF is effective. The fact is 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.

One problem CCSF faced during its accreditation review was that its respected and popular president 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. However, since ACCJC placed CCSF on sanction a year ago faculty and staff have worked tirelessly through their shared governance institutions to address the various areas of concern defined by the accrediting team. And the campus consensus is that they’ve made significant progress. The irony here is that ACCJC has faulted the faculty and staff and their governance and union institutions for the failure of the administration to adequately perform its own job. And when faculty and staff now step into the breach, well, it’s too little, too late, and “too few administrators!”

Which brings us to assessment. Now, to be honest, it seems that California’s community college faculties have, by and large, embraced the assessment agenda with more enthusiasm than I, for one, could muster. Elaborate student learning outcomes for each course and program are more common than, say, in the Cal State system where I teach. (When asked to add a student learning outcome for “content” to my own course on the history of the Soviet Union, I offered the following: “Students in this class will know a lot more about the history of the Soviet Union at the end of the course than they did at the start.” And I proposed to assess this outcome by administering identical “final” exams on both the first and final days of class.) Apparently CCSF has lagged somewhat in institutionalizing such a system of assessment. However, yet again, since CCSF was placed on sanction much progress has reportedly been made. But ACCJC is not really concerned about the results of assessments of learning. They just want evidence that there is an assessment program, whether or not it’s useful. Moreover, is it unreasonable to be skeptical about the ostensible virtues of the assessment regime? And why should community college faculty be held to standards of assessment that are not applied by accreditors to four-year institutions in the same state to which their students transfer? Isn’t it the job of faculty to educate and of accreditors to assess? Apparently ACCJC not only faults CCSF faculty for the failures of their administration but wants faculty to take on the very task of assessment that ultimately is supposed to be ACCJC’s responsibility!

One reason ACCJC seems deaf to faculty concerns and dismissive of faculty efforts is that it does not seem to involve faculty adequately in its work. In its 1968 statement on “The Role of the Faculty in the Accrediting of Colleges and Universities” AAUP declared that “the appraisal of the academic program should be largely the responsibility of faculty members.” Faculty, the Association has repeatedly stressed ever since, should be well represented on visiting accreditation teams and should be responsible for assessing curricular matters at institutions they visit. Yet of the seventeen review team members who visited CCSF, thirteen were active or retired college administrators, one was a trustee, and only three were faculty.

In April, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) questioning ACCJC’s impartiality and its compliance with its own policies as well as state and federal law. The union argues that the accrediting agency lacks transparency and violates or inconsistently applies its own standards, calling into question the ACCJC’s treatment of CCSF and all California community colleges. CFT, it would appear, is not alone. In 2010, the ACCJC received a unanimous vote of “no confidence” from the California Community College Independents, a coalition of independent faculty unions representing some 25% of California community college faculty.

And dissatisfaction with ACCJC may not be limited to faculty. In 2009, a task force of faculty, administrators, staff, students and trustees convened by former California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott offered recommendations for improvement to ACCJC. One suggestion was to “work more cooperatively to have accreditation result in improvement rather than compliance.” Another was to broaden the composition of the accreditation review teams and a third was to “scale accreditation expectations” to those of other agencies, presumably referring to the abnormally high sanction rates. ACCJC essentially rejected all recommendations.

Some 25% of California community colleges are now on some sort of sanction by ACCJC. Although ACCJC oversees just 5% of U.S. community colleges, some 35% of U.S. two-year institutions on sanction have been placed in that status by ACCJC. Does this mean that California’s community colleges are in worse shape than similar institutions in the rest of the country? Perhaps. But isn’t it more likely that ACCJC has simply overreached? Certainly if they follow through on their decision with respect to CCSF they will only be hurting the very students and potential students they should be serving.

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