By Alex Emslie
Passions are running high as supporters of City College of San Francisco attempt to pressure federal authorities to reverse the school’s loss of accreditation. Hundreds of students, staff and others marched to the local U.S. Department of Education offices Tuesday to protest the decision.
The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges formally revoked City College’s accreditation last week, but the decision will not take effect until July 2014, after a review and appeal process. City College staff and administrators have scrambled to get on better financial footing, streamline decision-making and better track student outcomes since the commission slapped the school with its most serious sanction a year ago.
“We didn’t agree with all the recommendations,” City College Trustee Chris Jackson said. “Some we agreed with, some we didn’t. But we all united around the fact that we wanted our college to stay accredited and open, so we gritted our teeth and did it. And now to see that none of it really mattered – I think that’s the jarring part.”
If City College’s loss of accreditation becomes final, it would disrupt the school’s funding and mean an end to federal financial aid for students. Credit for classes would no longer transfer to other accredited universities. Theoretically, the college could be absorbed by another neighboring district, but its size makes that option improbable. Therefore, losing accreditation would likely mean one of the largest public education institutions in the nation would close, and some 85,000 students would be displaced.
Jackson and City College’s other elected trustees were stripped of all governance power Monday when the chancellor of California Community Colleges, Brice Harris, and the board of governors transferred oversight to a state-appointed special trustee, Robert Agrella, who has been advising the college since the accreditation crisis began.
“Special Trustee Bob Agrella gets paid $1,000 a day,” City College Student Trustee Shanell Williams said. “He’s been with our college since we first heard of the accreditation. But what has he done to help the college?”
Argella did not return calls or emails seeking comment, but Harris said the “extraordinary powers” granted to the special trustee were necessary to reform City College before next July.
“This allows, I think, for a single individual with a real clarity of focus to get an awful lot of changes made in a very short period of time,” Harris said. He added that finding a permanent replacement for interim City College Chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman is a high priority for the school’s new leadership.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano voiced an angry view of the state and accrediting commission’s actions.
“They have not the right to say to us that the people we elected, whether we love them or not, are not our representatives,” he told the crowd outside the Department of Education. “That is tyranny. That encourages a revolution here in San Francisco.”
Federal intervention is possible, although the Department of Education has made no public steps challenging the ACCJC’s authority. The accrediting commission is itself up for review by the department late this year. The California Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 filed a complaint against the commission with federal authorities in late April, alleging conflicts of interest and abuses of authority.
A Department of Education spokeswoman confirmed that the ACCJC was directed to respond to the complaint by July 8, but she did not confirm by press time whether the department had actually received a response.
State Chancellor Harris said colleges in other parts of the country have gone through similar periods of widespread sanctions, and he doesn’t believe the ACCJC is running wild. State intervention, he said, is intended to save the school, not “preside over its closure” or force the college to “turn its back on the populations that need it the most.”
“It won’t surprise me if there is a narrowing of some of the options that the college is currently able to provide simply to ensure that at some point the college’s expenses line up with their revenues,” Harris said.
John Rizzo, the now powerless president of the City College Board of Trustees, said the school had a plan to fully fund reserves for nine years.
“City College is really in a fiscally good place,” he said. “The books are balanced. There’s extra money for a fully funded, ample reserve. These liabilities are being paid back. There’s no charges or allegations of corruption, no defaulting of payments or loans, nothing like that.”
Jackson, Ammiano and others at the rally no longer think accreditation is about standards at City College. They believe a national political battle about public education is playing out in San Francisco.
“We do not want their vision,” Jackson said. “This is not a fiscal fight anymore. This is not even a governance fight anymore. This is a policy and a political fight. We want to value classes and students and our teachers and our faculty. ACCJC wants us to value our reserves and to value administrators.”