COVER STORY: Mission Control
Photo Courtesy CCSF
The City College of San Francisco is the largest in California and among the biggest in the country.
C O V E R S T O R Y
Accreditation Crisis Spotlights Colleges’ Changing Role
Paul Bradley, Editor, Community College Week
Can a college which prides itself in embodying the essence of the community college mission – openness, access, diversity and opportunity – thrive, or even survive, in a current era of heightened higher education accountability and rapid government disinvestment?
That query ultimately will be answered in the coming days and months as CCSF staves off a crisis that could, at least theoretically, result in the 77-year-old college — the largest institution of higher education in the country’s largest state — losing its accreditation and closing its doors.
By now, most community college advocates know the contours of what is unfolding in San Francisco. In June, in a move which captured national headlines, CCSF was ordered by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges to show why its accreditation should not be revoked.
It was the gravest sanction the commission could have issued, short of actually yanking the college’s accreditation. The commission skipped over the warning and probation stages that usually precede show cause findings, confounding some observers. If the college loses its accreditation, neither the school nor its students would be eligible for critical state and federal financial aid programs.
A commission report praised the college for its student-centered approach and commitment to diversity, but also rebuked the college for poor fiscal stewardship, a lack of adequate student tracking and program review and a glacial style of democratic governance. The report listed 14 recommendations (see related story, page 7) and gave the college until Oct. 15 to show meaningful progress toward addressing each and every one. The college has until March 15, 2013, to submit two other documents: a full response to the accreditation report and a plan showing how the college would shut down should accreditation be revoked.
But underneath the bureaucratic admonitions is a struggle for both the soul of the college and the mission of the larger community college movement. The conflict is rooted in the recession-fueled financial crisis afflicting all community colleges in California; since 2008, the state had reduced spending on community colleges by more than $800 million. CCSF has lost $40 million in state funding over the last four years. The report said the college has done a poor job of adjusting to its new fiscal realities.
“The report shows that clear, difficult choices must be made, immediately, and at a number of levels,” Interim Chancellor Pamila Fisher wrote in a formal response to the commission report. “The ultimate responsibility rests with the trustees, administration, faculty and staff to reinvent City College so that it can continue to achieve its important mission, but in a more cost-effective and efficient way.”
The commission report puts the challenge facing the college this way: “While CCSF recognizes in its institutional self-evaluation that ‘lack of adequate state support during recent years has led to annual budgets that do not provide adequate resources to meet the needs of the college’s current enrollment,’ the college has not demonstrated the will to reexamine the scope of the college’s mission and supporting operations to decide the scope or level of programs and services that can be provided within the limits of its actual financial resources. While the comprehensive budget planning system set priorities for educational improvements, there is no process to reduce the scope of programs and services provided across the service area based on a reduction in funding.
“The lack of self examination and failure to react to ongoing reduced funding has caused the institution to reach a financial breaking point.”
College officials emphatically vow that CCSF — with nine campuses, 200 neighborhood educational sites, an enrollment of more than 90,000 and a place deep in the culture of the city — will not close.
“The scope of the work we must do is so ambitious that it amounts to another self-study, which we did last year,” said Larry Kamer, a crisis management expert hired by CCSF to act as spokesman. “But we are going to get this work done. We are not going to allow City College to close.”
The accreditation crisis has touched off an all-hands-on-deck response effort at the college. Fisher moved into a smaller office and transformed her former office into an accreditation response headquarters. Work groups made up of up to a dozen students, faculty and staff have been formed to address each of the commission’s recommendations. Commission staffers have conducted workshops to help the work groups complete their tasks.
The state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team has been dispatched to San Francisco to help the college manage its new fiscal reality.
Faculty members have cancelled summer vacations to be part of the process. The college’s 2012-13 budget is in balance, in part through pay cuts and givebacks from employees and the elimination of some 700 courses.
“We’re very concerned,” said Karen Saginor, a CCSF librarian and president of the college’s Academic Senate. “We are doing all we can do, and we’ll continue to do so. We were surprised. We expected to get a sanction. But we never expected to go from no sanction to show cause.”
“But people are stepping up. City College is deeply committed to the city and the city is deeply committed to the college.”
For CCSF, the stakes are high. Founded in 1935 during the depths of the Great Depression as a vocational arm of San Francisco Unified School District, CCSF became a separate community college in 1970. Today, the college offers 66 associate degrees, 125 credit certificate programs, 84 noncredit certificates and other certificates of accomplishment. It serves students preparing to transfer to four-year universities as well as those looking for additional training to advance in the workforce.
CCSF also provides adult education, dual enrollment programs for at-risk high school students. A majority of the students served by CCSF are minorities — more than 30 percent are Asian, 21 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are black.
In addition, more than half of the 90,000-plus students enrolled at City College are there part-time, taking non-credit and non-degree bearing certificate programs that range from ESL to computer skills.
Whether the college can continue to offer a full array of courses is at the center of the accreditation debate. Even as funding has been shrinking, California community college leaders are prodding colleges to reform, based on the recommendations of the state’s Student Success Task Force.
After a year of study and public hearings, the task force and the state college governing board are stressing positive student outcomes over unfettered access.
For colleges like CCSF, “it’s kind of a perfect storm,” said Alisa Messer, a CCSF developmental English instructor and president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
“On one hand, you have the systemic defunding of colleges, and at the same time different measures of success. Our sense is that in reframing the mission of colleges, there’s an insistence of moving people through quickly.
“That’s an important thing to do, so students can meet their academic goals. My concern is that we’ll have a narrowing of access. We won’t be able to help the students who really need the help. We’ll be focusing on students who are the sure things. I think City College is about the students who need a second, third or fourth chance. They’re not covered under the new metrics. They need extra time and support….you’re narrowing the pathways.”
Fisher, the interim chancellor, insists that some fundamental changes are on the way as the college tries to balance its mission with fiscal restraints.
“The CCSF community will need to implement dramatic systemic changes,” she wrote in her response to the commission. “CCSF currently spends 92 percent of its budget on personnel costs, placing it at the very highest end of the state’s community colleges. Reducing this number, to allow funding of the other critical needs identified in the Accreditation Report, is central to a meaningful resolution of the college’s fiscal crisis. Equally as important, the college will need to reexamine the effectiveness of its shared governance and decision-making process, including appropriate roles for trustees, faculty, administration, staff, and students. Additionally, we will need to continue to improve our integrated planning and focus on student outcomes.”
Fisher is among those who vow that the college will not close. Messer agrees.
“We are not going to let that happen,” she said. “One of the silver linings of this is we are finding out in profound ways how many people the college has touched. I really believe it has improved lives. We don’t think that success and access are mutually exclusive. We think you can have both.”
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