The crisis at City College of San Francisco

August 23, 2012

City College of San Francisco, one of the largest and most accessible community colleges in the United States, has been threatened with loss of its accreditation--which could lead to loss of access to federal financial aid and likely closure or outside takeover.

The action taken by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges gives City College of San Francisco approximately eight months to respond to a series of financial and administrative problems identified by the accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

With more than 90,000 students, 12 campuses and hundreds of instructional sites, the loss of City College would be potentially catastrophic for public higher education in San Francisco and Northern California.

Alex Schmaus reports on what the loss of accreditation would mean for the bulk of City College's working-class students, faculty and staff.

THE CITY College of San Francisco is currently facing the threat of losing its accreditation--a potential catastrophe for public higher education in San Francisco.

The private organization threatening to close City College--the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges--is itself a threat to equity, democracy and justice. And Dr. Sherrill Amador, the chair of the commission, has a controversial past herself.

Amador resigned from her post as president of Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif., after faculty and staff issued no-confidence votes against her during union contract negotiations in 2003.

Palomar College Trustee Nancy Chadwick told the San Diego Union-Tribune at the time that "the major issue was a lack of communication between the president's office and constituents --an attitude of unilateral kind of authoritarianism."

Not surprisingly, then, the commission's report threatens City College workers with demands that City College "reduce the percentage of its annual budget that is utilized for salaries and benefits; and address funding for retiree health benefits costs."

City College of San Francisco's Mission Campus
City College of San Francisco's Mission Campus

The 17-member team sent by the commission last March to evaluate City College was packed with administrators--it included only three faculty, one elected trustee, zero staff and zero students.

Their report essentially complains that shared governance--which allows students, staff and faculty to shape college policy on issues such as sexual harassment, diversity and grading--engenders excessive democracy and insufficient authoritarianism. Accordingly, the evaluation team writes that "there exists a veil of distrust among the governance groups that manifests itself as an indirect resistance to board and administrative decision-making authority."

CITY COLLEGE certainly has problems, such as Sacramento's diminishing commitment to provide adequate funding, but I believe the college can only benefit from a broadening and deepening of democratic governance.

Upper-tier administrators, however, are not promoting democracy as a solution.

Interim Chancellor Pamila Fisher, who is leading the accreditation response workgroup tasked with drafting a new mission statement, appears to be maneuvering in such a way as to circumvent meaningful student input.

A draft of proposed changes indicates that the workgroup aims to eliminate vital elements of the college mission, such as "active engagement in the civic and social fabric of the community, citizenship preparation, promotion of economic development and job growth, lifelong learning, life skills and cultural enrichment."

Associated Students Council President Shanell Williams, who is officially listed as one of two students in the workgroup, said most of the work was done before she had a chance to contribute. "I am signed up for this committee and the draft is already completed, how can you call for student input if the guiding committee is already completed?" Williams said.

Accreditation Liaison Officer Gohar Momjian said that because the mission statement workgroup "needed to be is true that by the time (Williams) joined the workgroup, the bulk of the work had been done."

The history of accreditation is in the United States, however, is rooted in racism. New York City Teacher Brian Jones writes in Education and Capitalism that accreditation was devised during old Jim Crow-days as a "technique to limit Black higher education."

A national accreditation system began taking shape in the early 1900s that required colleges and universities to have certain financial resources and facilities--a system that shut out many Black institutions and favored those supported by white philanthropy.

Thus, "schools that were independent, Black-financed institutions were almost always denied accreditation, while those favored by (white) philanthropists had the means to pass."

These grievances with the accreditation commission and the chancellor should raise a question, do we really have to play by these rankling rules, or can we make up our own?

First published in the Guardsman.

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