Special Trustee Agrella: 'Cooperation' Key to Save SF City College

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SAN FRANCISCO – Members of the media and public packed a room Tuesday to hear what Special Trustee Robert Agrella, entrusted with saving City College of San Francisco (CCSF), had to say about the future of the school that is in the midst of a fight to keep its accreditation.

The Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) threatened to yank the college’s accreditation in a year if it didn’t implement reforms to fix financial and administrative problems. The school’s accreditation status was put into limbo, creating a state of uncertainty for thousands of students.

Agrella reassured students that City College would fulfill its obligations.

If you’re 75 percent through your program of study at City College of San Francisco, then don’t worry, he said, adding that the school will “teach you out,” meaning you will graduate with an accredited degree.

It’s less clear what will happen to tens of thousands of students who aren’t as far along. “We must find ways for those students to transfer and keep their records,” said Agrella, who was given all the decision-making authority of City College’s elected Board of Trustees by a state oversight body.

Doing that will be difficult. With some 75,000 credit and non-credit students, CCSF is one of the nation’s largest community colleges, and its closure would be an unprecedented step. Even Agrella admits neighboring colleges, while certainly aware of CCSF’s troubles, “aren’t prepared to absorb the impact.”

The issue is one of a number of questions the school must address in its closure plan, which outlines a set of steps CCSF will take for faculty, staff and students in the event that it does lose its accreditation next July.

An informal poll of 123 students put out last week by San Francisco Magazine showed some 42 percent did not know what they would do if the school closed. More than 80 percent said closing the school would hurt the entire Bay Area. But Agrella is adamant that won’t come to pass. “This is all supposition,” he said, “[because] none of this is going to happen.”

The U.S. Dept. of Education steps in

The accrediting commission’s decision was called into question last week by the U.S. Department of Education, which cited the commission for irregularities, including conflicts of interest and a lack of clarity in its handling of the evaluation. The federal investigation was prompted by a 300-page complaint filed by The American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 that raised doubts about the integrity of the review process.

While everyone at CCSF is in agreement over the need to keep the school open, there are sharp differences over just how to do that. The union and other groups say the Department of Education’s findings show the need to take the commission head on, though Agrella insists the school must still meet the ACCJC’s requirements, and that in order to do so cooperation within the college community and with the commission is needed.

“I strongly believe that the best path to maintaining CCSF’s accreditation is to follow the Commission’s rules, regulations, and directions and to continue to show substantial progress toward meeting the eligibility requirements and standards,” Agrella wrote in an open letter to the college community on Monday.

Tarik Farrar teaches African American Studies and anthropology at CCSF. He was at a rally Tuesday in front of City Hall carrying an AFT 2121 banner. Speaking over chants of “Save City College,” Farrar agreed with Agrella. “Cooperation is important,” he said. But, he added, the problem is that from day one, the “attitude of the current administration has been ‘We say jump, you say how high.’”

Farrar says the school’s new administration, many of whom have been with CCSF for only a short time, has shunned input from faculty. “Because they didn’t cooperate, they made decisions that were … detrimental to the school.”

Implementing reforms

News emerged Wednesday that the administration had broken off contract negotiations with the union, highlighting their differences. In a statement, AFT 2121 president Alisa Messer said, “We are concerned that those charged with putting CCSF’s accreditation affairs in order have simply walked away from their responsibility to negotiate in good faith with faculty.”

But Farrar echoed Agrella in pointing to the work that has already been done at the school over the past year. That includes the implementation of Student Learning Outcomes, one of the issues raised by the ACCJC, which cited the administration for not doing a better job of tracking students. “We made remarkable progress,” said Farrar.

Still, Agrella told reporters at Tuesday’s briefing, “When the commission looks at an institution, it looks at it in a very simple way … it’s either a yes or a no. It could be at 90 percent, [but] it’s still a no.” Agrella spoke alongside Joanne Low, CCSF Interim Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, and Dr. Faye Naples, CCSF Vice Chancellor of Student Development.

The panel offered a broad outline of its plan to keep the school open, a balancing act that seeks to preserve access and affordability while also meeting the commission’s requirements. “Our core mission is to serve students,” said Naples, who started with the school on July 3, the day of the ACCJC’s announcement. “But there are places where [the system] is broken.”

One of those places is with the eight campuses scattered across the city. Agrella said there is no plan as of now to close any of the centers. But he did note that alternatives have to be considered.  “We have to find ways of getting services into communities other than the centers,” he said.

He offered a similar assessment for the school as a whole, acknowledging the critical role CCSF plays for the city, but noting that the current model of being “all things to all students is not sustainable.”

Not everyone in the community agrees, but even as the debate over the shape of the school plays out, its uncertain fate has helped fuel a 15 percent drop in enrollment. And with funding on a per-pupil basis, the lower numbers are potentially disastrous for the school.

Amy Lin just graduated from CCSF’s Political Science Department. An undocumented immigrant from Taiwan, she joined in the protest at City Hall Tuesday. “I know a lot of students who have dropped out because of the current situation,” she said, adding the school needs to do more to get the message out that it is still accredited.

As to differences over tactics, Lin says the objective is what counts. “The reason we have community college is to provide an education to everyone. That’s why we’re here. It’s the goal we have to work for.”

See what alumni and veterans are doing to save CCSF: Alumni, Veterans Struggle to Preserve City College of San Francisco