SAN FRANCISCO – Supporters of City College of San Francisco are celebrating this month’s decision by a Superior Court Judge that says the school can’t lose its accreditation until a trial is held. The ruling, which placed an injunction on the commission threatening to revoke the school’s accreditation, is being hailed as a sign that one of the nation’s largest community colleges could remain open after all.
But it isn’t the courts that will determine the school’s fate, points out recently appointed Chancellor Arthur Tyler.
“The court can’t provide us accreditation,” says Tyler, who was appointed in November. “They can only ask, or they can demand, that a new team comes. Well, inside the [commission’s] rules is a way to do that.
“I don’t want to say I don’t need the court’s help,” continues Tyler, “but I know I can use the system that exists to do what’s necessary. And most people don’t know that.”
Tyler is referring to what’s known as the “substantive review” process, in the language of the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). Its manual – available online – stipulates that if an institution under threat of losing its accreditation has made “substantive change” toward addressing outstanding issues, the commission may decide to send a new review team to reevaluate the school.
That’s “what we really want,” Tyler says. By the summer of 2014, CCSF will have addressed “95 percent” of the problem areas first cited by the ACCJC in 2012, he told community members last month.
The ACCJC is one of six public agencies nationwide that are charged with reviewing institutions under their jurisdiction for renewal of accreditation. Without accreditation, schools lose access to state funds and recognition of course credits by other institutions.
Under the terms of the ACCJC, if it accepts CCSF’s substantive change proposal, which is due Feb. 6, it will have six months to send out a new review team.
Tyler, 63, is CCSF’s first permanent chancellor since spring 2012. Ultimate authority, however, still rests with Special Trustee Robert Agrella, who was appointed by the State Chancellor with the approval of the State Community College Governing Board in July 2013 to oversee the school’s restructuring. His term ends this year.
A 20-year Air Force veteran, Tyler served as deputy chancellor for the Houston Community College system prior to his arrival at CCSF. Before that, he was president of Sacramento City College and vice president of administration and finance of Los Angeles City College. In 2004, the ACCJC appointed him special trustee of Compton Community College, which lost its accreditation the following year.
But, Tyler says, there are few if any parallels between what happened at Compton and the challenges facing CCSF.
“Compton’s issues were centered in criminal activity,” explains Tyler. “There’s no criminal activity [at CCSF]. There might be neglect, in terms of just not adhering to the standards….”
Earlier this month, in a lawsuit filed by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow placed an injunction on the ACCJC’s sanction of CCSF. In his decision, Karnow noted that closing the school – which serves upwards of 80,000 students a year – would be “catastrophic” to the city. He also cited numerous complaints regarding transparency, political bias and conflicts of interest in the ACCJC’s review process.
A trial date is expected to be set this month and could come as early as the summer.
Despite the concerns surrounding the commission, however, Tyler says he supports the accreditation process. “The ACCJC is a peer association,” he notes. “ I believe in the peer process, because the last thing I want to see is a government regulated system.”
Tyler, who in 2003 served on the site team reviewing Napa Valley Community College District, adds that peer review allows for the kind of innovation that schools like CCSF need in order to remain competitive and sustainable.
Aside from retaining its accreditation, a more immediate challenge for CCSF is putting a stop to the hemorrhaging of students. Since 2012, the school has seen a decline of some 30 percent in the number of enrolled students, many driven away by fears of its imminent closure. Funding for California’s community colleges is enrollment-based.
“We’re really trying to restore people’s confidence, and it seems to be working,” notes Tyler. He points to the latest numbers, which show the school has regained 15 percentage points in its student count since the start of classes this week.
Another area of concern has been possible cuts to services that communities in the city have long relied upon, including lifelong learning classes heavily enrolled in by seniors. Others have voiced fears that school administrators could move to close one of the eight campuses scattered around San Francisco that provide a host of credit and non-credit courses, including free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
Tyler says part of his job will involve locating new revenue streams – including from the private sector – that might augment state funds to help maintain these services.
It’s one part of a larger Master Educational Plan drawn up by school administrators in November. The plan, to be finalized in May, will help determine spending priorities, as well as the future size of CCSF. A series of public forums is scheduled to begin later this month as the school seeks input from the community in determining where the funds should go.
But Tyler’s biggest challenge, which he says is also his chief ambition, is to change attitudes about CCSF, both within the school and among city residents. “The largest challenge to an institution’s stability is the people themselves and how they feel about the institution,” he says.
He points to a recent weekend when students, faculty members and community residents gathered to clean up the school’s main Ocean campus. “Folks were out here picking up cigarette butts, washing windows, and making the place feel more like it’s supposed to. That kind of attitudinal change is what is necessary for this institution to return to its iconic status.”
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that Agrella was appointed by the ACCJC. He was in fact appointed by the State Chancellor with the approval of the State Community College Governing Board.
For more on the accreditation crisis at City College of San Francisco, see NAM's series Saving City College.