SAN FRANCISCO – This week marks the start of the fall semester at City College of San Francisco, which celebrates its 80th anniversary next year. Even as the fight to retain its accreditation continues, school administrators say they are working to ensure CCSF’s survival for another eighty years.
“City College is not too big to fail, it’s too important to fail,” said CCSF Chancellor Art Tyler at a press briefing last week. The comment was in response to a recent New York Times op-ed slamming the school for its perceived fiscal and educational shortcomings.
Pointing to changes made as part of efforts to meet accreditation standards, Tyler stressed the “future of the institution is rich. It will be the iconic place it once was.”
Some of those changes include simplifying the enrollment process for new students, as well as identifying students who have accrued sufficient credits to begin planning for graduation or transfer. “By spring, we will be able to identify those students and help them get across the stage,” said Tyler.
He also discussed plans to enhance the school’s aging computer systems, and beef up services at its eight satellite campuses around the city. For supporters of the school that last point is critical, as many feared the sites would be closed as part of cost-saving measures aimed at retaining the school’s accreditation.
“Historically, [the centers] have not been destinations, but portals,” said Tyler, noting many of the campuses have been used primarily for non-credit courses. “We didn’t focus on the academic process. We are changing that.” Plans include increasing the number of counselors on staff at any one center as well as increasing the number of for-credit course offerings.
The August 14 press briefing, organized by New America Media and Chinese for Affirmative Action, was held at CCSF’s Chinatown campus. Tyler noted the “thousands of small businesses” in the Chinatown area, saying he wanted the site to “help them grow” by improving on-campus services – including vocational and language training – available to them.
Sounding a note of optimism, Tyler added he envisioned “one hundred thousand students looking to get their first start” at CCSF, one of the nation’s largest community colleges.
Reaching that number will be a challenge, however. Enrollment has continued to decline since the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), the agency tasked with accrediting California’s 112 community colleges, first placed CCSF on its most severe “show cause” sanction in 2012. With funding tied to attendance, the drop in students has meant a critical loss of funding for the school.
July was the original deadline set by the ACCJC for City College to comply with its recommendations or lose accreditation. But with a lawsuit from the San Francisco City Attorney’s office still in play (a hearing is set for October) and with growing pressure from state and national lawmakers, the 19-member commission in June revised its policy. Offering what it called “restoration status,” the commission gave the school two more years to fix its problems.
Earlier this month, Tyler accepted the commission’s offer. At the briefing he told the audience it would likely be a two and a half year process.
CCSF Board Trustee Rafael Mandelman and Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, also spoke at the event.
Mandelman, who was elected to the CCSF board in 2012, one year before it was replaced by a special trustee with extraordinary powers over the school, acknowledged the “great work” that has been done to address some of the school’s outstanding problems. But he also pointed to questions revolving around the accrediting agency’s handling of CCSF.
“The accreditation process should make colleges stronger, better,” he said. “Regrettably, in the case of CCSF, the process has not worked in this way.” Mandelman, who currently holds no formal role with the college, added that at “each step in the process, the ACCJC has not acted as a partner, but in a punitive way.”
It was a message echoed by Lightman, who said the chief complaint of community college faculty around the state revolved around the fact that the accreditation process “is focused on sanction, and not problem solving.”
Citing a state-sanctioned audit (pdf) that came out in June, Lightman noted the ACCJC had taken 269 actions between 2009 and 2013, and handed out some 143 sanctions to schools in that time – a 53 percent sanction rate. The other six regional accrediting agencies had a sanction rate of 12 percent.
“Does the accreditation process magnify failure or promote success?” Lightman asked.
Pointing to the $1.5 billion in cuts to community colleges following the recent recession, he also questioned the wisdom of cash-strapped schools pouring resources into “producing data for the commission” at the “expense of faculty and a quality education.”
Both Mandelman and Lightman agreed the accreditation process itself needs reform, with the goal of ensuring, among other things, greater transparency, a basic level of fiscal and academic functioning at schools, and a return to local governance.
Asked what the local community can do to support CCSF, the panelists spoke with one voice in urging residents to enroll. “We are enrolling now,” said Tyler, who pointed to a new online service called “Ask CCSF,” which allows prospective students to get answers to basic questions about the school.
As to the future, Tyler stressed the challenges CCSF faces are “all fixable issues,” and that while the school would need time to do so, in that process it would “remain loyal to the legacy begun 80 years ago.”
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