Save City College

  • by Rafael Mandelman
  • Wednesday July 17, 2013
Share this Post:
City College supporters attended a rally in downtown San<br>Francisco last week.<br>(Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)<br><br>
City College supporters attended a rally in downtown San
Francisco last week.
(Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)

Back in January, in a meeting with the board of trustees of City College of San Francisco, state Chancellor Brice Harris warned, "City College is not too big to fail." That may be the case, but City College is certainly too important for us to allow it to fail.

It is a truism to say that City College is a civic treasure. Serving tens of thousands of students at nine campuses and numerous other sites throughout the city, the college is the city's major provider of workforce training as well as the primary path by which young adults are able to pursue a college degree to which they might not otherwise have access.

Measured against other community colleges statewide, City College generally scores better than most on such metrics of student success as transfer and completion rates. And, thanks to the generosity of San Francisco voters who have repeatedly opted to provide City College with local revenue to augment its state funding, City College has been able to offer a breadth and depth of programming far beyond what other community colleges in the state can offer.

City College has played an especially important role in the development of San Francisco's LGBT community. From offering one of the first gay literature courses in the country in 1972 to establishing the first Gay and Lesbian Studies Department in the country in 1989 and right through to this day, City College has been a pioneer in the development of LGBT studies. And with more than 200 out-of-the-closet administrators, faculty, and staff, and thousands of queer students, City College is not just a San Francisco treasure but a queer community treasure as well.

The July 3 announcement by the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges that it would be terminating City College's accreditation effective July 31, 2014 was stunning and outrageous.

As a new member of the board of trustees, I know I still have lots to learn about the college, but in the short time I have served on that board, I have witnessed the monumental effort of so many at the institution, including my fellow members of the board of trustees, to respond to the original findings and "show cause" sanction of the ACCJC just one year ago.

City College has in that short time radically altered and streamlined its shared governance structure, and undertaken a dramatic administrative reorganization involving dozens of positions and resulting in a number of long-time administrators leaving or losing their jobs. The college's financial circumstances, so dire a year ago, had turned a corner, with the board recently approving a 2013-14 budget that included a $2 million surplus even after making necessary new investments in technology and maintenance and rebuilding the college's reserves to a level well in excess of the 5 percent recommended by the state chancellor's office.

And the members of the board itself, so divided and acrimonious a year ago, had in the interim shown considerable self-restraint and resolve to doing whatever was needed to keep the college open and accredited, beginning last September by requesting that the state chancellor appoint a special trustee empowered to overrule any decision of the board. It is worth noting that since taking the position last October, the special trustee has never had to exercise that authority.

Were all of City Colleges problems, resulting from decades of poor decisions and five years of devastating and poorly managed budget cuts, fully addressed in the past year? Plainly not, nor could they have been, but to me at least, it seemed that we were well on our way. Indeed, the report of the ACCJC's own visiting team this spring identified substantial progress in all 14 areas where they had made recommendations the year before.

No reasonable person could contend that City College is without serious problems. The question is how best to fix them and whether City College deserved and deserves a fair chance to try. The Los Angeles Times in its July 11 editorial, "College monitors gone wild," stated the issue well: "The accrediting commission's chief job is to hold colleges to a certain standard, but it also must be cognizant of the harm it can do by imposing excessively harsh penalties and timelines."

At City College, the harm of the ACCJC's approach is real and tangible. In announcing one year ago that City College would have less than one year to bring itself into full compliance with ACCJC standards or face termination of accreditation and closure, the commission set the college up for failure. That decision itself has substantially depressed enrollment, costing the school millions of dollars and making it difficult, if not impossible, for the college to recruit a strong chancellor at a time when all agree the college is in dire need of an effective leader. The ACCJC's July 3 announcement can be expected to further drive down enrollment and make it even harder to attract and retain good administrators and faculty.

The one silver lining is that San Franciscans are fighters. Even after all the drama and dysfunction of the last several years, there are still excellent faculty, staff, and administrators at City College committed to doing whatever it takes to keep the school open. Happily too, our queer electeds Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and state Senator Mark Leno, and Supervisors Scott Wiener and David Campos have all stepped up to make it clear that San Francisco will not tolerate the closure or significant downsizing of the college. Over the next few months, with their help, lots of us will be agitating any and every way we can to save our City College.


Rafael Mandelman is a trustee on the City College board.