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Keeping the doors open at City College of San Francisco

Jen Chien
Rally and March for CCSF, October 31, 2013

For more information on off-campus CCSF supporters, click here.

“Open, Accredited, and Ready for You!” That’s what it says on the big electronic billboard at the entrance to City College’s main Ocean Avenue Campus. Despite ongoing troubles over the last year and a half, the school is still fully operational and remains fully accredited. Students crowd the walkways in between classes, and the atmosphere feels like any other busy college campus.

City College’s accreditation troubles began in July 2012, when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) put the school on what’s called “show cause” status. It is the harshest sanction the commission can give, and puts a school on the defensive, asking it to prove why it should not have its accreditation revoked. The commission’s evaluation cited mostly fiscal, structural, and governance issues. The school had roughly eight months to fix them.

That sanction forced the college into crisis mode, as it scrambled to address the problems and stay accredited. In July, the commission decided it wasn’t enough; City College’s accreditation would be revoked IN July 2014. After that announcement, the publicly-elected Board of Trustees was effectively disbanded, and a state-appointed “Special Trustee” assumed sole decision-making power over the school.

The campus effect

Administrators, faculty and staff are continuing to work on the commission’s 14 recommendations, but fatigue sometimes sets in for faculty members like Fred Teti, a professor of mathematics and the Academic Senate president at City College.

“When I was hired 19 years ago, I practically kissed the concrete outside the doors of this building every morning, because I loved coming to work so much,” he says. “Not so much so these days. I get the impression [that] I and everyone else, we drag ourselves to work in the morning.”

Since the accreditation troubles began, Teti and his fellow City College faculty have been putting in long hours. In addition to their regular teaching time, they’ve been addressing some of the commission’s concerns: refining the measurement of students’ long-term learning outcomes and streamlining governance structures. Teti says the changes have resulted in more efficiency, but the outside demands can sometimes feel oppressive.

“A lot of us feel locked into this externally imposed structure that we don't all necessarily feel we operate well inside of,” he says. “And when you feel that way, it's much more difficult to act as if all of this extra work will lead to improvements for the students.”

Gohar Momjian is City College’s Accreditation Liaison officer. She used to be the Chancellor’s executive assistant, but was appointed to this role soon after the school was put on “show cause”. She’s the interface between the college and the commission. From her point of view, the value of the accreditation process is clear.

“To me it's not about stressful. It's about importance,” Momjian says. “Just like we have standards for students: what we expect them to achieve; what it takes to get an A. You need to come out with these outcomes.”

She says City College was not getting an A.

“It was that accreditation report that came in that made us take a look [and say]: Oh my God, we don't meet the mark on this. And we need to change, so that we can improve,” she says.

What’s different now

Changes have been happening. The college was projecting a deficit of over 2.5 million dollars, so it tightened up its finances. Operating costs for its eight satellite campuses were unknown, so it started keeping better track. The college is updating its ancient database software. But it has  also done some controversial things, like making layoffs and paycuts to teachers and staff while hiring 30 new administrators.

Meanwhile, the accreditation crisis has had a huge impact on enrollment. The college’s full-time student population has dropped almost 15% since last year. To put that into perspective, enrollment at the school was falling even before the accreditation crisis began. This is a trend at most community colleges: more students enroll in bad economic times, and when the economy gets better, there are fewer students. If the dramatic drop at City College continues, the school will receive much less state and federal funding. It has already lost almost 9% of its state funding in the last two years.

In an effort to draw in more students, faculty members Leslie Simon, Danny Halford, and Susan Lopez have run an “enrollment campaign” out of a small office at City College’s Mission Campus every Saturday since September. They hand out flyers, posters, and class schedules to volunteers who deliver or post them by hand around the city.

Simon says she’s actually pretty confident that the school will stay accredited. What worries her are the kinds of changes being demanded – changes that bring into question what, or whom, a community college should be for.

“We want our CCSF, for our San Francisco,” she says. “Immigrants, parents with young children, formerly incarcerated people, low-income, sexual assault survivors. People who are not necessarily the traditional student who’s going to transfer right away to the four-year university, but eventually may do that if given the chance.”

What Simon is talking about is a bigger fight, one that goes back to State Senate Bill 1456, known as the Student Success Act of 2012. This was a controversial set of guidelines for the state’s community colleges, giving priority to students who are more likely to finish a degree or transfer in two years. The law aligns well with the federal government’s current push for colleges to award more degrees, with more efficiency. It’s known as the college completion agenda, and it has bipartisan support-- from President Barack Obama to Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

Many at City College see this shift as a blow to California’s historical commitment to open-access higher education, laid out in the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960. The fear is that non-traditional or non-credit students may have less access to the school in the future.

Who could be left behind

Student Ivy Gao is one of those non-traditional students. She’s in her 30s, and moved here from China three years ago with her husband. She’s taking English as a Second Language classes at City College’s Chinatown campus from 10am to 3pm every day, at no cost to her. Gao is currently unemployed as she takes care of her young son, but she says these classes will be useful when she needs to look for a job.

“When you first arrive in the United States, if you don’t speak English, even businesses here in Chinatown won’t hire you,” Gao says.

English as a Second Language is actually the largest department at the school, with over 700 courses. Non-credit classes are free, and low-income students often qualify for fee waivers for credit classes. For many people, this represents a primary purpose of City College. But providing that kind of education might not be possible anymore.

Accreditation liaison Gohar Momjian says, “Our mission statement was that we serve everybody, in all facets of the community, to achieve all things. And we weren’t successful in doing that either, when we looked at the resources.”

So it’s changing. Since the accreditation crisis began, the school has taken several terms out of its mission statement: citizenship preparation; GED preparation; cultural enrichment; lifelong learning; active engagement in the civic and social fabric of the community.

Academic Senate President Fred Teti says he understands the desire to improve student success, but that defining success only by measurable outcomes is ultimately harmful.

“We're supposed to be serving the community at large,” he says. “We feel it is our duty to serve that broad population of students.”

City College continues to make tough decisions while waiting for an answer from the accreditation commission, but no matter what happens come July, questions will continue to be asked about the meaning of a community college education.