City College of San Francisco special trustee given broader powers in bid to keep accreditation

July 9, 2013

The California Community Colleges Board of Governors voted unanimously Monday to elevate the special trustee overseeing City College of San Francisco, giving him extraordinary powers to assume control and management of the troubled community college in place of the locally elected Board of Trustees. City College is fighting to stay alive after the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges announced Wednesday that it will revoke the school’s accreditation next July.

City College of San Francisco accreditation timeline.  (Source:  California Community College Chancellor's office).

City College of San Francisco accreditation timeline. Source: California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office

Bob Agrella, who was appointed by the Board of Governors last October to help guide City College through resolving the problems that landed it on “show cause” status, the most serious sanction imposed by the accrediting commission, will now move from having veto power over the college’s trustees, which he has never used, to superseding the board’s decision-making authority. The trustees will remain in place, but with no authority to run the college.

This is the second time in recent years the board of governors has appointed a special trustee to oversee a college facing loss of accreditation.

“I want to make very clear that this increased involvement by the Chancellor’s Office is designed to save City College, not preside over its closure,” California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris said in a written statement. “There are 85,000 students who rely on this institution for educational and career training opportunities. It will be our singular mission to keep it open.”

During the meeting, Harris said he asked Agrella to stay on in the expanded role because City College has made significant improvements since he arrived and, with so many vacancies in the school’s upper management, “to completely change the team at one time doesn’t make any sense.” Agrella’s first priority will be to conduct a search for a permanent chancellor for City College, which has been under interim leadership since former Chancellor Don Griffin stepped down last year due to health problems. Harris said he wants the position filled by Oct. 1 at the latest and possibly as soon as the beginning of September.

Enrollment at City College of San Francisco declined sharply after the accreditation commission placed it on “show cause,” the most severe sanction, in 2012. Source: California Community Colleges Chancellor’s office

Harris said that hiring a talented and committed leader is critical to stabilizing City College and energizing faculty, staff and students to keep up the difficult work of meeting accreditation standards. It would also send a message that the college remains accredited during this process and is enrolling students for the fall 2013 term. Harris said enrollment had started to rise again in 2011 as the state budget outlook began to improve, but fell sharply after the school went on “show cause.” Enrollment dropped from 33,970 full time equivalent students in the fall of 2011 to 30,214 one year later.

Alisa Messer, president of the faculty union, said the process is also taking a toll on teachers.

“We’ve seen an exodus of faculty and of administrators and staff as people have looked for jobs elsewhere,” Messer said. “This has been a demoralizing experience, it has been a challenging experience, and despite everyone’s dedication to see the college through, it has tried everyone and it has pushed many people to the limit.”

Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges,  urged the Board of Governors to delay its decision. Source: Community Colleges Board of Governor’s video of July 8, 2013 meeting

A number of people representing the faculty, union and the college’s board of trustees spoke against the measure, noting that when a similarly empowered special trustee was named to run Compton Community College when that campus was also placed on “show cause” status, it put the school in an even weaker position with the accrediting commission. The Southern California campus lost its accreditation in 2006 and was taken over by another college.

Dean Murakami, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, read from a November 18, 2005 letter the accrediting commission sent to then-Interim Superintendent of Compton Community College Jamillah Moore, refusing to change its termination decision after the college requested a formal review. “If Compton had come to the commission and applied for initial accreditation under circumstances where its board was not functioning and where all authority was being exercised by a state appointed trustee, that application would not even have been considered,” read Murakami, who then told the Board of Governors he wanted assurances that appointing a special trustee for City College “won’t work against us.”

When asked by Geoffrey Baum, vice president of the Board of Governors, if the newly empowered special trustee could place City College in the same situation with the ACCJC, Harris acknowledged that, at least in the short run, it probably would, but said the goal is to reengage the trustees.

Anita Grier, a long-time member of the City College trustees, admonished the Board of Governors for supporting an undemocratic proposal. “I question the authoritarian implications of that plan, and I believe that collective judgment is invariably superior to individual judgment,” Grier told the board.

Taking control away from democratically elected officials troubles members of the Board of Governors, too. Baum, who also sits on the governing board of the Pasadena Area Community College District, said he sympathizes with City College officials and faculty, but also rebuked the school’s trustees for failing to address financial and governance problems sooner, despite warnings from auditors and the accrediting commission.

Details on how the special trustee could impact the college’s chance of retaining its accreditation. Source: California Community Colleges Chancellor’s office

“I was concerned that that this wasn’t something that happened in a year or two, this was something that the governing board had known for many years and had not made the tough decision to act,” Baum said. He warned that this action “will send a message to trustees up and down the state about what is your primary responsibility as a trustee and as an elected official.”

Three Board of Governors members did not attend the meeting. One, Natalie Berg, would have had a conflict of interest because she’s also a City College trustee. Joseph Bielanski, Jr. of San Francisco did attend but, as a commission member of the ACCJC, recused himself from the vote.

Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, took issue with the Board of Governors for not waiting until Gov. Jerry Brown appoints a new student representative to the board before making a decision on such a “monumental issue.” He urged the board to wait until its next meeting in September.

Harris demurred. “The college frankly does not have the luxury of time to delay this decision or to look for some other kind of solution. We are at the end of the rope, so to speak, and need to act and act quickly.”

Harris also cautioned against overexpectations, making it clear that a special trustee, even one with extraordinary powers, is no guarantee that City College will be saved.

 An Update on City College of San Francisco, PowerPoint presented to the Board of Governors by Chancellor Brice Harris, July 8, 2013

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