Q&A: Special trustee Bob Agrella talks about saving City College of San Francisco

July 29, 2013
City College of San Francisco special trustee Bob Agrella is charged with helping the campus keep its accreditation. Credit: Kathryn Baron, EdSource Today.

City College of San Francisco special trustee Bob Agrella is working to help the campus keep its accreditation. Credit: Kathryn Baron, EdSource Today

Bob Agrella, the special trustee entrusted with saving City College of San Francisco, wants to make one thing clear: City College is fully accredited and open for business, and his intention is to keep it that way.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges announced early this month that it would revoke City College’s accreditation in July 2014 unless the school meets all the required standards. After a year on “show cause,” the most severe sanction, the commission found that City College “had fully addressed just two of the 14 recommendations for change,” and remained out of compliance in key areas of governance, leadership and evaluating the quality of courses.

Days later, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors approved an emergency resolution stripping all authority from the college’s elected Board of Trustees and handing it to Agrella. The decision elevated Agrella from special trustee with veto power over the local board to special trustee with all the legal rights, authority and decision-making power of the board.

“I couldn’t think of a more prepared person than Bob Agrella for that trustee position,” said Tom Henry, who holds the special trustee spot at Compton Community College, which lost its accreditation in August 2005. (See sidebar)

Not everyone feels that way. Student and faculty groups criticized Agrella’s appointment, arguing that he couldn’t save the college in his first year as special trustee and should not be given another year with broader powers.

They’re also critical of his salary; Agrella will earn $22,000 a month under his one-year contract, according to the statewide chancellor’s office. For someone who will be running a college with about 80,000 students, the state controller’s office shows his salary is on par with other community college presidents.

Critics have also directed plenty of anger at the accrediting commission, accusing it of a conflict of interest, playing politics and overstepping its authority. It’s an understandable response, said Henry, who suggested that Agrella read a dissertation comparing the volatile emotions on a campus in danger of closing to the five stages of grief outlined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Although he’s not at City College, Henry said from what he’s been reading, people on campus are stuck in the early stages of denial and anger. “That’s problematic. They have to get through those stages and they have to get through them in a hurry or they won’t recover.”

City College of San Francisco is using radio, video and print ads to send the message that school is open. Source: CCSF

City College has until July 31 to file a formal request asking the commission to review its decision, and Agrella said it plans to make that deadline. The college will also file an appeal with the commission, and has launched an advertising campaign to let the community know that classes are open for enrollment for the fall semester.

Agrella, 69, began his career as a high school teacher before moving into community colleges. Since the early 1970s, he’s been founding dean of several campuses in Arizona, provost of Pima Community College District in Tucson, president of Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County, and, until retiring – or so he thought – in 2011, he was president of Santa Rosa Junior College for more than two decades.

EdSource sat down with Agrella at City College’s Ocean campus to talk about his new powers, challenges and game plan. Despite a schedule that would test many younger people, Agrella appeared relaxed, unruffled, unwrinkled and in control.

Read on for excerpts or click here for a full transcript of the interview.

EdSource: What is the mood on campus right now?

Bob Agrella: It’s hard to tell you precisely what the mood on campus is right now because it is summer and there are a lot of people not around, but I would say that the mood, in general, for those folks that I’ve been visiting with the last several weeks, is somber. I think people are taking this entire accreditation business very, very seriously. … They’re concerned, obviously, about what’s going to happen to the institution, and I think all of that is probably to be expected.

EdSource: What has been the most difficult decision you’ve had to make since you became the trustee extraordinaire? And what were the immediate changes, going from the trustee who could veto to the trustee who is the board?

Bob Agrella: I think the trustee who could veto worked much more behind the scenes, tried not to get either the Board of Trustees or myself in a public, embarrassing position of trying to overturn a decision of the board. So it was much more behind-the-scenes, less operational than what it is now. Assuming the board’s duties and responsibilities, I think, takes on a much bigger role, obviously, in the institution. The ability to, and the responsibility of making decisions is much greater than what it was then, and I’m just much more active now in the actual operations of the institution than I was previously.

EdSource: What is the most difficult decision that you had to make or will have to make?

Bob Agrella: I anticipate some difficult decisions, coming forward, and those difficult decisions will, of course, be in the areas that were identified by the commission, where the institution fell short of meeting the standards or the sub-standards. And those decisions will involve some finance issues.

While I think we’ve developed a good plan, looking forward and stabilizing the institution from a financial perspective, to carry that through is going to require continued sacrifice on a lot of people’s part, and I think those decisions are going to be difficult. And I might say that one of the things that is compounding our problems right now is the loss of enrollment.

We’re down in enrollment. As you know, California community colleges are enrollment-driven institutions. You’re paid on enrollment. And so, as you lose enrollment, your financial base begins to go down, and that’s the situation we’re in right now. We’ve made considerable savings this past year. We have a budget this year that I think will sustain us, but we can’t continue on this slide in enrollment that we are.

EdSource: When you were talking about some of the difficult decisions, though, there has been talk about closing some of the campuses, the centers. Is that a strong possibility?

Bob Agrella: That’s a possibility, because we’re looking at every aspect of the institution, so at this point in time I’ve not ruled anything out. I want to, however, make sure that the decisions we make are made on good information. We don’t have all the information that we need to make some of these decisions, and that’s part of the task ahead, to get the best information possible in order to make the best decisions possible.

EdSource: How is the search for a permanent chancellor going?

Bob Agrella: The search is actually going quite well. I received information this morning from the search firm that they sent out another email blast to a little over 300 potential candidates across the country. They’ve reported to me that they’ve had some good contact with some potential candidates already. We’re early in the process, but I think it’s going about as well as it possibly could go – maybe even better than I had even hoped for.

EdSource: What are the skills, strengths and traits that you need, that you have, to bring to this challenge?

Bob Agrella: A sense of humor, number one! It’s important. I think you need to try and maintain some stability and have a sense of humor. But once you get beyond that, the serious side of it, I think, is that you have to have some experience in running institutions. You have to have experience in observing a well-run institution and what it takes to make a well-run institution.

Personal strengths, I think you have to not be afraid to talk to people. Not be afraid to let people know where you’re coming from. Be honest with them. Not everyone wants honesty. But over the long haul, I’ve found in my career that people appreciate an honest “yes” or an honest “no,” rather than a “maybe” or never getting back to them.

I think you have to develop a pretty thick hide, understanding that you’re going to get a lot of criticism if you do things one way or the other. It’s very, very difficult in a college setting to please everyone.

EdSource: When I spoke to (Compton Community College special trustee) Tom Henry … one thing he said is he would urge you to get past the anger as soon as possible.

Bob Agrella: … What we have to try to do is not let those angry folks dictate the agenda of this institution. And the agenda of this institution right now, and for the foreseeable future, is to meet those accreditation standards, to get busy, continue to work on our action plans that we’re developing in our “show cause” report, and do the best possible job we can so that we can show progress.

We’ve made considerable progress since last July 1. It’s just that we didn’t make sufficient progress. The way the commission looks at your progress is pretty simple. You either meet the standard or you don’t. It’s not one of those things where you’re 50 percent there, or 60 percent there. And also, when you institute a new planning process, or program-review process like we instituted in the institution, before you can actually say you meet that standard – it’s actually a sub-standard – you must have gone through one complete cycle. We will not have gone through one complete cycle on some of these activities until October, November, December and January, and so forth. So we’ve got our job cut out for us.

EdSource: …The college (didn’t) get into this situation overnight, and it can’t get out of it overnight … (Does) the accreditation process account for the fact that it could take a long time to turn a school around after it’s been so entrenched in bad governance and financing?

Bob Agrella: I think the accreditation process takes that into account. You know, their extension to June 30, 2014, was actually a very good step. They could have said, “You’re done right now.” They could have said it after a semester. They didn’t. They gave us the absolute maximum amount that they could get at this point in time. Our job is to try and show the absolute best amount of progress in meeting those standards that we can. …

I do know that no accrediting body wants to remove the accreditation of an institution. I really believe that. Their job is to see that the institutions meet those standards, not take accreditation. And they will do everything in their power to try and help us do that, I believe. They are bound by some federal guidelines, obviously, but I think if we show significant progress while we go through that appeals process, I think we’ll be OK.

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