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Accreditation agency issues severe sanction

Students, faculty and staff are 'all out' to save City College of San Francisco

Through cataclysmic budget cuts of the last few years, the City College of San Francisco has kept its footing as the largest provider of higher education in the state of California. The 75-year-old institution serves more than 90,000 students and operates on 12 campuses.

Yet, a letter the college administration received in July could spell disaster. The college's regional accrediting agency, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges/Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), put CCSF on the highest level of sanction: "show cause." It threatened to revoke the college's accreditation in March if the college does not address numerous financial and administrative issues.

Ironically, the accrediting commission commends the college for its student-centered culture, but faults it for financial decisions that keep resources in the classroom, to the detriment of administration.

Irony or no, the administration and AFT 2121, the union that represents 1,650 full-time and part-time faculty, counselors, librarians and researchers at CCSF, are moving aggressively with other constituencies at the college to respond to the commission. At the same time, across the city, people are organizing to ensure that a college many consider "too big to fail" stays open. Many in the community are going public with what CCSF has meant to them, and they're allowing their pictures and signs to be posted in online support.

"It's a truly challenging time, but it's also been incredibly gratifying to see the broad support for the college from throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area," says Alisa Messer, president of AFT 2121. "We are working to address issues highlighted by the report—like any big institution, we can and should always find ways to improve and innovate. We want to do that while protecting the broad educational reach that City College has that San Franciscans expect and deserve."

A key response, says Messer, is addressing the funding problems. CCSF is facing a current budget deficit of $14 million. AFT 2121 is rallying to pass two measures that could close that gap. One is Proposition 30, a tax initiative that raises taxes on the top 2 percent of California earners, those with incomes above $250,000. The California Federation of Teachers is part of a labor coalition, "Reclaim California's Future," that is mobilizing members to build support. The other emerging campaign, which AFT 2121 is mounting with sister union Service Employees International Union Local 1021, is to pass a parcel tax, which is on the San Francisco ballot. The $79 per-parcel tax would go exclusively to City College, bringing in more than $15 million a year for eight years.

Community colleges across the state are under the gun as an activist ACCJC accrediting agency is handing out sanctions at a rate that far surpasses the national average. For example, of the six regional accrediting agencies' actions regarding community colleges in the period between June 2011 and June 2012, Western's ACCJC issued a total of 48 sanctions. By comparison, the AFT has found, three of the other agencies took no action; one, Middle States, put 10 institutions on "warning"—the lowest level of sanction; Southern issued six warnings and four probations; and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities did not provide information.

Of its 48 sanctions, ACCJC issued 24 warnings and 20 probations. It put three institutions, City College of San Francisco, College of the Redwoods and Cuesta College, on "show cause." What's more, it appears that ACCJC is making recommendations in areas governed by state law and where it has no jurisdiction. Faculty evaluation, the level of salary and benefits earned by part-time faculty, and the extent to which post-employment medical benefits are pre-funded are areas that are the subject of collective bargaining and are not within the purview of the ACCJC.

While addressing the issues contained in the ACCJC's July 3 report is a first priority, Carl Friedlander, president of the CFT Community College Council and past president of the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, points out that there's more to learn here: "We need to deepen our understanding of the expectations and workings of this powerful accrediting group, while at the same time engaging fully in this ongoing process of self-improvement."

Reprinted from the September/October 2012 issue of On Campus.