The Continuing Battle to Save City College of San Francisco

It has been some time since I’ve reported on the fight to save City College of San Francisco (CCSF).  As readers will recall, last summer the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) announced that it would terminate CCSF’s accreditation as of July 2014.  (See my original post of July 8 and subsequent posts on July 13, August 13, and November 8.)  Several recent developments highlight the importance of this fight.

First, on January 2, a San Francisco Superior Court judge granted a key aspect of a motion by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera to enjoin the ACCJC from terminating CCSF’s accreditation in July.  Under terms of the ruling Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow barred the ACCJC from finalizing its planned termination of City College’s accreditation during the course of the litigation, which alleges that the private accrediting body has allowed political bias, improper procedures, and conflicts of interest to unlawfully influence its evaluation of the state’s largest community college.

Herrera’s action, filed on August 22, alleges that ACCJC acted to withdraw accreditation “in retaliation for City College having embraced and advocated a different vision for California’s community colleges than the ACCJC itself.” The civil suit offers evidence of ACCJC’s double standard in evaluating City College as compared to its treatment of six other similarly situated California colleges during the preceding five years. Not one of those colleges saw its accreditation terminated.

Judge Karnow adjudicated four separate pre-trial motions following two days of hearings in late December. Herrera filed his motion for preliminary injunction on November 25 — three months after filing his initial lawsuit — blaming the ACCJC for procedural foot-dragging and delay tactics, which included a failed bid to remove the case to federal court and its months-long refusal to honor discovery requests. Judge Karnow granted in part and denied in part Herrera’s motion, issuing an injunction that applies only to the ACCJC’s termination deadline for City College’s accreditation, and not statewide as Herrera had asked.

Apart from Herrera’s motion, AFT Local 2121 and the California Federation of Teachers also moved for a preliminary injunction, citing additional legal theories. That motion was denied. A third motion by the ACCJC asked the court to abstain from hearing the City Attorney’s lawsuit for interfering with complex accrediting processes largely governed by federal law; or, failing that, to stay Herrera’s action pending the outcomes of City College’s accreditation proceeding and ACCJC’s own efforts to renew its recognition with the U.S. Department of Education. A fourth motion, also by the ACCJC, requested that the court strike the AFT/CFT’s case under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute, which enables defendants to dismiss causes of actions that intend to chill the valid exercise of their First Amendment rights of free speech and petition.  Both of the ACCJC’s motions were denied.

In issuing the injunction, the court concluded that Herrera’s office is likely to prevail on the merits of his case when it proceeds to trial (expected no earlier than October), and that the balance of harms favored the people Herrera represents as City Attorney. On the question of relative harms, Judge Karnow’s ruling was emphatic in acknowledging the catastrophic effect disaccreditation would hold for City College students and the community at large, writing: “There is no question, however, of the harm that will be suffered if the Commission follows through and terminates accreditation as of July 2014. Those consequences would be catastrophic. Without accreditation the College would almost certainly close and about 80,000 students would either lose their educational opportunities or hope to transfer elsewhere; and for many of them, the transfer option is not realistic. The impact on the teachers, faculty, and the City would be incalculable, in both senses of the term: The impact cannot be calculated, and it would be extreme.”

That impact was graphically demonstrated in a moving article published by the San Francisco Chronicle on February 22.  The Chronicle–which in its coverage has not generally been friendly to CCSF faculty and staff who oppose the ACCJC–hoping “to understand what Karnow meant,” interviewed five students whose experience illustrates what CCSF has meant to them.  Their stories deserve to be quoted at length:

Norman Nesby, Jr., Age 38

The Hawaiian sun glowed. The blue sea lapped the sand. And Norman Nesby Jr. was miserable.

“I remember sitting on the beach – it was the first day of a two-week vacation – and that weight bearing down, thinking, ‘Oh, I have to go back to work.’ The dread of going back there,” said Nesby, a UPS supervisor. “Then something clicked. I had to do something about it.”

Like others hoping to learn a new career, Nesby enrolled in City College of San Francisco. It was 2012, and he was done with UPS after a dozen years.

“I’m studying to be a butcher now,” he said. . . .

“City College is special to me because it’s not in everybody’s interest to go to a four-year university that costs $250,000 and get a job where you’re making $30,000,” he said. “I know some people with a degree who are working at McDonald’s right now.”

Yet Nesby is also going for an associate degree and is taking algebra, African American history and humanities this semester.

And he’s no longer miserable.

“It’s really reinvigorated me as a person, in terms of power and self-esteem,” he said. “People have different definitions of success. It took me a long time to figure out mine. It’s not money. It’s getting up every day and doing what makes you happy.”

Wendy Liu, Age 21

Wendy Liu, the brainy daughter of a pediatrician and a tech specialist, graduated from San Francisco’s selective Lowell High and went on to attend Smith College, a private East Coast women’s school and one of the famed Seven Sisters. From there, of course, success was ensured.

But Liu, who studies business, knows a bad deal when she sees one.  “I sort of felt I couldn’t really justify the financial cost,” she said of Smith, which hovered around $50,000 a year in 2010 when Liu enrolled and quit in just three months. . . .

“A surprising number of Lowell students go to City College,” Liu said.

Surprising because Lowell graduates are, by definition, academically advanced, while City College requires no academic threshold for admission.

“It’s kind of an unfortunate perception,” said Liu, who enrolled full time in 2011 and studies not only floristry and sculpture, but calculus, business, computer science and international relations. “I really enjoy taking classes there. They’re very small classes – you pay thousands for that at a private school.”

Attentive to the cost-benefit ratio of her decisions, Liu checked the resumes of her prospective instructors.

“A lot of the teachers have Ph.D.s from great schools,” she said. “My economics teacher went to Columbia. A lot of the instructors went to Berkeley.”

Now Liu is applying to universities, public and private, and says she feels prepared to go anywhere.

“I wouldn’t trade my experience at City College for any Ivy League school,” she said. “Or any Seven Sister.”

Latonia Williams, Age 41

Latonia Williams isn’t the sort of person you’d expect to earn a pair of associate degrees or to be checking her mailbox daily for the fat letters universities send when they invite you to enroll.

She was 3 when her father killed her mother. She was 16 when she lost her grandmother to cancer and began doing drugs. And when her aunt told her to stop smoking crack or not come home, she chose the crack.

At 25, soggy with heroin and alcohol, she delivered a son. The state removed her newborn before she had a chance to take him home. Not that she had a home. Often, the only roof over her head was jail – San Francisco, San Jose or Vallejo – where she did time for possessing drugs, stealing, turning tricks or missing court.

By 32, Williams was the shadowy figure you’d see passed out in the back seat of an old car. Or staggering into an abandoned building to shoot up.

One day, she looked up to see one of her sisters standing before her.

“I saw the glow. I saw the look,” Williams said. Her sister had gotten clean.

This became her inspiration, though it would take two more years to quit drugs. . . .

Williams was 38 when she enrolled in City College in 2011. There she joined the aptly named Second Chance program, which helps ex-offenders succeed academically. Counselors mapped out the classes she’d need for a major in social and behavior sciences, and explained that by taking two more classes she could earn a second degree, in arts and humanities.

The program also offered emotional support.

“I can remember going in there and crying,” Williams said. “I was unsure if I was in the right place in terms of going back to school. And they would say, yes, you are in the right place.”

Now, with graduation day approaching on May 23, Williams checks her mailbox, hoping for good news from California State University – especially her first choice campus, San Francisco State, where she’s vying for a spot in the crowded School of Social Work.

“I’m definitely not stopping at a bachelor’s,” she said. “I’m going for my master’s, for sure. And who knows? Maybe a Ph.D.”

Sam Shan, Age 23

Sam Shan was 14 when he fled Burma’s military dictatorship, leaving his family behind. Yet today, he’s in a place that feels more like home to him than the village he was forced to give up: the fashion program at City College of San Francisco.

“This is the life I wanted,” Shan said at the kitchen table of the home he shares with William Miller, his fiance. “I am so happy.”

Born in 1990 to a farming family near the Thai border of the country also known as Myanmar, Shan was a bright child who loved to draw and play with his grandmother’s sewing machine. He willingly let classmates copy his homework, which proved useful later when bullies teased him for his effeminate ways.

One day, the military made a surprise visit to select young men for back-breaking work they said would last a few months at most. But villagers knew that some never returned from such service.  The soldiers gathered everyone and pointed to several strong, young men. And they pointed to Shan, barely into his teens.

“I was totally afraid and freaked out,” Shan said. “I’m not ready to do this kind of work.”

That night, he and others fled to Thailand, and then to Malaysia.  A United Nations refugee agency eventually sent Shan to the United States. Specifically, Utah.

There he enrolled in community college and discovered the business of fashion.

“I thought, ‘This is it! This is what I want to become.’ ”

When Shan walked into his first fashion class and realized he was the only male, he found himself shaking.

“I feel so 100 percent uncomfortable,” he said. “Are they going to tease me again? It freaked me out. But I told myself, ‘Calm down. Relax, relax.’ So I just told them I want to make these clothes, beautiful clothes, and that my grandmother made clothes.”

Instead of teasing Shan, the class treated him kindly. Eventually, two other men also showed up.

Still, he sensed he was in the wrong place.

“I was totally lonely in Salt Lake City,” Shan said. “I was really quite depressed.”

He met Miller through an online dating service and moved to San Francisco in 2011. He enrolled in the City College fashion program, and his jagged life smoothed out.

Plenty of men were enrolled in the program, he said. And no one stared when he and Miller kissed.

Shan now Skypes with his family in Burma but plans to visit only after becoming a U.S. citizen, perhaps through City College.

He eventually wants to earn a bachelor’s degree and create clothing and fabrics.

Timur Nenaydokh, Age 24

Deceptive recruiting of veterans by for-profit colleges with an eye on federal education benefits had gotten so bad by 2012 that President Obama thought it necessary to sign an executive order limiting the practice.

Yet veterans such as Timur Nenaydokh of Daly City say they would never hand over large chunks of change to a profit-driven school while City College of San Francisco offers classes just up the freeway.

At City College, Nenaydokh has access to the largest veterans program on any campus in the country, with more than 1,300 former military personnel enrolled – although it’s possible that many are more attracted by the government’s generous $2,700-a-month housing allowance in San Francisco than by the beauty of its fog-drenched campus.

Veterans get their pick of classes, while other students usually have to wait in line. And there is no shortage of counselors, social workers, psychologists, career advisers and lounge space at the school’s Veterans Resource Center, should Nenaydokh need them.

“I’m taking advantage of whatever I can get with CCSF,” he said.

Born in Uzbekistan, Nenaydokh was 4 when he and his mother followed his father to New York and then to San Francisco when he was 8. The marriage didn’t last, and Nenaydokh’s mother remarried when he was 14. His stepdad works in security. . . .

At one point, he introduced Nenaydokh to a Vietnam veteran who had lost his legs and two fingers after stepping on a booby trap.

“He never regretted being a Marine,” Nenaydokh said. “He loved it. It was a big sense of pride, to go through that and just be really proud of what you did.”

Nenaydokh should know. He enlisted in 2008. He kept his limbs and learned strategies that would help him in life and at City College, where he enrolled in 2011.

“I loved being a Marine,” said Nenaydokh, who still has the clean-cut, muscular look of a military man. “I loved the sense it gave me. A real purpose and a mission.”

Now, his purpose is to earn an associate degree in business administration or economics at City College. Yet that’s just the backup plan. He also has a mission.

“I want to become a police officer,” he said.

These are CCSF’s students and they are why faculty and staff at the school are fighting hard to save their institution.  They are why they have agreed to pay cuts; they are why those faculty have worked long hours on committees to try to address the mostly meaningless “concerns” of the lopsidedly administrator-heavy ACCJC accreditation team.  At the same time, however, CCSF’s Special Trustee With Extraordinary Powers, Robert Agrella, has different plans.

Agrella was named last summer by the State Chancellor of California Community Colleges, who also dismissed the democratically elected Board of Trustees, and was given sole decision making power for the college.  Agrella, in his capacity as special trustee, can unilaterally make decisions that previously required the approval of the entire board.  Agrella can consult the board and resolutions come to board meetings, but Agrella’s decisions trump any independent board action.

California State Assembly Member Tom Ammiano introduced legislation January 27 seeking to “end undemocratic power grabs,” specifically the sort that stripped CCSF’s Board of Trustees of its voting powers. Under a vague section of California code, the 17-seat Community Colleges Board of Governors has taken over faltering community colleges and effectively deposed the elected trustees of those colleges,” Ammiano’s office wrote in a statement announcing the proposed legislation. “They appoint a special trustee to make decisions in place of the elected board.”

Ammiano’s bill seeks to eliminate arbitrary actions that can lead to the disempowerment of an elected board, by clarifying and restricting conditions under which the state’s Board of Governors may take control.  “Aside from being undemocratic, I think it’s pretty criminal,” Ammiano said. “People can vote people out, people can recall people, and acknowledge that they’ve made mistakes. But it’s very upsetting to think that some appointed board can capriciously remove duly elected people.”

Yesterday (February 27) about a dozen police officers locked out a crowd of constituents, including faculty, staff, students, and community leaders, who showed up at CCSF’s administration building in an effort to reclaim their legal right to public comment at a scheduled board meeting on crucial decisions affecting the college.  Although required by law (Education Code 72121) and board policy (B.P. 1.10) to hold public meetings and provide the public opportunities to participate at these meetings, since coming to power Agrella has not allowed this.  A board “meeting” is often little more than Agrella meeting with himself.

A number of particularly controversial resolutions were scheduled for the Thursday, February 27, 2014 board agenda relating to inflated administrator salaries. Resolution 55 stated that it will “memorialize” salaries that were “previously approved” and Resolution 54 authorized top administrative salaries to “be independently adjusted based on market variations.”

What was all this about?  To use the Chronicle’s phrase, it’s Salary Gate:

Salary Gate erupted in late January when an early version of the new salary schedule appeared to give a 19 percent raise to vice chancellors and associate vice chancellors. Meanwhile, salaries for faculty and other administrators were cut by 4 percent.

Agrella, the sole decision-maker at the college, withdrew the resolution and called it a mistake as faculty protested.

Days later, responding to a Chronicle inquiry, college officials disclosed that their three vice chancellors, all hired since July, were being paid between $202,000 and $217,150 – more than the top rate of $191,518 on the salary schedule to be approved. . . .

“We feel deceived,” said Alisa Messer, president of the faculty union [AFT Local 2121]. “We think this is unacceptable that they’re secretly hiring people at exorbitant rates. Whether or not other colleges do it, this is a huge departure for City College.”

The vice chancellors were hired during bitter contract negotiations between the college and its faculty.

“It’s not clear to me that faculty would have said yes to the contract had we known that these exorbitant salaries were happening at the same moment,” Messer said.

Had she been given the chance to speak at the closed-door meeting, Messer was prepared to read from a letter  that included calling “on the District to immediately and retroactively rescind these unlawful payments of excessive salaries to top administrators and pay these administrators in accord with the established schedule.

“Such egregious violations would not likely have occurred if this District were operating with open Board meetings and under the watch of its publicly elected Board of Trustees. Restore the voice of San Francisco voters and bring democratic decision-making, transparency, and public accountability back to CCSF by restoring the duly elected Board of Trustees.

“Faculty made the difficult choice to ratify a contract with a significant cut in pay last fall at the same moment the College hid these unprecedented increases in administrator salaries.”

Sadly, to faculty everywhere this will sound all too familiar.  To support CCSF faculty, staff, and students you can sign this national petition.

9 thoughts on “The Continuing Battle to Save City College of San Francisco

  1. A quick elaboration on this point: “Agrella can consult the board and resolutions come to board meetings, but Agrella’s decisions trump any independent board action.” As Hank Reichman correctly describes earlier in the same paragraph, the elected CCSF board has been dismissed. This means that the “board meetings” that currently take place at City College are, as far as anyone has been able to determine, conducted exclusively in Special Trustee Robert Agrella’s head. An agenda is published to indicate what Agrella will be thinking about during his meeting with himself; here’s the one for February: https://www.ccsf.edu/NEW/en/about-city-college/board-of-trustees/bot_meetings2014/February.html

    • Thank you for the clarification, Alyssa. This was confusing since I knew that the board had been dismissed and that Agrella can act on his own. And I did write that “A board ‘meeting’ is often little more than Agrella meeting with himself.” What I didn’t realize is that this actually applies to ALL board meetings. I naively assumed that the meeting on Thursday from which CCSF faculty, staff and students were physically barred was an actual, if rare, board meeting of some sort. Apparently, you were all trying to attend Agrella’s meeting with himself. And I thought it couldn’t get more bizarre!

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