CCSF Critic’s Biased, Deeply Flawed Argument

The following post by Richard B. Simon, Professor of English at City College of San Francisco, appeared initially on the Forum Blog of the California Part-Time Faculty Association (CPFA) and is reposted with the author’s permission.  CPFA serves approximately 40,000 Non-tenure Track Faculty in California Community Colleges and has been advocating for Part-time faculty in California since 1998.

Simon’s post responds to an op-ed piece that appeared in The New York Times by Kevin Carey, who directs the education policy program at the New America Foundation. Carey claimed that 70% of CCSF students do not graduate “on time” and that only 14% transfer to four-year institutions.  What he did not mention is that under California law community colleges are obligated not only to offer associate degrees but to serve non-degree-seeking students, including English-language learners, adults seeking to augment job skills or simply gain enrichment, and high school students seeking advanced placement credit.  He also fails to acknowledge that while a California associate’s degree may require completion of 70 credits, students are eligible to transfer to University of California or California State University campuses with just 60 units, in some cases even fewer.  Hence many successful transfers from community colleges do not earn community college degrees.  Simon’s post effectively demonstrates the absurdity of Carey’s misleading and ill-informed piece. 

CCSF Critic’s Biased, Deeply Flawed Argument

by Richard B. Simon

As a faculty member at City College of San Francisco – and an expatriate New Yorker who holds the Times to be the epitome of journalism and integrity – I was dismayed at Kevin Carey’s July 14 “The Upshot” piece.

Mr. Carey paints City College as the epitome of what’s wrong with America’s entire system of higher education (schools and accreditors accountable to no one). But as my English 1A – university level composition and critical thinking – class read the piece aloud together as projected on the board, we found a portrait of a City College we did not recognize.

Mr. Carey asserts that City College of San Francisco is grievously failing its students. Or, in his words, “institutions like City College have achieved terrible results for students.” My students did not agree with this assertion.

As evidence, Mr. Carey cites a DOE report that “almost 70 percent of City College students fail to graduate on time, and only 14 percent transfer elsewhere.”

When I asked my 17 students what “graduate on time” means, they told me that means that students attain an Associates’ Degree – or transfer to a four-year school – within two years of entering City College. That amounts to 60 units in two years – five classes per semester, or four classes per semester plus a grueling two-course summer term (in six weeks).

When I asked my students how many people had that as their goal, only five raised their hands. That was, one said, because “we are working stiffs.”

In fact, most of my students were not planning to transfer, either. A few were, indeed, working toward AA degrees. One student was enrolled at another college and taking units at CCSF in addition. They felt that Mr. Carey’s contention that the low transfer rate was not valid evidence of the school’s supposed “terrible results for students.”

My students found that Mr. Carey had failed to understand the reality of City College students – they are largely working adults, taking classes in addition to working and caring for their families.

This should come as no surprise to anyone following the ACCJC vs. City College saga closely. At the heart of it is a political battle waged in the state capital between “reformers” backed by some heavy-hitting philanthrocapitalists who want to change the mission of the California Community Colleges so that the prime focus is awarding degrees and preparing students for transfer, and institutions such as CCSF, which find value in the community college model, in which the institution serves all community members, not just those seeking degrees.

This battle in Sacramento found the ACCJC on one side and CCSF on the other. Shortly thereafter, the ACCJC placed CCSF on “show cause,” threatening its accreditation unless it changed its mission statement, shrank its enrollment, replaced full-time faculty with part-time contingent or adjunct faculty with fewer or no health or retirement benefits, and added a new layer of administrators – all of which happens to be the model ACCJC is pushing in Sacramento. Hence the San Francisco City Attorney’s office filed a lawsuit charging that the accrediting process was tainted by the ACCJC’s political agenda. A crucial hearing in which both sides have requested a summary judgment of the case was slated for July 16 – the day after Mr. Carey’s piece ran in the Times. One imagines that this is no coincidence. Certainly, Mr. Carey and his think tank intend to affect perception of City College in the national discourse over education reform.

Mr. Carey doesn’t include any of that in his piece tarring and feathering the CCSF while comparing the accrediting agency to “an army with no weapons other than thermonuclear bombs, its power is too potent and blunt to use.” Instead, he presents the ACCJC’s charges against City College as gospel and concludes that CCSF is “too big to fail,” attaching City College with the negative connotations associated with the banks whose malfeasance caused the Great Recession.

My students found this to be a false analogy. Carey is comparing a public institution that is part of the government to private business corporations – multinational banks – being bailed out with taxpayer dollars.

They also found that Mr. Carey was presenting a false dilemma. The accreditor has only two choices, he asserts: either “allow a low-performing college to continue serving students badly, or face a political firestorm in shuttering a major public institution while throwing tens of thousands of students on to the street with no guarantee of another affordable college in which to enroll.”

There’s a third option, they said: work with the school to repair its deficiencies.

In fact, that’s what’s been happening over the past two years. While the faculty and students have fought in the legal and political arenas to ensure that the school is not shut down, the school’s interim administration, trustee with special powers, and a new Chancellor – and the faculty – have worked to meet all of the demands and requirements set by the ACCJC to meet the standards for accreditation.

The ACCJC, however, appears to be intent on shutting down the school, regardless of what all independent eyes – as well as the accreditor’s own on-site visit groups and its appeals board – appear to agree is remarkable progress toward repairing the school’s deficiencies.

Mr. Carey doesn’t report any of this. Instead, he asserts, falsely, that “most of City College’s problems … remain unsolved.”

Perhaps that’s because Mr. Carey’s not an investigative journalist. He’s the “education reform” policy chief at New America Foundation, a Washington DC think tank whose list of corporate sponsors reads like a who’s who of non-partisan neoliberalism.

But this means that the “Upshot” blog’s stated mission, to provide unbiased analysis of raw data, has been breached by including Mr. Carey’s deeply flawed piece.

My students engaged in some rewarding discussion with Mr. Carey in real time during class this morning. Graciously, he engaged. But he chided my students for arguing against him. “You’re locating me on one side of a larger argument about which you have strong pre-determined views,” he tweeted, “Which is a weakness of critical thinking.”

What Mr. Carey doesn’t know is that he has, in fact, located himself on one side – that of the rogue ACCJC – by passing along their misleading and decontextualized charges against City College uncritically.

My students held no “pre-determined views” until they read Mr. Carey’s portrait of their college as the epitome of failure, and found that it not only did not square with their experience, but also revealed that he had very little knowledge about City College or its students.

Ultimately, they found him to be not a reliable source of information on the topic.

As for his contention, citing another report, that “City College’s academic practices are below par on every available measure, including levels of student-faculty interaction and teaching methods that foster active and collaborative learning” … well.

They laughed.

Richard Simon

Professor of English, political blogger, music journalist, and writer of fictions and truths, Richard B. Simon is a Professor of English at City College of San Francisco and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Dominican University of California. He blogs at Salon, and is a contributing editor at Relix Magazine. Teaching Big History, which Rich co-edited with Mojgan Behmand and Thomas Burke, will be coming out in November 2014.

5 thoughts on “CCSF Critic’s Biased, Deeply Flawed Argument

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