Sunday, July 07, 2013



I know it’s foolishness to make predictions in writing.  That said, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s politically impossible that City College of San Francisco will actually, for real, close in a year.  It’s not going to happen.

I say this with no special or privileged insight into the inner workings of CCSF.  I know it has over 80,000 students.  That’s enough.

From the vantage point of someone outside California, but with experience in community college administration, I’m guessing that there’s plenty of truth on several sides of the current disputes around CCSF.  Faculty advocates are arguing that the accrediting body never said that the teaching at CCSF was below par.  That’s true, but misleading. The reason they never said it is that there’s no meaningful outcomes assessment, or even internal supervision, to enable anyone to say one way or the other.  My guess is that the teaching there ranges from great to not-so-great, just like at any large institution.  The fact that I have to guess is, itself, the problem.

The accreditors counter-argue that many faculty feel intimidated by their “advocates,” and don’t feel free to disagree in public.  This is almost certainly true.  Anyone who remembers the rally-around-the-flag atmosphere in late 2001 will remember how difficult it was to dissent in any meaningful way.  Siege mentalities don’t lend themselves to open-ended inquiry.  It’s hard to be nuanced with a megaphone.  That said, tendentious advocates aren’t new under the sun.  The critique passes the sniff test, but isn’t nearly enough to be dispositive.

The accreditors also argue that the college faces serious flaws in its internal financial controls.  I find the claim plausible, only because it would be easy to disprove.  (A charge of having only three days’ worth of operating funds in reserve would be easy to refute, if it were false.) Given the stakes, and the length of warning, I have to assume that if there something exculpatory, CCSF would have shown it by now.  Yes, I’d want stronger proof than that to convict, but from the outside it seems plausible.  Obviously, if the charge is true, it’s potentially quite serious.  These are public dollars and student loans we’re talking about.  My impression is that the issue is more confusion than corruption, but in a way, that’s worse.  Corruption can be fixed by hauling off a few bad guys.  Confusion may require rebuilding the plane in mid-flight.

The AFT is claiming that CCSF is being held to a higher standard than, say, the University of Phoenix.  I’d file that under “true, but misleading.”  It’s true to the extent that the accrediting body for CCSF is not the same as the accrediting body for Phoenix: the former is the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, a subset of WASC, but the latter is the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association.  (I’ve never understood how Arizona fits under “North Central,” but never mind that.)  But the standards aren’t all that different.  Randi Weingarten may have an ideological objection to the existence of for-profit higher education -- many people do -- but that’s a different issue.  Phoenix got slapped by its accrediting body last year too, so the claim that it’s getting some sort of pass is hard to sustain.  

Making matters cloudier, there’s no shortage of conflicts of interest on all sides.  The faculty and staff of CCSF are fighting to keep their jobs, and can be expected to seize on anything that might look useful.  (I’m reminded of the old adage that it’s difficult to get a man to understand an argument when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it.)  Current students obviously want their credits to count, as do their families.  Loyal alumni in the area would also look askance at a perceived devaluation of their degrees.

On the other side, regional accreditors have something to prove, too.  They have been put on the defensive over the last few years.  Increasingly skeptical politicians are wondering how higher ed as a sector can continue to claim that nearly everybody is doing a good job when costs keep going up and job placement continues to lag.  It would be easy to make a case that the accreditor is rattling its saber to ensure its own continued existence.  By getting tough on a conspicuous target, it’s able to claim with a straight face that it’s serious about upholding standards.  CCSF received warnings in several areas multiple times over the last decade, so it’s hard to say that the accreditors were unprovoked.  But while CCSF may have supplied means and opportunity, I could see an argument that the accreditors came with motive.

Still, I’d be shocked if CCSF didn’t win some sort of reprieve on appeal.  80,000-plus students, plus thousands of employees, plus loyal alumni, add up to a potentially potent political force.  The accrediting body has made its point.  The fact that someone in Massachusetts even knows what’s going on at CCSF shows that it has made its point.  It has made a splash, and it will get its pound of flesh in one form or another.  (I’d expect some sort of short-term probationary period with mandates in financial controls and outcomes assessment.)  But the political gain from looking tough would become a political nightmare if they actually closed the place.  Governor Brown may be quirky, but he’s not suicidal.  

So my fearless prediction: CCSF will win a conditional reprieve on appeal.  

You heard it here first.

My guess is that the teaching there ranges from great to not-so-great, just like at any large institution. The fact that I have to guess is, itself, the problem.

At most large institutions, the reports that they produce gloss over the "not so great" part of the range and put the "great" part of the range into bureaucratic language. This doesn't actually make the teaching any better, it just makes the reports better. If CCSF is to be faulted for anything, it's lack of gamesmanship, not poor teaching.

costs keep going up and job placement continues to lag

Job placement lags because of the economy, and because we are producing more and more college grads by reaching farther down in the pool of talent. Also, the same people who want to jump on us for not producing employable grads would jump on us if we failed more people and thereby upped the quality of the ones we did graduate. It's a no-win.
People keep forgetting that accreditation is a peer-review process. The accreditation evaluation teams are formed of management, faculty, and staff from other colleges. These are people who undergo accreditation themselves and have no particular interest in tightening the screws till everyone screams. When a team of your peers finds you wanting -- especially to the point of threatening to revoke accreditation -- then something is seriously wrong. While I'm aware that the ACCJC issues more sanctions than other regional accrediting bodies, CCSF waited much to long to address deficiencies that were first pointed out in the 2006 accreditation cycle.
I tend to agree with you, but I forget the detail in one of the letters from ACCJC that made me think I saw an out for them.

That said, I suspect that the reason they are in such trouble is that they figured they couldn't lose their accreditation for simply ignoring the large number of specific warnings they got in 2006, particularly with regard to finances and governance. You have to be asleep (as most faculty would be, but not the fraction of faculty and admins tasked with this job) to not notice all of the cases based on finances or governance, let alone all of the above.

The thinnest part concerns SLOs, where they do seem to have a case that they are being held to a higher standard than the colleges and universities that teach equivalent freshman and sophomore classes in the same region. If political changes deal with finances (when I hear "extraordinary powers" I think of what is happening in Detroit) and the byzantine governance system, they will probably get a few year-to-year approvals until the rest of it gets done. But I wouldn't bet on it if they really have to give out prizes to get faculty to report the assessments of their SLOs, as I read on a part of the CCSF web site (June 3 update on the SLO page linked from the word "response" about 2/3 into the IHE article).
I'm pretty sure that, if jobs are on the line, faculty will produce assessment reports that say whatever they have to say.

I'm also quite certain that these reports will not change the fact that the quality of teaching is probably no better or worse than any other institution. Faculty are faculty. But these reports will most definitely send the message that "We take this seriously and we are ready to write as many reports as needed to keep our jobs."
The enrollment figure of 85,000 gives me pause. San Francisco city/county population is about 825,000. Can it be true that 10% of residents are students at CCSF? My guess is that a high proportion of those are ESL classes and non-credit "enrichment" classes. Anyone with knowledge of that?
How do you hold an institution's feet to the fire when they have become "too big to fail"? Sounds like that's what's happening here.
@Anonymous: The Bay Area's population is about 7 million. There are other community colleges in the area, I'm sure, but I suspect CCSF can draw students from outside San Francisco proper.
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