Sunday, January 05, 2014


Called It!

In early July of 2013, I wrote

[I]t’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.

Last week, a judge weighed in:

City College would be forced to shut down if it lost its accreditation. The college’s closure would be “catastrophic,” [Judge] Karnow said, and would have an “incalculable” impact on its 80,000 students, faculty, staff and the city’s economy.In his decision, the judge noted that the college’s enrollment has dipped 20 percent during the accreditation crisis.“Given the fact that the balance of harm tips sharply, strikingly, indeed overwhelmingly, in favor of the interests represented by the City Attorney, this is enough to authorize preliminary relief,” wrote Karnow.

And there it is.  A judge granted an injunction almost entirely on the grounds that CCSF is too big to fail.

I don’t know the ins and outs of each corner of the CCSF dispute.  There’s no shortage of competing perspectives, each with its own interests, and each with at least a kernel of truth to it.  But at the end of the day, the prospect of actually following through on the threat to close the college is politically untenable.  

Public higher education is, among other things, inescapably political.  I don’t mean that as a demerit; it’s simply a fact of life.  That becomes clear every year when state legislatures propose and debate budgets, and higher education appropriations are weighed against other things.  But it’s also true on a more macro level.

For the last few decades, public higher education has served as a bipartisan answer to economic inequality and social mobility.  It has functioned as a sort of culturally acceptable safety valve for class conflict.  Making employable credentials and skills available to the working class satisfies the progressive dream of upward mobility, and simultaneously satisfies the conservative impulse of equating economic outcomes with moral merit.  Study, work hard, apply yourself, and you can succeed.  It’s a compelling story, and one with enough truth to it on the individual level to resonate politically.

I suspect that much of the increased scrutiny that public higher education has undergone over the last few years is a pretty direct result of the Great Recession.  When the class-mobility function of higher education starts to sputter for lack of hiring, it’s easy to turn against the god that failed.  That’s true even though the lack of hiring is almost entirely due to external factors.  With increased external scrutiny comes a new focus on “performance funding,” “accountability,” assessment, and job placement.  

Community colleges are often the first to be picked on, since they don’t have the prestige or endowments of many other places.  But they do serve crucial roles, both locally and nationally, and that becomes obvious when the threats go from rhetorical to real.  It’s one thing to wag a finger at CCSF for this shortcoming or that one; it’s quite another to envision turning 80,000 students and thousands of employees away, and antagonizing hundreds of thousands of alumni in the process.  Safety valves may be flawed, but closing them off isn’t the answer.

In my perfect world, the utterly predictable failure of the “blunt instrument” approach to change would lead to a more thoughtful discussion about improvement.  Rather than assuming that the only choices are the status quo ante or liquidation -- both of which are unsatisfying -- maybe it’s time to focus the discussion on something more constructive.  How can public higher education do what it should do, better?  And how can we as a society finally generate enough well-paying jobs to maintain a healthy middle class?  

The injunction may be the signal to shift the discussion in a more useful direction.  I hope it is.  In the meantime, I’ll count last July’s prediction as fulfilled.

I suspect that much of the increased scrutiny that public higher education has undergone over the last few years is a pretty direct result of the Great Recession

I think so too but would put a slightly different emphasis on the issue: the Great Recession has made tuition, student loans, and university spending a much bigger (and still growing) issue. When college costs were low, or relatively low, it was pretty easy to ignore some of the long-term problems in higher education. But as tuition costs have gone up and loan burdens have increased, those issues get harder and harder to ignore.

That's especially true in conjunction with your observations about hiring.
"Making employable credentials and skills available to the working class satisfies the progressive dream of upward mobility, and simultaneously satisfies the conservative impulse of equating economic outcomes with moral merit. "

Wow. I have to disagree with this strange stereotype. All the conservatives I know (as well as all my liberal friends) believe very strongly in the dream of upward mobility, for themselves and for their children. Similarly, all the liberals (as well as all the conservatives) believe that economic outcomes should match moral merit.

No one I know believes that merely attending college, or making a college education available, will satisfy either of these.
What, I agree with E.D.?

I don't know enough about ancient history to even guess what happened to tuition during the Great Depression. Did it change as much as it has subsequent to the 2008 Depression? What were the different dynamics at work?

Thanks for the poli sci reminder that even the judiciary is part of the political system, but it still remains to be seen if the accrediting agency itself is subject to those same forces.
In addition the the poli sci reminder, the courts may also have introduced the California Community College system to the economics concept of moral hazard. If colleges don't have to answer to their accrediting agency then why not play fast and loose with accrediting standards? What? Sanction us? We'll see you in court!

I'm concerned that the judge in this case bought into the disaster scenario painted by the city attorney far too easily. It's important to note that California has a model for what happens to a community college that is stripped of its accreditation: Compton College (2006). In fact CCSF's new chancellor was the special trustee that led Compton College through its loss of accreditation and transition to a center as part of El Camino College.

Clearly CCSF is an order of magnitude larger than Compton was, and the solution or solutions would be that much more difficult. However, none of the powers that be in California would have left 80,000 students in San Francisco out in the cold if the college was in fact ordered to close.
One question I have:

When a school's accreditation is revoked, what affect does it have on the students who attended while it was accredited? Do they lose all ability to transfer credits earned while it was accredited? Do they get a remission on any loans they had to take out?

Also, if a school loses its accreditation, does it happen automatically, or is it phased in for, say, 1 or 2 semesters?

I'm not sure if the answers to these questions, whatever they are, really tell us what we *should* do, but I'd be curious to know them, and too lazy to look them up myself.

....or another way of putting what I'm really asking:

If push does come to shove and the accreditor(s) must invoke the nuclear option and the legal system allows it, is there a way to do it that has the least impact possible on the students involved, say, by revoking the accreditation on a "rolling" basis to give people a chance to land on their feet or find another option, without losing the credits they had earned?
My question is: If CCSF knew it was in danger of losing accreditation, why didn't the various administrators and other powers make efforts to keep the accreditation? They had to know the committee was coming.

Did they just think they were "too big to fail" and didn't have to worry about keeping accreditation? Losing accreditation, to me, means the students aren't getting the education they deserve.

Maybe the administration tired of dealing with shared governance that felt like hostage negotiations and threw up their hands. Or, maybe they were just trying to keep things together day to day and figured the paperwork would take care of its self. For what it's worth, there's a whole list of CCs in CA that have ended up on the naughty list in the last 10 years. This is the first one where the threat of removal of accreditation seemed likely to really be carried out.
It's a temporary injunction, apparently. This doesn't mean that the accreditation still might not be revoked after the case goes to trial. Just a delay.
My answer to Pierre's question is not authoritative, but based on observations of what seemed to happen in past cases where a college lost its accreditation.

All credits earned while the college was accredited have their original meaning and value, so classes completed before the July action deadline would "count". The college has to make provisions (probably through the state system) to provide transcripts for former students. This would be part of the closure plan the college was required to prepare by last summer. The only way to soften the effect would be if an accredited college ran classes on the CCSF campus.
To Anonymous @ 1:00PM

IMHO, the inaction on the part of many different parties, individually and collectively, is one of the strongest arguments against CCSF. Go read the original report that details things that they were supposed to do that had been ignored for a decade.

Contrary to what Anonymous@2:28PM said, some were things that the admin could do without any faculty involvement and some were things the faculty could do without any admin involvement, so it is not the case that the only things left undone were those that required collegial actions.
Exactly what CCPhysicist wrote @12:31 PM. Based on the accreditation reports, there was plenty of inaction from all constituent groups at CCSF with respect to changes that they needed to make; some of which were ten years in the making.

Ultimately, there's plenty of blame to go around about the long standing ills at this institution. As such, a reductionist approach to blaming one group on campus or the participatory governance structure at CCSF (or California in general) fails.
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