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.