City College of San Francisco (CCSF) was beating the odds against public education, under increased attack since the economic meltdown of 2008. Even though the state cut the college’s funding by $50 million over the past five years, CCSF kept classes open and avoided major layoffs and pay cuts. An incredible achievement, since other California community colleges rolled back course offerings and trimmed personnel!
But the faculty, staff, and administration got no applause. Instead, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), slapped the school with its severest sanction, “show cause” or lose its accreditation.
To survive, the college must correct ACCJC-identified “shortcomings.” Under the guise of improving student learning, the commission is pushing extreme cuts. If City College fails to implement drastic changes by a March 2013 deadline, the commission will decertify the school — effectively shutting it down.
Outraged students, staff, faculty and the community are determined to keep classrooms open. For the working-class students, many people of color and immigrants, CCSF is the key to higher education and jobs. The loss of this accessible public resource is unthinkable.
Accreditation as tool of austerity. CCSF is one front in a global drive to limit access to higher education. Funding cuts by U.S. states have resulted in exorbitant tuition hikes, too. Over the last five years, public universities in California have faced increases of more than 98 percent, Arizona 101 percent, and Washington 67 percent. Next up is the misuse of accreditation.
The U.S. is one of few countries where private accrediting authorities like the ACCJC are empowered to police and ultimately determine the fate of both public and private schools. In the past, accreditation addressed the quality of academic and vocational programs. Now the ACCJC is directing college finances and governance.
The commission has a sordid record of attacking public colleges. In 2005, the commission revoked the accreditation of Compton College, a largely African American school in Los Angeles County. At that time the California Federation of Teachers characterized the body as “a private organization that is accountable to no one it serves.”
Currently, two other California colleges are under the draconian “show cause” sanctions, 10 are on probation, and 14 have warnings. From 2003 to 2008, ACCJC sanctioned 37 percent of California’s community colleges. In the same period, other community college accrediting bodies across the country sanctioned only zero to six percent.
At the same time that the ACCJC threatens community colleges, it gives the green light to for-profit schools like Heald College and the Art Institute of San Francisco. These are under U.S. Senate scrutiny for exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, and fraudulent use of taxpayer dollars.
So the commission isn’t about ensuring educational standards. And it’s setting a dangerous precedent. Sanctions on community colleges lead to shifting higher education to free market profiteers, in the same way that cuts to public K-12 schools have paved the way for private charter schools.
A model institution. City College has been an innovator, focused on the diverse needs of its 85,000-plus students. Among its distinctions are the first LGBT studies department in the country, benefits and decent pay for part-time instructors, and an English as a Second Language program that teaches thousands of immigrants every semester. Now these very achievements are targets of the fiscal hatchet men. Under accrediting commission pressure, the Board of Trustees hired a Special Trustee — at $1,000 a day — to ensure the college corrects its “deficiencies.” Childcare programs and campuses are being shut down and ethnic studies and social justice departments consolidated. Faculty and staff unions face severe takeaways.
Without accreditation, the school would be ineligible for federal financial aid, course units would not be transferable, and it could not award degrees.
Fighting back. San Franciscans are coming to the defense of City College. Students shut down the Board of Trustees meeting when the elected trustees voted to bring in an unelected member with veto power. Art students are staging a mixed media exhibit, “Accreditate This.” Radical Women, with campus groups and American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, sponsored a showing of “Precious Knowledge,” a documentary on the ethnic studies struggle in Tucson, Ariz., high schools. On Nov. 15, CCSF students held a rally at the Ocean campus with public university students. Faculty and staff unions endorsed ballot propositions to raise part of the needed revenue, which passed in the November election.
Yet the assault on the college continues. A victory would inspire and help build the larger struggle for education.
But what will it take to beat back the onslaught? Only united organizing will save the day. “We need to build an alliance with both faculty and students — there shouldn’t be a divisive plan where one group is doing its own thing,” says student Lily Lan.
Reaching out to all who would be most affected by the college’s closing is a must. It’s essential to build a united front of students, parents, faculty, staff, residents, labor unions and community groups to pressure the ACCJC to back off and go after the real abusers — the for-profit schools. Efforts are under way to do just that.
The same important and inspiring lessons are to be learned from other recent struggles. Faculty, staff, students and unions protested tuition increases at Baruch College of the City University of New York with demonstrations that shut down the Manhattan campus.
A similar united struggle led by students in Quebec forced the government to back down on tuition hikes and a repressive law limiting protests. Chicago public school teachers built tremendous public support for improved working and learning conditions, and beat back some egregious concessions.
With a broad, united community response, defenders of CCSF can win. Stop the destruction of public education now!
To get involved, email Bob Price, a chemistry professor at CCSF, at RPChemist@aol.com.
Dean Ferguson provided invaluable research assistance for this article.