By Ana Tintocalis
Years of budget cuts have been brutal for California’s 112 community colleges. The hard times also have exposed deficits in management at nearly a quarter of the colleges, including the system’s biggest: City College of San Francisco. CCSF is the only school at risk of losing its accreditation.
Enter Robert Agrella, the state-appointed trustee tapped to fix a myriad of financial and leadership issues plaguing CCSF. That position gives him sole power to make sweeping changes at an institution that serves as many as 85,000 students.
If Agrella is successful, CCSF could become an example of how a community college can come back from the brink of closure. If not, the school will lose its accreditation by the end of this academic year.
Some faculty members have questioned whether Agrella, a veteran college administrator and son of a cop, is the right man for the job. He’s been advising the college’s board of trustees for the past year on which reforms to take, without much success. Agrella says his plans haven’t worked because trustees and faculty leaders didn’t listen.
“What worries me is the magnitude of the task and getting people to work together,” Agrella says. “Some of those people will perhaps change their minds, some will not. And for those that (do) not, move on. Our agenda is too big and too important to be sidetracked by other agendas.”
Agrella’s agenda includes everything from hiring an outside auditor to possibly closing campuses and training centers. He also has to develop a worst-case scenario if the school closes, spelling out where students could go to finish their education, and how the college would handle severance pay and pensions for more than 9,000 unemployed faculty and staff.
Meanwhile, faculty members and San Francisco city officials have accused the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges of overstepping its authority. San Francisco supervisors recently challenged the commission’s methods. When Supervisor David Campos asked the group’s liaison, Gojar Momjian, what standards it follows in making its accreditation decision, Momjian replied, “I can’t answer that question.”
That lack of transparency frustrates CCSF faculty, such as counselor Li Lovett. Lovett says the commission has disregarded the fact that CCSF students transition into jobs and universities at a higher rate than students at other state community colleges. She says accreditors are grading schools based on strict administrative benchmarks.
“Did it acknowledge that we’re a quality public institution?” Lovett asks rhetorically. “Yes. But it has started to focus and make the issues around finance and governance trump the issues of what we are doing for our students and what the importance of this community college is to the surrounding community.”
Lovett might have a point. An investigation conducted by a Cal State Sacramento graduate student found the commission was sanctioning institutions at a rate that is excessive, compared with other regional commissions. Just this week federal education officials criticized the commission for being out of compliance in four key areas, citing an appearance of conflict of interest and too few faculty members on evaluation teams.
For its part, the commission’s chair, Sherrill Amador, says her group is simply upholding tough standards that keep colleges accountable.
“If a college is going to collapse because they run out of money, then that’s the first thing you have to be concerned about,” Amador says. “Because you can’t deal with the educational issues if in fact you have such looming financial issues that you can’t continue to operate.”
Agrella agrees with that analysis. Now he begins the work of uniting a faculty on behalf of tens of thousands of students. “This is not an issue of ‘Can Bob Agrella save City College?’, contrary to how it’s reported,” Agrella says. “This is an issue, ‘Can Bob Agrella work with the administrators, the faculty and the staff here to save City College?’ We’ve got to work collectively. We’ve got to work together.”