City College of San Francisco (Charla Bear/KQED)
City College of San Francisco (Charla Bear/KQED)

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.”

  • rws450

    The data is all there in Sacramento. CCSF students are MORE successful than students from 90% of California community colleges including the college Agrella was previously head of. Accrediting Commision Chairperson Amador’s comments would be comical if the situation was not so tragic. “We have to kill you because you dipped into your financial. reserves.” There is a huge backstory here. KQED should do more coverage and speak much more with teachers and students. How about the brilliant student trustee Shanell Williams?

    • Chris DeLong

      If I operate a home for the homeless and am egregiously irresponsible, should I be excused of my mistakes because of some overruling public good that is produced? No. I should be fired and new leadership should be put in place.

      • Guest

        How does your bizarre scenario have anything to with CCSF? The ACCJC doesn’t want to “put in place” :”new leadership” — it wants to SHUT DOWN CCSF for being in violation of its (the ACCJC’s) secret and arbitrary rules.

        • Chris DeLong

          My ‘bizarre scenario’ is an exact allegory. CCSF produces a public good: educated people. Your assertion that ACCJC wants to shutdown CCSF is farcical. New leadership has been empowered to literally stop that from happening. Further, the accrediting requirements are not secret or arbitrary. I am disappointed by your ignorance.

      • Guest

        excellent analogy.

  • Guest

    I give credit to ACCJC for taking care of the students and employees if CCSF were to close.

    “He [Agrella] 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.”

    • Guest

      If by “taking care of the students,” you mean forcing them into the arms of crummy, for-profit diploma mills like Phoenix, then I agree.

      • Guest

        The students can transfer to College of San Mateo, Skyline College or Laney College etc.

        • Sean McLaren

          85,000 students…have you compared the class listings for ccsf to any of the nearby colleges? If there were room for even a third of the displaced students anywhere nearby, I would be shocked.

          • Guest

            A lot of non-credit students. A lot of students take the same piano or PE classes for 4 times. A lot of students who can benefit more from apprenticeship then college.

          • Sean McLaren

            I’m not even including those, CCSF has 3+ times as many sections of courses in things like calculus and university English as nearby JCs. Those are classes taken almost exclusively by students who are serious about transferring, and thus are likely to need somewhere to continue taking classes.

            And the people who would benefit from apprenticeships are already in programs like that, CCSF has a huge number of programs designed to be two year technical certificates in things like nursing, heating air conditioning, plumbing, etc etc. This is a valuable, and for the moment irreplaceable, part of the community.

            (I’ve recently started at CCSF so I’ve done a lot of research. It’s kind of shocking how close to university level many of their courses and programs are, and how many sections there are of courses that will really only be taken by people who have already made significant progress towards transferring, especially compared to other local JCs. I’m really hoping they keep the place open.)

        • guest

          So then CCSF would be only the first domino…

  • KH

    Funny how this news story doesn’t even touch on the US DOE’s letter to the ACCJC, which was released August 13, stating that ACCJC is out of compliance and needs to clean up its act. Also lacking is input from students in this story. Would like to hear more from them. They are the biggest stakeholders.

  • Jenny Kirk

    I am shocked by the reporting here. Dr. Agrella is not charged with deciding how to close the college and make sure student credits transfer, the college faculty and administrators are required to come up with the plan according to the ACCJC’s own requirements. In fact, the faculty and administrators came up with a closure plan last year.

  • Rik

    Look, Agrella is out of his league and given the task of bringing a fabulous urban
    institution into his league. When Agrella says ” his plans haven’t worked because trustees and faculty leaders didn’t listen”, any first year law student would ask why he was unable to phrase said ideas in such a way that at least opened up a door.

    Unfortunately, Agrella is who the authorities ( e.g. the lavishly publicly funded CC State Chancellor’s office ) wants in position at this time.

  • realtalk

    Will the ACCJC have to hire a special trustee for $276,000/year to correct their deficiencies? I’ve got the perfect one in mind.

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