New College of California Is on Deathbed

Nontraditional institution appears to have run out of time and money -- and many there are preparing for the end.
February 11, 2008

Circumstances at New College of California have deteriorated to the point that it isn't operating.

Those faculty members still hanging on – who have not been paid since early November and whose health benefits recently lapsed without notice – are, while still holding out hope for salvation, trying to put together plans to “teach out” the current crop of students and potentially find a home for some of the progressive college’s unique programs at other institutions. New College’s administration has yet to make any announcement about the institution’s future. But with the U.S. Department of Education withholding financial aid funds, the start of spring classes seems to be indefinitely delayed. Classes were supposed to start in mid-January.

“Short of the roof actually falling in on the college buildings, it’s hard to imagine how a situation could be worse,” said Adam Cornford, a former humanities faculty member and, since the college’s crisis began in August, its spokesman. Without a paycheck for months, he recently left the college for financial reasons but pledged to return if classes can resume. Even if only for the duration of a teach-out -- although, in absence of federal funds, real concerns exist about whether the college could even conduct a teach-out with current reserves.

New College free-fell into crisis mode last summer when its accrediting agency, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, placed it on probation. WASC cited widespread administrative failures (recordkeeping at the college was by all accounts atrocious), and ineffective governance characterized by unilateral control by the president and a few others. WASC also had concerns about academic integrity – including allegations that the former president, Martin Hamilton, had intervened to change the grades of an international student who said he’d give New College a million dollars. While Hamilton acknowledged in August that he had been conned, and that he had offered the student special treatment, he denied that he was involved in changing the student's grades.

By fall, enrollment had dropped 41 percent. The progressive, quirky San Francisco College, with degrees in activism and social change and women’s spirituality in addition to law and teacher education, considered declaring bankruptcy. Administrators appointed in the transition, professors and trustees worked long hours trying to pull the institution into better shape – progress that the WASC visiting team noted in November. In its report, the team described “genuine and productive attempts” to establish policies and processes "that could enable the college to survive financially and to function with integrity as an institution of higher learning.” (Among the changes were a new faculty pay scale, intensive monitoring of expenditures and new proposals for faculty academic oversight). But it also found “serious and long-standing deficiencies” in all seven review areas and a relative lack of foundation to support the "massive and complex" change needed. Among its recommendations, the team suggested that New College's leadership consider whether continued WASC accreditation would be essential to the college's mission.

Now, just weeks from when WASC will meet to make a decision on New College's accreditation status, concerns about maintaining accreditation are secondary. Accredited or not, the college right now isn't even offering courses.

“It’s sad. We worked so hard to bring the college into compliance,” said Carolyn Cooke, chair of the Faculty Council and co-director of the Writing and Consciousness master of fine arts program. “It’s heart-breaking that all the work we did on maintaining accreditation is on the back burner.”

Without access to the federal funds – students’ applications were scrutinized and funds withheld because of New College’s history of shoddy recordkeeping – the college has twice delayed the start of the spring semester, with classes now starting, "at the earliest," sometime next week. Cooke acknowledged however that no registrar is in place, and it’s unlikely classes would start so soon. But she said faculty are deeply concerned about the students’ academic futures and are trying to be prepared to start teaching whenever possible. (Cornford estimated that about 300 students, down from 1,000 last year, remain ready to start classes in the spring, although he says, "Who knows?")

“The reason that faculty remain, even though we’re unpaid, is we’re committed to the students completing the semester,” said Cooke. She also referenced the uniqueness of the college and the devotion it can inspire in some students and faculty. Its motto is "education for a just, sacred and sustainable world."

New College, Cooke said, “really is unique in wonderful ways as well as alarming ones.”

The administration has not made an announcement about steps forward, and its acting president did not return an interview request. Ralph A. Wolff, president and executive director of WASC, said the commission is also seeking information about the college’s plans in advance of a February 21 meeting to determine New College’s accreditation status going forward. “Continued operation is the major issue before the college. Whether it is able to continue its accreditation or not, whatever path that the college takes, then there still needs to be attention paid to the needs of the students,” said Wolff. “We’re really trying to work to figure out where the college is planning to go and what it’s trying to do to support the students."

“As far as I know, the college is trying to figure out the answers themselves. But I think at this point they have to make a decision in order for us all to move ahead. You can only postpone for so long.”


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