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Robert Shireman has long criticized colleges and lawmakers for not doing enough to protect lower-income students. But now that he's back in California, after a stint battling for-profit colleges for the U.S. Department of Education, Shireman has found a new opponent: faculty leaders at the state's community colleges and an approach to shared governance he says created the mess at City College of San Francisco. 

Meanwhile, City College’s fight to keep its doors open got a little more desperate this week. The college faces an accreditation crisis that could result in its being shut down next year, a nightmare scenario for California’s largest public college and its 90,000 students.

City College’s leaders pledge to do whatever it takes to save the college, and observers say shuttering it isn’t a realistic option. But a new state-commissioned analysis found that City College is dangerously close to bankruptcy, with possible annual deficits of $25 million and a raft of obligations it can’t afford.

The college’s inability to appropriately manage its budget amid deep state funding cuts was a central theme of the complex set of problems identified earlier this year by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. And those financial woes and their structural causes were laid bare this week in the report from the Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, a state agency tasked with assisting public colleges and schools.

City College of San Francisco has not developed a plan to fund significant liabilities and obligations such as retiree health benefits, adequate reserves and workers’ compensation costs. Further, it has been subsidizing categorical programs with unrestricted general fund monies regardless of the effect on the general fund, and has provided salary increases and generous benefits with no discernible means to pay for them.” -- Fiscal Crisis and Management Team

The report says City College employs twice as many full-time faculty, on a per-student basis, as comparable colleges in the system. It also outpaces other districts in numbers of support staff. And with 1,800 instructors, 842 of them full-time tenure-track, City College only had about 40 administrators on staff earlier this year, according to its accreditor.

Faculty members note that roughly 50 tenured professors serve in administrative roles but are not counted as administrators. Even so, the picture that emerges from both the accreditor and the fiscal crisis team is a college without adequate administrative control or stability, and an overstaffed faculty that receives unsustainably generous pay and benefits during a budget crisis.

Those problems festered because the college’s leadership was not able to make tough choices, according to California Competes, the nonprofit group Shireman leads. This is due to a structural problem that affects other colleges in the system, he said. Boards can’t move forward with controversial decisions, like trimming jobs and budget fat, Shireman said, because state regulation grants local branches of the Academic Senate for Community Colleges formal veto power over board decisions.

“That’s just bad management,” Shireman said. “The buck has to stop somewhere.”

The statewide Academic Senate vigorously disagrees. In fact, its leadership said Shireman and California Competes are completely off-base in their interpretation of the regulations that define shared governance in the state.

“This structure does work,” said Michelle L. Pilati, the Academic Senate’s president and a professor of psychology at Rio Hondo College. “Boards have the power to act.”

California Competes plans to make its case to the statewide Board of Governors sometime soon.

Board Powers?

Shireman has powerful allies in the state, at least some of whom support his group’s new shared governance campaign. He also has a track record of waging fierce regulatory battles, having led the U.S. Department of Education’s recent crackdown on for-profit colleges during his time as a department official.

Shared governance writ large is not the problem, Shireman said. He supports both the underlying state legislation as well as what he describes as a strong standards of shared governance. For example, he said his group would back regulations that matched up with the definition from the American Association of University Professors.

The problem, he said, is a “labyrinthine” approach to shared governance by California’s community colleges that is perhaps unique in American higher education.

The state Legislature in 1988 updated a law calling for community colleges and their districts to “ensure faculty, staff and students the right to participate effectively in district and college governance, and the opportunity to express their opinions at the campus level and to ensure that these opinions are given every reasonable consideration.”

The language in the bill (AB 1725) is fine, according to Shireman. But he said the supporting regulations drafted later by the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges give Academic Senates too much clout. Local governing boards have the choice of reaching “mutual agreement” with the faculty groups or essentially deferring to them on decision-making about a broad array of issues, extending well beyond curriculums and academics.

The result is “rubber stamping” by boards based on what keeps the faculty groups happy, according to California Competes, and the sort of passive decision-making that can lead to broken budgets. And if presidents or boards try to go against the will of the Academic Senates, Shireman said, they must weigh the risk of legal challenges.

“Extraordinary leaders can get past these requirements and get things done,” he said. “But we don’t have enough miracle workers coming to California.”

California Competes first weighed in on this alleged dysfunction with a report released earlier this year, saying the group was motivated by widespread complaints from an advisory panel of college and business leaders. But Shireman recently upped the ante with a strongly-worded opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, titled “Broken System Dooms CCSF,” and other material on the group's website.

The Academic Senate has fired back with a document challenging Shireman’s arguments, which Pilati calls confounding and without merit. Boards have several ways to exercise control, according to the faculty group, and do so all the time.

“The final decision to accept or reject recommendations remains in the hands of the local board of trustees,” Pilati wrote. “The claim that faculty are granted decision-making authority without accountability is simply inaccurate.”

A key distinction, she said, is that faculty can contribute to the process of budget and institutional planning, but the final decisions rest with boards.

“Ideally they talk it through and they find a compromise,” Pilati said. But “boards do things that the faculty don’t like all the time.”

Other faculty groups are backing the Academic Senate in this battle. Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, called Shireman's assertion that shared governance caused City College's woes "extreme" and "counter-productive." He also said faculty bring needed expertise to boardrooms on teaching and learning.

"While local trustee boards have the ultimate responsibility for governance, their decisions should be guided by those with the specific knowledge of how best to serve our students," Lightman said in an email.

Pilati also criticized Shireman’s use of City College as an example in the debate over shared governance. While she acknowledged that the college clearly has “extensive” problems, “that isn’t a reason to indict a governance system that is working across the vast majority of colleges.”

An Uphill Battle

City College has lacked consistent management in recent years, with the indictment of one ex-chancellor and the resignation of his successor due to health problems. But the college will soon have a new leader to help with its accreditation and money woes.

Earlier this month the college’s Board of Trustees invited in a “special trustee,” a relatively rare move that has helped in past crises at other California community colleges. Not everybody liked the idea of ceding control to an outsider, of course, and some students and others protested at the board meeting where the invitation was announced.

The special trustee will serve in an advisory role to the board, but will also share some powers, said Erik Skinner, interim chancellor of the California Community Colleges system.

“It is an intervention system that relies heavily on relationships,” Skinner said. “They’re going to help the district through some incredibly difficult choices.”

The system office is looking for candidates, and plans to present two or three finalists to the statewide governing board in the next few weeks, said Skinner. Leadership skills in tough times are the main qualifications for the job, and former college presidents could fit the profile.

Skinner said the report from the state’s fiscal crisis team was a “road map for recovery,” with recommendations that will help the special trustee, local board and college leaders to move quickly to comply with changes needed to make the college solvent and to assuage the concerns of accreditors.

But that won’t be easy, and some decisions are out of City College’s hands.

For example, if voters reject a proposed state tax hike as well as a local parcel tax, the report said the college will have projected budget deficits of roughly $25 million next year and $28 million the following year.

Even with new tax revenue, the college needs to bring its expenses down, according to the crisis team. And that will require changes to its administrative structure and decision-making.

“Past decisions have reduced the management team to spectators rather than organizational leaders,” the report said. “Under this organizational and cultural model there is no responsibility or accountability because it is often unclear how or by whom decisions have been made."

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