City College of San Francisco will lose its accreditation in one year and be shut down, its regional accreditor announced on Wednesday, unless the college can prevail in a review or appeal process with the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.
The two-year college, which enrolls 85,000 students, would be the largest institution ever to lose its accreditation. Without regional accreditation it would no longer receive state funding and would certainly close its doors.
One year ago the commission, part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, slapped a "show cause" sanction on City College for a wide range of identified problems, including dangerous budget deficits, a balky governance system and a failure to track student outcomes.
A subsequent report from a state agency reinforced concerns about the two-year college’s fiscal health, including that it only had enough cash reserves on hand to cover three days of operation.
The college "fully addressed" only two of 14 identified problem areas, the commission said in a written statement. The key remaining obstacles are a "lack of financial accountability" and deficiencies in leadership and governance.
Officials with the commission and the state’s community college system stressed that the decision is not final. In addition to having a year to prove that it has righted itself to the accreditor, City College could also be saved by state government.
"State intervention is going to be absolutely necessary," said Edwin M. Lee, San Francisco’s mayor, in a conference call with reporters.
City College's 11 campuses and sites will remain open and accredited for the next year. It is currently registering students for the fall semester, said Thelma Skott-Skillman, the college’s interim chancellor.
The college, which employs about 2,700 faculty members and staff, will be managed by a special trustee who the system will appoint. The trustee will have "extraordinary powers," Brice Harris, the system's chancellor, said in a written statement.
"We think this institution’s worth saving," Harris told reporters, "and it can be saved."
Harris and Scott-Skillman said they were disappointed by the decision. Lee went a step farther, saying the college’s closure would have a "devastating impact on our great city."
The accreditor stripped decision-making powers away from the college's Board of Trustees. The board's chair told the San Francisco Chronicle that the verdict was "shocking and outrageous" given changes made by the college during the last year.
According to the commission, however, City College had not made adequate progress.
In a letter to the college explaining its decision, the commission was harshly critical of faculty members and trustees. It said acrimony and a lack of defined governance roles continue to hamper management of the college.
"Significant divisions in the faculty and in the wider institution prevent the institution from responding effectively to requirements of accreditation and providing a sustained quality education," according to the commission. "Testimony indicated that, within the college, some faculty feel strong pressure, even intimidation, to defer to designated faculty leaders even when they feel that a different approach should be considered."
Faculty unions have been harshly critical of the commission over its handling of the CCSF crisis, as well as its sanctions of other California community colleges. The California Federation of Teachers in May filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, accusing the commission of having conflicts of interest and failing to follow state and federal laws.
A coalition led by professors vowed to fight the accreditor's verdict, which it called illegitimate. The group called the commission a "rogue institution that must be stopped by the Department of Education."
Some faculty members also challenged aspects of the commission's latest findings. Katryn Wiese is a professor of geology and oceanography who directs City College's efforts to track student learning outcomes, which the commission said remains an area of deficiency. Wiese, however, posted a response on the college's website saying that a "huge jump" had been made in assessing student learning. She said she was surprised by the commission's ruling on that area.
Harris stressed that faculty members and administrators must work together to keep the college open.
"Everyone at the college must work with us. Time is extremely short," he said in a video message. "To delay or obstruct progress will only ensure the demise of City College of San Francisco."
Beyond the Bay Area
The California agency's decision is likely to reverberate beyond San Francisco and the state's borders. The possible shuttering of one of the country's biggest and most visible community colleges joins a list of other recent actions by accreditors that, taken together, are arguably more aggressive than is common for the quality assurance agencies.
Those decisions -- including serious actions against high-profile for-profit institutions such as Ashford University and the University of Phoenix, as well as the stripping of accreditation of the struggling Mountain State University and St. Paul's College -- come as the accreditation system in the United States faces intensifying scrutiny, including questions about its rigor.
Some higher education leaders have pointed to the series of tougher actions to make the case that a system based on peer review can police inadequate performance as well as spur institutional improvement, the two main jobs that accreditors are asked to do.
The American Council on Education called the commission's action regrettable but "absolutely necessary." The council, which is higher education's umbrella group, said dramatic change is clearly needed at City College.
"An institution that does not meet accreditation standards cheats its students and community," said Molly Broad, the council's president, in a written statement.
Randi Weingarten had a different take. Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the commission's action shows that the "accreditation system has lost its way." She said the potential closure of the community college was evidence of a double standard.
"Massive, for-profit institutions that have irreparably harmed so many students have been given credibility by this system," Weingarten said in a written statement, "while the City College of San Francisco, which has served so many, is on the verge of being unnecessarily decimated and devastated."
The access to learning City College provides its 85,000 students "must be preserved at all costs," Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, said in a written statement. He said the association would support Harris and the college's leaders "in every way possible as they put the college on a path to success."