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Three women stand with signs. One red sign features scissors and reads, “These cuts won’t heal.”

City College of San Francisco faculty members and students protesting proposed cuts outside of San Francisco City Hall in 2019. There’s been ongoing debate at the college about whether to grow or downsize its academic offerings.

A dearth of introductory English classes at City College of San Francisco has led to wait lists of upwards of 200 students, some of whom need the course to complete their programs and get their degrees. The college’s faculty union is calling on campus leaders to add more course sections and hire more instructors but administrators are concerned the college can’t afford new hires.

The union, the American Federation of Teachers 2121, blames the shortage of course sections on the layoffs of six tenured English faculty members and about 20 part-time English instructors in a broader rash of layoffs in 2022. Chancellor David Martin, who’s leaving to take a new role at Sierra College, argued that the move was necessary for the long-term financial health of the college, but the decision outraged faculty and prompted protests. (Several current trustees, elected last year and backed by the union, campaigned on rehiring the laid-off faculty members.)

The English Department received permission from administrators this past fall and re-hired two of the professors part-time when the wait list for English 1A, an introductory English course, ballooned to at least 200 students. But English professors say the problem hasn’t gone away.

Lizzie Brock, an English faculty member at the college since 2007, said 287 students were wait-listed for the course this spring. Eighty-two students eventually got off the wait list but that left 205 students still unable to take the course this semester. That worried her because City College requires introductory English as a prerequisite for many of its programs, including all liberal arts, nursing, radiology and fire science degree programs. Completion of the course is also required to transfer to a four-year university.

Brock isn’t just concerned about “bottleneck” but also the skill-building she believes students lose out on if they can’t take the course early in their time in college. She said the course functions as an introduction to essay writing, library research, academic reading, study skills and time management, which can be particularly helpful for adult learners returning to college.

“It’s like the bootcamp of English,” she said. “And they need it. It’s really essential for re-orienting to college or coming back in and just learning the customs and language and ins and outs of doing academic work.”

Vincent Lopes, who’s studying computer networking and cybersecurity at City College, said taking English 1A provided him that academic foundation. He was returning to college after a stint in the Coast Guard. When he made it off the wait list for the introductory English course this spring semester, he was both scared and excited about it.

Both of his parents also attended City College and had warm memories of the course, but “I was definitely nervous because I’d been out of education for a while,” he said. He found the course to be a good way of “learning about being in school again” and it taught him how to crystallize his ideas into research papers and how to access campus tutoring services.

“It felt like I wouldn’t know any of it if I didn’t have that built into my class,” he said.

At least 26 of the 52 English 1A course sections offered for the upcoming fall semester are already full, according to the college’s class registration platform, and more courses are sure to fill up in the coming months as more students enroll closer to the start of the semester. (By contrast, 78 English 1A courses were offered a few years ago, in fall 2021.)

Alan Wong, president of the Board of Trustees, agrees that the college needs to prioritize offering more of the most in-demand courses, including English 1A, but he believes shifting the college’s resources to the classes getting the highest enrollment makes more financial sense than hiring additional faculty.

He said City College now has a balanced budget and reserves after years of financial challenges and deficit spending, but that turnaround is still tenuous. He hopes to maintain the college’s fledgling financial health through “employee attrition” and by leaving positions unfilled or nixing vacant roles as some faculty members and other employees retire.

The debate over introductory English reflects a wider, long-term discussion at the college about whether to grow enrollment or downsize as the student body shrunk over time. The college had an enrollment bump this academic year of about 10 percent, which meant an additional 1,000 full-time students, Wong said. But that increase came after more than a decade of enrollment declines and a particularly steep drop during the pandemic. Student headcount in credit programs dropped from 41,142 students in the 2018–19 academic year to 26,584 students in 2022–23, according to college data.

“There are some folks that want to grow the institution and get more classes and see if the enrollment comes,” Wong said. “For me, I think that that might be a more risky approach,” because the college could expend the resources to expand and increased enrollment may not follow. Others want to cut some academic programs but past cuts to personnel and low-enrollment classes were “very disruptive to our institution and there’s still fallout from that.”

To complicate matters, California community colleges are shifting to a new state funding formula based on enrollment and various student success metrics. To soften the transition, the state has allowed some colleges to take advantage of a “hold harmless” provision for now and continue receiving the same level of funding as under the old formula but with no cost-of-living adjustments, or to be funded under the new formula, whichever would translate to more revenue, Wong said. He predicts that if City College can increase enrollment 8 percent annually for the next three years, it would get more funding under the new formula, an extra incentive to boost enrollment and offer high-demand classes.

Brock is of the build-it-and-they-will-come school of thought.

“The college has shrunk a lot in the last 20 years, as many colleges have” and “we’ve really exacerbated the shrinking with cuts,” she said. “… You don’t send your customers away if you’re trying to build your restaurant business.”

Rick Baum, a long-time adjunct political science professor at the college, said introductory English isn’t the only class with fewer sections offered over the years. The same is true for English as a Second Language courses, a noncredit course he sees as providing a valuable on-ramp to degree programs. He’s also heard that nursing students struggle to get into the chemistry courses they need to complete degrees. He added that a search of the college’s class registration platform shows it's offering about 50 fewer classes this year than last year.

He worries students are likely to get discouraged by long wait lists and go elsewhere or give up on college altogether.

He noted the college’s student body is made up disproportionately of people of color or from low-income backgrounds.

“… It’s reinforcing structural classism in our society and structural racism by denying students educational opportunities, which they’re doing by cutting classes,” he said.

Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, said it’s not uncommon for community colleges to not offer enough of the courses students need when they need them.

Classes get cut when they don’t fill, and “when you cancel a section … everyone is screwed, the student especially,” he said. He believes not enough attention is paid to scheduling and says more community college academic advisers should help students devise personalized academic plans that specifically outline what classes they need to take and when. Advisers and deans should then coordinate to offer those classes, he said.

“The question is, ‘What courses do our students need to complete their programs; when do they need those courses to be offered?’” Jenkins said. "And that answers the question of 'What faculty do we need and what modalities are we going to offer?’”

He said offering the right mix can help enrollment, which City College sorely needs after a 65 percent enrollment plunge over the last 15 years.

“I’m concerned about them,” he said. “They need to focus on this.”

Meanwhile, infighting between trustees and the outgoing chancellor over spending and other related issues has attracted some negative attention. The board passed a resolution to rehire laid-off faculty last summer. The college’s accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, then hit the college with a warning earlier this year, raising concerns about whether the board was considering the “long-range fiscal implications when making financial decisions,” acting “in a manner consistent with its policies and bylaws,” and allowing the chancellor to administer board policies “without Board interference.”

It isn’t the first time the accreditor has been at odds with the college, and the institution faced a threat to its accreditation in 2012 over financial problems.

Betsy Espinoza, who took English 1A this past semester, hopes City College administrators figure out how to offer more introductory English courses. She noted that some English 1A classes come with extra support, including an assigned tutor. She took one of those classes after getting off a wait list, because she wanted the extra help.

“It was like therapy,” she said. “I just felt so much support in that class … I think that cutting these classes is setting our future students up for failure.”

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