For the past year, the City College of San Francisco worked hard to meet accreditation rules—cutting its staff, retooling its management, and winning critical new taxpayer support. A core part of its community, the institution appeared to many to have done just enough to save its life.
Instead, last week the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges slammed the door, saying the college simply isn't making ends meet and declaring the end of its accreditation as of July 2014.
The federally recognized accrediting agency's decision was unexpected and "outrageous," said Alisa Messer, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, which represents City College faculty members. That's because the City College was making progress on governance and budgetary issues, all while showing no signs of poor or declining student performance, Ms. Messer said.
But the financial issues—the college is projected to be losing money by the 2014-15 academic year, even with new infusions of state and local tax revenue—apparently loomed too large for the accreditor to ignore.
The president of the accrediting agency, Barbara A. Beno, said in a letter announcing its decision that the City College "and many of its staff have worked very hard to move the institution forward." Still, Ms. Beno said, the college "would need more time and more cohesive institutionwide effort" to meet accrediting standards.
The decision leaves the college, its 85,000 students, its 2,600 faculty and staff members, and their surrounding city and state in a sudden and difficult bind. Regaining accreditation on its own through appeals or further reform looms as a long shot. Merging with an accredited institution is fraught with improbabilities. And the college appears to be too large to just shut down entirely.
The first step was announced on Wednesday, right after the accreditor's decision was revealed, when the California Community Colleges system outlined plans to appeal the decision, and to appoint a new and more powerful trustee to run the institution.
"A bold plan of action is needed to rescue City College," said San Francisco's mayor, Edwin M. Lee, backing the state's response.
In the longer term, however, the choices get less clear. Operating without accreditation is not an option. Accreditation is necessary for students to remain eligible for federal student-loan and grant money, and for academic credits they have earned to transfer to other institutions. And seeking recognition from another accrediting agency is forbidden by state and federal rules.
'San Francisco Values'
In the only similar instance in state history, Compton Community College was absorbed into El Camino College after Compton lost its accreditation in 2005. The City College does have some candidates among neighboring community colleges, but none of a comparable size, making such an acquisition risky for the accreditation and survival of any institutions that might attempt it.
Another option could be a "creative alliance" with a different type of institution, such as a state college or even a private college, said Robert M. Shireman, director of California Competes, a nonprofit group of business and civic leaders.
A first step, however, regardless of who or what ends up running the City College of San Francisco, may have to involve some major bridge building. As Ms. Beno's agency made clear, the financial troubles have a story behind them: The City College has a diverse but ultimately unwieldy governance structure, in which faculty members play an unusually powerful role, according to the accrediting agency.
With the power of their shared-governance system, faculty members helped ensure their priorities as the City College coped with sharp reductions in state financial assistance during the recession. In particular, said Ms. Messer, an English instructor, the institution put a priority on cuts "outside the classroom."
Such decisions included protecting an abundance of noncredit courses, which employ faculty members but generate less revenue, said Raymond R. White, an instructor in biology at the City College who is critical of the union.
Ms. Messer said the college's choices "were not typical of the other" California community colleges. "They were a reflection of our 'San Francisco values.'"
But those haven't proved to be the values of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. In announcing its decision last week, the commission cited a "lack of financial accountability, as well as institutional deficiencies in the area of leadership and governance," as the main reasons for its decision.
Mr. Shireman, a former top official in the U.S. Education Department, said the City College's broad course catalog in part reflects its unusual role as a designated provider of adult education in San Francisco, a function handled in most cities by the elementary and secondary schools.
But over all, he said, the union has been part of a divisive leadership structure at City College, in which faculty members have been overly fearful of community colleges' focusing too tightly on job training. Some faculty members have suggested that is Ms. Beno's real agenda, with the commission part of a conservative strategy to narrow the mission of publicly financed education.
A key grievance, in that regard, was Ms. Beno's public support of a new California law—opposed by City College faculty members—that sets conditions favoring more-traditional students who either transfer to a four-year college or get vocational training.
The City College educates students from a wide range of backgrounds, including prison and violent homes, and society benefits from their educational successes, said Wendy S. Kaufmyn, an engineering instructor at the college.
"A lot of our students don't fit that narrow path, that narrow definition of what a lot of people think students are," Ms. Kaufmyn said, referring to the California law backed by Ms. Beno.
But the pursuit of such wider missions, Mr. Shireman said, needs to be properly financed. "There are broader discussions about the extent to which community colleges can do just whatever they want whenever they want, with taxpayer money, versus having some method of prioritizing what to fund and what not to fund," he said.
On educational achievement, City College leaders cite state data showing that their students perform better than the California Community Colleges system's averages in important categories, including retention and graduation rates. The degree completion rate at the City College among students who arrive unprepared is almost 12 percentage points higher than the state average, according to figures compiled by Margaret C. Hanzimanolis, an adjunct English instructor at the City College and two other nearby community colleges.
But on fiscal issues, the situation is more dire. State support for California's community colleges has fallen 12 percent since the 2008-9 academic year. The City College got some help in November, when voters at both the state and city levels approved ballot measures setting aside more money for community colleges. But even with those twin infusions of cash, the City College is expected to fall back into deficit as early as the 2014-15 year, with red ink totaling $2.5-million, according to a report last year by the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team.
Union members have disputed that projection, distributing an analysis suggesting the state assessment was riddled with exaggerations and factual errors. Also, any future projections are heavily influenced by highly controversial decisions about how much money the City College should put into retirement reserves, said Richard H. Baum, who teaches social sciences.
And either way, the City College is far from the only struggling institution. Twenty-seven of California's 112 community colleges have been given sanctions or warnings by their regional accreditor.
In the past year, since Ms. Beno's agency first put the City College on warning status, the college has taken steps that include laying off faculty members, closing some campuses, reorganizing departments, and revising a mission statement that emphasizes a diverse mission reaching to cultural enrichment and lifelong learning.
The college's faculty has also fought back. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges faces its own renewal hearing this December by the U.S. Education Department, and Ms. Messer's union has filed a complaint with the department over the commission's behavior.
In a 280-page filing in April, the union questioned the commission's motives in penalizing the City College, suggesting potential conflicts of interest that include the presence of Ms. Beno's husband on a review panel that makes site visits for the commission. The union also suggested that the commission, through its power to influence budgetary reforms, was improperly suggesting the use of a retirement-fund investment structure in which two commission members have a financial interest.
And by threatening the City College with drastic consequences for its failure to meet commission standards, Ms. Beno is further scaring away students from the college, which once had as many as 120,000 students, Ms. Kaufmyn said.
Ms. Beno has rejected such talk. The retirement-fund investments are voluntary, a spousal relationship is not a conflict, and City College management is responsible for the situation it faces, she said. "Leadership, understood at a broad level, has been the problem," Ms. Beno said.
The U.S. Education Department wrote last month to Ms. Beno saying it wanted a comprehensive response to the allegations made by the union. But department officials, questioned after last week's decision to revoke the City College's accreditation, said Congress had made it clear that institutions must meet standards in areas that include financial solvency, and that student achievement alone is not a sufficient means of retaining accreditation.
Correction (7/8/2013, 11:53 a.m.): This article originally misstated the types of degrees for which the completion rate is almost 12 percentage points higher at the City College of San Francisco than the state average. They are the degrees of students who came to college unprepared, not technical degrees. The article has been updated to reflect that correction.