Michael Condiff remembers the first time he walked into City College of San Francisco (CCSF) — he’d just finished a 13-year prison sentence, and it was the first time in a long time that he felt good about himself. As Condiff explains, it was the day he got a shot at a better life.
“It gave me a reason to get up in the morning,” Condiff says by phone from his home in Sacramento County. “It gave me a chance to be a normal, productive member of society again.”
Condiff, once called the “Casino Bandit” in the media for a series of robberies in the ’90s, was living in a halfway house in the Tenderloin when he enrolled in journalism, spanish and math classes at CCSF in early 2009. Turned away from jobs because he was an ex-felon, he says that he would have been left to his own devices if it weren’t for the friendly and welcoming environment he found through the college’s Second Chance Program.
Condiff took classes there for two and a half years. “If City College hadn’t been there for me,” he says, “I don’t know what kind of path I would have taken.” Now, he is the general manager of a hotel in Gold River.
Come July 2014, the life paths of thousands of Bay Area residents may be re-routed if the college is forced to close. Threatened by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior College’s (ACCJC) decision in early July to revoke the college’s accreditation, CCSF faces an uncertain future.
“It’s absurd,” says Patrick Parker, a former CCSF student who joined more than 1,500 people last month in front of the U.S. Department of Education offices on Beale Street to protest the decision and fight for what he describes as affordable and accessible public education.
Operating for the past nine months under a “show cause” sanction served from the accrediting commission, CCSF, one of the nation’s largest public schools, was informed on July 3 that it had fully addressed only two of 14 recommendations offered by the commission, and corrected few of the deficiencies outlined by the ACCJC.
The commission stated that CCSF would need more time and a more cohesive institutional-wide effort to fully comply with accreditation requirements. It emphasized that the college is significantly below accreditation standards for instructional programs, student support services, library and learning support services and facilities and that its main obstacles include a lack of financial accountability and deficiencies in leadership and governance.
Multiple requests for comment from the accrediting commission were made, but ACCJC declined to speak to Mission Local about the specifics of the accreditation loss.
Many supporters of City College and advocates of public education believe that the ACCJU has a secret agenda. “It’s an attempt to downsize and privatize and take away community colleges,” said a graduate student speaker at the rally. She praised the crowd for defending public education in the United States. “What happens here will have a very profound impact the world over,” she told them.
Edgar Luis Torres, department chair of Latin America and Latino Studies at CCSF, says that after nine months of hard work by hundreds of people at City College, the decision came as a shock.
“Certainly what we’ve done was applauded by the [ACCJC] visiting team,” Torres says. “They told us that we were a model that would be followed.”
In an effort to expose what they believe to be misuse of the accreditation process, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) 2121 union filed a lengthy complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in April. Instead of helping to improve the education of students, the groups argued that the accrediting commission diverts attention, time and resources away from the classroom to focus on arbitrary compliance issues that have little to do with education.
The California Federation of Teachers joined forces with the CCSF Coalition, a local group that rejected the legitimacy of the accreditation ruling, and put pressure on the U.S. Department of Education to revoke the ACCJC’s power as an accrediting agency; hold the ACCJC accountable for its “unwarranted” ruling against CCSF; denounce what they call the “corporate plan” to privatize education and keep community colleges accessible and affordable to all.
In response to the multiple criticisms of the accreditation process and the demands by the teacher’s unions to make the process more transparent, the U.S. Department of Education investigated the practices of the ACCJC. According to the CCSF Coalition, the Department of Education recently found the AACJC to be out of compliance with criteria necessary for recognition by the department as an accrediting institution.
In a press release issued Tuesday evening, Wendy Kaufmyn, member of the coalition and CCSF faculty member says, “This announcement clearly demonstrates the illegitimacy of the ACCJC and its attacks on CCSF.”
Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications for California community colleges, says that millions of dollars have been cut from CCSF over the past few years. For the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the college spent 13 million dollars less from its unrestricted general fund than it had spent three years prior. Feist also writes in an email that the college laid off 36 staff members since the show cause sanction, and that many part-time faculty members were not rehired for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
If its accreditation is revoked, CCSF will lose federal and state funding, and students will be left with degrees that won’t be recognized by many employers and universities. If the college were to close its doors, 85,000 students would be forced to look elsewhere for education (probably at a higher cost, CCSF supporters say) and thousands of faculty and staff would be laid off.
Torres says that a shuttered CCSF will have citywide ramifications because the college trains many of San Francisco’s police officers, firefighters and nurses. “The college is an engine that generates jobs for San Francisco,” Torres says. “What are you going to do when that disappears?”
District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who spoke at the downtown rally in July, emphasized the importance of the city’s beloved college. “What we’re talking about here is protecting San Francisco values,” he said to a cheering crowd. “[City College] is the embodiment of the American dream.”
At a community meeting that Campos held in the Mission last month, some residents suggested a community-based accrediting commission that would go before state and local officials to explain why closing the college would be detrimental to the community.
“The more elected officials who are paying attention to this the better,” said Alyssa Picard, an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers. “That’s our best chance at ultimately leveraging the Department of Education and folks who have the power to change the way the ACCJC is working.”
Jorge Bell, dean of financial aid and acting dean of the Mission campus, has been a CCSF employee for 35 years and was a student there in the mid-’70s. Bell boasts that he’s an example of what the college has done for so many people. “I practically grew up here,” he says in his office, which overlooks 22nd Street in the Mission.
Bell says that many students have stopped enrolling in classes since news of the accreditation loss, and many teachers are retiring early or accepting jobs with more stable futures, even though the school is fully accredited until next summer.
On the Student Counseling page of the school’s website, a “What’s Up With CCSF” message ensures students that the accreditation loss has been appealed, it is not final and that any units taken this fall or spring will still count and transfer. Classes begin today — Wednesday, August 14.
“This has been a difficult time for all of us,” the message reads. “Know that your Counseling and teaching faculty have done their utmost in an extremely short period of time to meet the requirements of the accrediting body. We will continue to provide the excellent assistance in reaching your goals that we have offered you in the past and we will get through this together. We’re still open and it’s not over yet!”
On CCSF’s homepage, a video titled “We Are Here” features students and staff working and studying, and telling viewers that school is open. A note from Interim Chancellor Dr. Thelma Scott-Skillman on the same page encourages students to “continue pursuing your dreams at City College.”
“We’re losing people,” Torres says. “Good people, good teachers, experienced teachers.”
Indiana Quadra is one of them. “I probably would have stayed a few more years,” she says over the phone from her home in Marin county. “Mainly because I loved what I was doing.”
Quadra retired last year, after 30 years of working in career counseling at City College. “I could see the writing on the wall,” she says. She views the early years there as the glory days of what was once a grassroots school.
Quadra decided to leave when she realized that her voice and the voices of others at the school had been silenced by a committee that hadn’t been clear about standards and had given them no warning about the “show cause” sanction.
“It’s like somebody giving you a final without ever giving you any notes or a study guide for the final,” she says.
Bell says that although those who are left at City College are demoralized by the threat of accreditation loss, they are confident that within the next year, they can overcome the crisis.
Torres says that people he’s taught have gone on to study at Stanford and Johns Hopkins. A once-homeless former student sent him a piece of sheet music that he wrote for a play being performed at San Francisco State University. And these, Torres says, are the things that can’t be measured by an accreditation commission.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Torres says, “to have people write back and say, ‘I never could’ve gotten there without my education at City College.'”
Chris Sanchez contributed to this story.