The steps forward defending City College of San Francisco and the challenges ahead for students, faculty, staff and community
By Henry Melo – From Workers’ Voice national leadership
City College under attack
City College of San Francisco (CCSF) is one of the country´s largest Community Colleges, with 85,000 students. It offers a wide variety of classes, both credit or noncredit programs, including free classes and professional improvement courses. It is (or was) a democratically-run institution, open to faculty participation in decision making. It has met all the education quality standards over the past 77 years that it’s been serving the community, helping immigrants, low-income students, mostly Black and Latinos, not only get a degree, but also acquire a general education and improve professionally. City College has now been under attack for more than a year, when ACCJC – Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges – decided first to sanction it with “show cause” in July 2012, and recently to revoke its accreditation, forcing CCSF to shut down. The deadline to terminate accreditation is July 31st 2014, and the clock is ticking.
What is ACCJC and its goal?
ACCJC is a private commission that represents the interests of big corporate groups who want to make more and more money out of education. It is funded by the Lumina and Gates foundations, and its goal is to reshape higher education according to business management models. ACCJC stands for Privatization. According to this view, higher education should not be a universal right, offered to everyone irrespective of their income, ethnicity or immigration status. On the contrary, it should be a privilege reserved for a minority, aimed to provide highly qualified professionals to big companies and government. In other words, it should not be for the working class, but for the upper middle-class and the rich. Therefore, ACCJC and these powerful business groups are doing everything they can to reshape public education. Instead of free public institutions, funded by the government and open to community, they want privately-run institutions, open to those who can afford the increasing fees and provide a “good outcome” in their statistics. This means students and institutions should be constantly tested, ranked, and compared to others, to prove they deserve to be funded. If not, institutions should be downsized or even shut down, and the remaining students should be transferred to junior colleges or online education programs. That is why ACCJC decided to start an attack against CCSF. They want to destroy the model of education CCSF stands for, where community can play an active and influential role in defining education programs, and struggling students can still find affordable education and make their way to a better future. Unfortunately, this is the commission in charge of overseeing CCSF´s accreditation, as well as of dozens of other Colleges in California. If they manage to defeat CCSF, they will feel stronger to go after other community colleges, and push them towards budget cuts, downsizing and privatization as well.
Dictatorship inside CCSF
Chancellor Brice Harris and the California Community College Board of Governors have decided to shut down CCSF´s elected board of trustees, with the justification that they were not able to meet ACCJC´s requirements to maintain CCSF´s accreditation. They appointed a special trustee, Robert Agrella, to run city college at least until 2014, supposedly to make an effort to avoid the accreditation termination. In reality, Bob Agrella was appointed with dictatorial powers to bring CCSF to its knees before ACCJC and make the dirty work from within: implement budget cuts, close classes and programs, consolidate an authoritarian management style, focus learning process on results. In other words: downsizing and privatizing. Their goal with this move is clear: even if CCSF remains open and accredited after July 31st 2014, it will no longer be a community college, but a downsized and privately managed institution, in accordance with ACCJC´s view. Government sides with ACCJC National, State and local authorities have been accomplices of ACCJC´s attacks throughout the past year, since they have either been standing idly letting CCSF struggle on its own, or even worse: actively implementing privatization policies. ACCJC has been operating in accordance with Obama´s Department of Education (DOE) and Jerry Brown´s Board of Governors for Community and Junior Colleges. These two administrative bodies have maintained ACCJC´s ruling, complied with its sanctions, and appointed the special trustee to make sure its policies were implemented. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has not spoken against ACCJC´s sanctions against CCSF even once. On the contrary, he has agreed to the imposition of Agrella, and has been refusing to meet students and faculty leaders to discuss the issue. In the latest CCSF rallies and demonstrations, the question “Where is Ed Lee??” is constantly heard. This attitude shows that the government agrees to reshape public education in accordance with private interests, even if that means downsizing or even shutting down community colleges that disagree. The reason for that, is that a private model would allow government to cut public funding and expenses, in order to save their own budgets affected by the economic crisis. But they do not want to appear as the villains. If possible, it’s better to have ACCJC do the dirty work, in order to avoid a direct fight of the community against the government. That way, they can always frame the attacks against CCSF as an “accreditation issue” between two institutions (CCSF vs. ACCJC) and the government as a well-intentioned mediator to resolve the dispute. In the end, they can always justify that they were “forced” to agree with budget cuts and downsizing in order to “save CCSF”. What hypocrisy! The consequences of having the government siding with ACCJC in these attacks have already showed up: CCSF has already 3,000 less students, due to the fear of shutting down, and will have to struggle for funding, in order to keep its programs open.
Fight back leads to partial victories
This saint-alliance against City College has apparently started to break, as the fight to save CCSF increases. Since the beginning of the struggle between CCSF and ACCJC, students, faculty, staff and community have been actively fighting back to defend City College. Dozens of activities, such as teach-ins, rallies, sit-ins, assemblies and meetings with San Francisco officials have taken place. An important number of activists, including union members and left groups, decided to form a coalition to defend CCSF: the Save CCSF coalition. The Save CCSF coalition has been the most important initiative to unite students, faculty, staff and community to stand up against ACCJC, and it has now accomplished some important partial victories through mobilization. The Department of Education, after months of standing idly, sent a letter to ACCJC affirming that: 1. The commission lacks a clear policy on conflicts of interest, as it is funded and composed by private groups and in charge of public accreditation at the same time; 2. The commission lacks a policy on who evaluates colleges (educators or “business administrators”) ; 3. The commission uses unclear language to explain what colleges must do to stay in business versus what they may do to improve; 4. The commission fails to require colleges to fix problems within the necessary two years. The consequence of this letter is that the DOE might not recognize ACCJC as an accreditation commission by December this year, if they fail to resolve these issues. If that happens, it will be an important argument in favor of CCSF: it’s being attacked by an illegitimate commission. The second piece of good news is that ACCJC is going to be audited for 6-7 months by a legislative committee that recognizes that ACCJC might have acted in an improper way when evaluating City College and putting it under sanction. If the audit finds ACCJC has acted in an improper way, it might be legally questioned, which would be a step forward to save CCSF. But more important than the audit itself, is the fact that assembly members will now be forced to take a position: for or against CCSF. The third important fact is that San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera decided to file a lawsuit against ACCJC for conflicts of interest and retaliation against CCSF. He also accuses the Board of Governors of “unlawful delegation of public duties” to an “unaccountable private agency”, since the board should be the one responsible to oversee California Community Colleges, not ACCJC. If the lawsuit wins, ACCJC would no longer be in charge of accreditation for California Community Colleges.
Negotiation or Mobilization? What strategy should the Save CCSF coalition follow?
If the recent partial victories have encouraged the movement and all those who want to save CCSF, they have also made explicit the need to deepen the discussion around what strategy to follow. The Save CCSF Coalition has been pushing for important direct actions and demonstrations, such as the rallies in front of the City Hall and the Department of Education, the City Hall occupation and sit-in, the student general assemblies and several others, that have played an important role to build solidarity around CCSF and put pressure against the government and ACCJC. They should continue and become stronger. However, several sectors of the movement have had a completely different strategy. Most members of the Board of Trustees, for instance, have been working essentially to implement ACCJC´s demands inside CCSF, and several trustees actually found themselves “surprised” when, even with their “efforts”, the commission decided to shut down CCSF. These trustees have to be accountable to the movement, and agree to follow the majority´s decisions at all times, otherwise, they will be pressured to be agents of downsizing CCSF. The staff union leadership of SEIU 1021 has also been playing a shameful role. They have totally neglected any kind of mobilization, while giving decisive importance to negotiations with administrators on how to meet ACCJC´s demands. As reality is showing day after day, the only way to meet ACCJC´s demands is accepting and implementing privatization. This is the sad role the SEIU leadership seems to be willing to play so far. It is urgent that rank and file SEIU members and staff activists demand that their union change this position and join the fight to save CCSF! Teachers´ unions such as the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and AFT local 2121 are an important part of the struggle, and have been in the coalition and the movement to Save CCSF from the beginning. However, they have been clearly prioritizing filing complaints and lawsuits against ACCJC, instead of mobilizing their rank and file to stand up and fight for City College. They haven’t even considered the possibility of a strike to force the government to take a position. Even if not explicit, the rationale behind this acting is that the mobilizations are only a secondary element to put pressure on the government and fight against ACCJC, while the real path to save CCSF is through legal measures and negotiation with government officials. Of course the Save CCSF coalition cannot abstain from lobbying, negotiating, and taking legal action, that´s part of the struggle. However, lobbying should always be subordinated to direct action as the main strategy to win this fight, otherwise the movement is likely to be co-opted and deviated to legal procedures, such as assembly law projects or ACCJC´s own legal appeals. The consequence of that approach would be to accept the bad to prevent the worse: accept downsizing to prevent a shutdown. The Save CCSF coalition must chose to follow a different path. Our strategy must be to build increasing direct action and mobilization to defeat ACCJC and force the government to keep CCSF open and fully accredited as a public community college. The strike as an alternative Every direct action that has been done so far was important, but in order to defeat ACCJC and force the government to back off from budget cuts, it is necessary to build a mass movement inside and outside CCSF. It is necessary to have thousands of students, faculty, staff and community on the streets. The best way to build this mass movement is to build a strike in CCSF. The main argument against a strike right now is that it would ruin CCSF´s academic work: disrupt classes, compromise the school year, jeopardize CCSF´s image in the community, expose students, faculty and staff as radicals. But isn’t that the main argument against all strikes? Isn’t that exactly what government and bosses say when workers walk out their jobs? Isn’t that what they said against the BART strike? We believe any negative consequence a strike might have would be better than having CCSF downsized or shut down. Yes, students would be out of classes, but they would have their college back after that. Yes, faculty and staff would be attacked as radicals, but they would have an incredibly larger audience to expose their arguments, and much more solidarity from unions and community. As a positive consequence, a successful strike would change the relation of forces in all negotiations. It would be our conditions to go back to classes, not ACCJC´s conditions to keep CCSF accredited. And any victory that comes from that would be a victory for the years to come. That is a shot that is really worth trying! It would be very important that the issues of this strategy be discussed in the Save CCSF coalition meetings, in the students assemblies, and specially within union members, so that they can push their unions to take action towards that.
All to CASU Conference!
As part of the efforts to save CCSF, students are organizing an important statewide Student Conference on October 19-20th. The conference is being organized by the California Student Union (CASU), an organization that intends to unite students from all California Junior Colleges, Community Colleges and Universities to organize and fight to defend public education. The challenge for this conference is to build a statewide campaign to defend public education against austerity measures that are being implemented all over California. The fight to Save CCSF and defeat ACCJC would be the main focus of this campaign, that would also include other local struggles. “We want to build solidarity around the CCSF struggle, as the main fight going on in California right now, and expose that as an example that every attack that is going on in other campuses, such as the nomination of Janet Napolitano in UC, are part of the same privatization process”, says Honest Chung, student activist from UC Berkeley and one of the conference organizers. For more information on the Student Conference, contact Honest at firstname.lastname@example.org or CASU at email@example.com.