by Rick Sterling on March 6, 2013

Dear Ms. Asimov –

Thanks for your invitation to read and comment on all your San Francisco Chronicle articles related to the crisis at City College of San Francisco (CCSF). I have read all thirty-two.

I agree that your articles are well written and informative. However, I think there are some shortcomings, specifically:

1) Factual Errors
2) Narrow scope and misleading sensationalism and
3) Lack of investigation into the big picture.

1. Factual Errors.
In your September 20/2012 article titled “City College near bankruptcy …” the lead sentence says “City College of San Francisco is perilously close to bankruptcy, in part because it employs nearly twice as many faculty as similar colleges and pays them better …”.

This is not true. As indicated on page 6 of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) report , you mistakenly dropped the word “full time” from the sentence which changes the meaning significantly. Furthermore, CCSF faculty are not paid better. Full time faculty at CCSF start and end their careers at lower salary level than at Foothill DeAnza College in Cupertino. Salary schedules are here and here. Note that the Foothill De Anza schedule is monthly for average ten month teaching contract. Note that the annual salaries listed for CCSF are the highest pay BEFORE the voluntary pay reduction.

In the same SF Chronicle article there is the claim “Faculty salaries rose by 25 percent over seven years…” The source of this error is in the original FCMAT report. The chart on page 26 shows that they were referring to total faculty salary COSTS not faculty salaries.

In the context of a crisis, it is provocative to claim that one group is benefiting economically in the midst of economic problems. In contrast with your article, on page 14 of the report it says “there have been no across-the-board salary increases for any employee group since July 2007”. And elsewhere it is verified that CCSF faculty agreed to salary reductions in 2011. In summary, instead of a huge salary increase, as claimed, faculty have actually taken pay cuts.

2. Narrow Scope and Misleading Sensationalism
Many words can be used to describe CCSF. A few of them are “enormously popular”, “widely respected”, “diverse and broad ranging”, “much beloved”. In sharp contrast, the characterization we have read in the SF Chron has been quite consistently “poorly run”, “nearly bankrupt”, “bloated and slow thinking”. How about some balance?

I understand that CCSF has a fiscal and organizational crisis and your primary job is reporting on that. However the purpose of an educational institution is to educate and train. Why have we not had articles looking into the performance of CCSF graduates who have transferred to UCB, SFSU and elsewhere? Why have we not had articles looking into the performance of CCSF students training in aircraft maintenance, nursing, graphic design? How about an article looking into the amazing story of why 72.9% of San Franciscan voters approved the parcel tax to support CCSF?

Your numerous references to students being able to take classes without paying has led to much public misunderstanding. In the article titled “City College may end free-classes perk” your lead sentence ends “They can take classes without paying the required fees.” Because of the sensational way this was presented, many of your readers do not understand that a student cannot re-register, get transcript or transfer without paying their fees. Isn’t the reality that students can be one semester in arrears before it catches up with them and they have to pay? Regarding the cost accounting isn’t there another aspect to this: The liberal policy surely results in some people being in college who would not otherwise. If this policy keeps just 5 people a year in school instead of headed to prison, doesn’t that save society financially and otherwise? How about an article on that?

3. Lack of Investigation into the Big Picture
When the Accrediting Commission issued its “Show Cause” sanction in July 2012 many people were shaking their heads wondering: “I thought CCSF was such a good college …. how did it come to this? What’s going on?”

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) seems to be only marginally concerned with the quality of education. In their report, they acknowledge the dedication and high commitment of CCSF teachers. But these comments are made almost in passing as though that was a secondary matter. The real concern of ACCJC is administration, finance and formulaic “student learning objectives”. Perhaps that is because the ACCJC review team and commission is overwhelmingly comprised of active or retired college administrators. The seventeen person review team which went to CCSF had only three teachers with thirteen administrators and one trustee.

In 2012 ACCJC reviewed 20 colleges and applied sanctions against 9 of them for a 45% sanction rate. An article titled “ACCJC Gone Wild” shows how abnormal the operations of ACCJC are in comparison with other accrediting organizations in the United States. Why has this not been told to the public?

There are other puzzling things about the ACCJC and its parent body, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Their stated purpose is to promote the interests of schools and higher education yet they are not public organizations.

In the past couple years ACCJC and WASC have received grants of $450K and $1.5M from a private foundation (Lumina Fund for Education) created through the merger in 2000 of the Student Loan Marketing Association (“Sally Mae”) and USA Group. Contrary to what some people believe, Sally Mae is a for profit corporation (symbol: SLM) with Goldman Sachs as one of the major stockholders. Should it not be asked: How much influence does Lumina have in the operations and priorities of WASC and ACCJC? Are Lumina’s donations intended primarily to benefit the student loan industry? The 2011 Lumina grant to WASC was to “redesign its accreditation process”. Where is the public oversight and review of this accreditation redesign? Is CCSF a victim of this accreditation redesign?

In the face of major cutbacks CCSF has tried to maintain priority on full time teachers rather than part-timers. It has probably been slow to make necessary cuts. In 2010-2011 academic year the budget was balanced. In 2011-2012 they ran deficit and had to dip into the reserve fund. But isn’t that what the reserves are for?

An argument can be made that the crisis at CCSF has been, to significant extent, created by ACCJC.
In 2006 the ACCJC made recommendations to CCSF but issued no sanction. Yet last summer ACCJC issued the harshest sanction, resulting in sensational headlines and widespread confusion. ACCJC has set requirements and deadlines which require enormous expenditure of time and resources at the same time CCSF has been dealing with state budget cuts while making improvements to fix real problems. . The ACCJC “show cause” sanction has added to the financial challenges because the publicity and confusion has contributed to the reduced enrollment.

ACCJC had the option to issue a sanction of “Warning” or “Probation” which would have required the college to respond but without all the negative consequences. Why did ACCJC not choose that route? Have they intentionally created and exacerbated the crisis? How does that serve the interests of higher education?

CCSF has been a highly popular institution in San Francisco for over 75 years. While it may correctly need improvements and changes, the threat to disaccredit and effectively close it is, frankly, outrageous.

We need the major media such as the San Francisco Chronicle to critically examine the pronouncements of authority such as ACCJC, to help us understand what is true and what is not, and to counteract instead of contributing to public confusion.

Best regards,

Rick Sterling
Sr. Development Engineer (retired)
Space Sciences Laboratory
UC Berkeley

P.S. I have never taken a class or taught at CCSF. This subject is important to me because I started my own technical career at community college and have many family members who have benefitted from the wonderful California community college system.


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