Attack on City College SF

Historical Essay

by Molly Hankwitz, September 24, 2013

Attack on City College SF: Goes Against Our History and Any Meaningful Sustainable Solution for San Francisco

Threats from the The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, (ACCJC) on CCSF's accreditation last year, and possible closure this July 2014, as a result, came as a substantial shock to the CCSF community and Bay Area residents. How is it possible that City College had not kept up standards when many students delight in going to school there, value the education, and intended to return, even after the ACCJC news? What is the role of cities and states to their lower income and minority residents when it comes to higher education? What meaning does this event have for sustainable social values in the city of San Francisco? How has the City sprung back?

In the wake of the 2008 economic “crisis”, which affected California's schools, community and state colleges, and UC system by way of budget cuts and tuition hikes, pressure on CCSF to change its ways or lose accreditation comes as yet another set back to our small, democratic insitution already suffering the loss of funding. In the context of a nationally publicized effort at educational overhaul, the threat to CCSF may have at first appeared a rigorous and rightly authoritative attempt to clean up the act of a faltering urban behemoth, but, let's face it, these are politically divisive times all over the US and the globe. Local organizations, municipal governments, indeed entire governments of small countries have been afflicted as privatizing measures sneak in the back way, destabilizing public assets, bolstered by promotion of the idea that there is no money, and that municipal governments and the public sector can no longer “do their job” without private control. The very bodies of “interest” behind such privatizing intitiatives — much like those used to discredit CCSF, and including elements of the Obama Administration and the Department of Education, and those working in the state of California — must, themselves, be questioned. And, this is precisely what City Attorney Dennis J. Herrera has done in filing suit against the ACCJC for, “using the accreditation process to squelch debate with respect to education reform in Sacramento”. This heroic move, putting the accredation panel's work in such terms, supports the San Francisco community already immersed in rallies, speak outs, and article writing and is a resistance to the pushing around of communities by bigger more well vested groups. Other resistance such as SAVE OUR CITY COLLEGE has been formed from students, unionists, faculty, and administrators working to keep the college doors open despite an imposing “deadline” of July 2014. The San Francisco Chronicle followed the “official story” and spotlighted one Trustee who has been given the job of getting the paperwork done. This swashbuckling move on the part of the accreditation body — to waltz in and make huge claims — holds CCSF administrators, faculty, and students responsible for letting themselves down, without forethought about sustainable solutions to CCSF's challenges. Why destroy an institution? Herrera's law suit alleges that “the panel is biased against the college and its advocates because of differing agendas.” This may wall be the case since CCSF's charm for many faculty and students is its openess to ideas and cultures. Many in the CCSF community see the ACCJC's move as an effort to privatize the school.

Morale Killing in the News

Imminent threat of closure to CCSF from outside offical powers have been felt in a suite of reponses. In the mainstream press, CCSF has regularly been assailed as fiscally irresponsible, failing to maintain appropriate standards for its students, suggesting that CCSF is behind the times. The San Francisco Bay Guardian published an editorial on how the Obama administration is to blame for much of this pushing and maneuvering around education.

While there are undoubtedly areas of most schools which could be improved, the track record of public good that CCSF represents for its many graduates, teachers, residents, and new students, in some eighty-years of service, has been virtually ignored and dramatically underplayed in the Chronicle. Measures to destabilize CCSF, however, have been extensive, even after the passing of Prop A by San Francisco voters,which was allegedly written to save the school and protect Faculty and students. Faculty across the College have received pay cuts of eleven percent and many lost classes they had taught for years. Department chairs were cut and departments consolidated. Supporters of Prop A were left to wonder, what happened to the money? The CCSF workforce, quality professional teachers, many with years of experience and expertise, PhDs, higher degrees, fluencies in multiple languages, working artist teachers, and many having dedicated years of administrative experience to the College, was now clearly constrained. Who would students trust? What kind of hierarchy was this being imposed? This faltering on behalf of faculty created internal division, doubt, confusion and loss of morale. CCSF is a small, democratic institutions which has long served the students of minority and low income backgrounds; which has offered sanctuary to nearly homeless students, veterans returning from the nation's most recent wars, single moms, young students looking for careers. It houses murals by Diego Rivera inside its buildings. We are talking, as Herrera's suit points out, about a very different kind of place than the one promised night and day to the white, the wealthy, and the conservative.

With student and labor organizations increasingly visible, weighing in with weekly protests at City Hall, Trustee meetings, and boycotting interim Chancellor, Dr. Thelma Scott Stillman's “welcome” address at the start of the school year, the fight to save CCSF from oblivion has been robust. Instead of attending Stillman's speech, a press conference was held by the City College community. Finally, news of Herrera's law suit means that city government has been listening.

Confusion and Undermining Tactics

The effects of the “top-down” assessments were for students and faculty to feel that their school was being robbed from them. Locks were suddenly changed in classroom buildings without notifying those using them. New keys had to be requested by a workforce which had come and gone freely for years. The sudden firing of departmental chairs, consolidation of disparate departments into one, 11% Faculty pay cuts, “downsizing“ of student services, and commercialization of the bookstore all happened so quickly, in retrospect, that a huge amount of fear was produced. Where was the assessment that would decide to keep CCSF open and which would enable it to improve? Where was the voice of benevolence instead of austerity?

Many at CCSF have decried these demeaning trends focusing instead upon its social history of public good. The entire Bay Area has responded with versions of backlash towards public higher education. Radio talk shows on CCSF and its accreditation have had residents calling in to express their anger over what they perceive to be the anti-immigrant, minority, and low-income student bias in this set of events. As one angry ESL teacher from the East Bay stated, ”Oakland has no more adult education.” What is clear is that the Bay Area, with its history of progressive politics, is not exempt from the poison of conservative values.

From the perspective of educators, students, and administrators, closure is not only inappropriate, but bad for San Francisco's social sustainability. It has been called grossly unfair, punitive, excessive and out of touch with what residents need or want. Moreover, San Francisco's history of land grabs and current rapid gentrification efforts make the campuses of CCSF, with their huge building footprints, lawns, playing fields, and parking lots — some with brand new multimillion dollar architecture: Mission Campus and the new gym and Performing Arts complex at Ocean – obvious gems for urban development. The State of California needs to check in regarding the tremendous budget cuts to important institutions and city officials need to adopt a recycling/reuse mentality towards the history and preservation of a school which has served well its most underserved population.

National Meaning

A string of national events targeting the public sector cumultatively lends a disturbing background to the CCSF issue. There are specific agendas in our nation currently being levelled at minorities and low-income people, and deeply racist and malevolent in their intent. The judicial downsizing of civil rights is evident in the Supreme Court's recent decision on the 1965 Voters' Rights Act where Justices reinforced the idea that racial discrimination originally leading to the Act simply no longer exists today, treating it as a measure of racial equivalency which they deemed no longer valid. Within hours notoriously racially divided states responded with re-zoning of voting districts, moves which would surely affect voting turnout and outcomes in the future. The not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has also sent a message, albeit from Florida. Such events legitimize discrimination and violence towards people of color and constitute another link in a chaing of the highly-conservative “tea party style” backlash brewing across the US. “Martinizing” of the Obama presidency, as Smiley and West have pointed out, does nothing but frost a situation that many Americans aren't even noticing: the erosion of civil rights and the oppression of minority populations which neutralizes race and class and eliminates legal protection against discrimination. The policing of urban populations of color is one of the most pernicious effects of racist oppression and can be observed most recently in the Martin case, in the “Stop and Frisk” police methods in Oakland, in the problem of Oscar Grant and the problem of “inner city” hatred emerging as far back as the Nixon and Reagan administrations. If you are a person of color and poor, today — even with a half Black president — you can be screwed out of your vote, stopped and frisked without a warrant, and are more likely in 2013 to be the target of police brutality or acceptable violence from someone wearing a badge. Thus, to destroy an institution which is largely 80,000 students — predominantly minority and lower income – fits right in to this context of control.


In 2009, the Department of Education swept the country with educational imperatives in hand. They held multiple public meetings on minority education in public and charter schools in numerous states including our own at the Main Library in Civic Center. In the Bay Area, attendees heard from young Oakland activists of color about the state of Oakland's schools, which when moved from being public to Charter status under the DOE's plans for educational reform, frequently became more whitened and were no longer seen as serving or belonging to minority populations. The activists cited in particular the American Indian Middle School, which “went charter” and lost its community character. Actions such as the people's sit in at Lakeview Elementary in Oakland 2012 underscore further, the degree of struggle going on to protect public schools from outside takeover. This is in the context, as well, of neighbhorhoods being gentrified and of the notorious publicity around high crime rates and levels of involvement in crime by black youth.

San Francisco Context

In the modern history of the United States, quality of life and open, free-wheeling civic participation of community politics, have long been standards of indisputable progress embodied by the city of San Francisco. Residents here helped build a movement against the Vietnam War and have been the first to implement many critical chapters of gay rights, push for AIDS research and demand tolerance and sanctuary for undocumented workers. CCSF is part of this tradition in providing low-cost higher education for the lumpen mass and bringing opportuntity for higher education without student loan debt to the many.

The foundation of a true democracy is an informed and educated public. Without this key feature of civil participation, no society is equitable, and no society is free. Privatizing agendas and privatized economic moves, which advance the values of an elite, property-owning class and economy, are the unfortunate disease of a post-modernity couched in speculation and rampant “free market” mentalities towards the development of wealth. We cannot let the wrecking ball destroy what we have dreamed to be our betterment and built to last for nearly a century.

Save City College!

The author seeks to collect stories, photographs, and details about CCSF from the community of San Francisco.

For more information, please contact: mollybh [at] aya [dot] yale [dot] edu


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