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Looking for a Villain

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Unfortunately, things aren't looking so good for City College of San Francisco (CCSF). The college's accreditor, frustrated that the college had not been attentive to problems it had been pointing out for years, set a March 15 deadline for CCSF to make the needed changes. Or else. If the college does not submit an adequate response, the college will lose its accreditation and close.

On January 24 a state-appointed special trustee announced that CCSF's March 15 response will be marked incomplete.

Speaking to an overflow crowd on February 6, protest organizers identified the villain -- they say the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) is corrupt and out of control. Alleging nefarious ties to student loan companies and for-profit colleges, they distributed data showing California's community colleges are being disproportionately targeted for punishment:

"A study of actions taken between 2003 and 2008 found that the other five regions of the U.S. had sanction rates ranging between zero and six percent of community colleges. In contrast, the ACCJC imposed sanctions on 37% of community colleges in California (41 of California's 110 community colleges). Remarkably, the ACCJC generated 89 percent of all sanctions issued nationwide during this period. From June 2011 to June 2012, the ACCJC issued 64 percent of the 75 sanctions issued nationwide. At present 25 percent of California's community colleges are on sanction."

Voices from the crowd started calling for a march to the ACCJC office, but organizers changed the subject. They probably know that the 30-mile trek would find the evil, college-murdering behemoth ensconced in a suburban office park and looking nothing like a monster -- accreditation is a peer review system, and the 17 members of the team evaluating CCSF all came not from banks but from other community colleges.

No conspiracy.

No villain.

Nowhere to march.

But what about the data? The problems the peer review teams are finding at California community colleges are real. There is a shockingly high occurrence and recurrence of dysfunction throughout the system. If we closely examine the collapse of progress at City College of San Francisco, we can find the cause.

In the fall, things were looking up. Critical to meeting the deadline was designing a decision-making process. The new participatory governance policy that was emerging looked like it would do the trick. Faculty, staff, students and other constituents would be part of a collaborative process, but administrators would enforce timelines and make decisions. On November 15, the Board of Trustees adopted the participatory process as official Board Policy 2.07.

City College might have been on the mend if the Board had stopped there, but at the same meeting, the trustees also adopted a separate policy, BP 2.08, giving the academic senate parallel decision authority on most issues. Why? Because the consultants from Sacramento told them it is required by law, and because the executive committee of City College's academic senate insisted on it. Weeks later, the special trustee said some decisions would not be made by the deadline. A cloud of pessimism fell over the city, and the search for the villain began.

Understanding that dueling decision-makers is a common problem in California because of these state requirements, California Competes sought changes to the state's regulations so that academic senate perspectives would be advisory as they are in every other college and system in the country. In rejecting our request, state Chancellor Brice Harris said that his regulations contain "mechanisms" trustees can use when they do not share the academic senate's perspective on an issue.

But for City College of San Francisco and many other colleges, those "mechanisms" are inadequate. The problem is that the system is broken. If City College is closed because it can't deliver a viable plan with nine months' notice, Chancellor Harris and the state Board of Governors will be at fault.

Now the protesters have an appropriate target: California's villainous regulations, imprisoning leaders in a bureaucratic cul-de-sac.

A version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 18, 2013.