With all of the attention on the infighting and poor management at City College of San Francisco, city residents could be excused for forgetting that San Francisco has another large public institution serving undergraduate students. Toiling quietly amid the hullabaloo has been San Francisco State University, under the leadership of its new president, Leslie Wong.
Last month, days after City College received the bad news that it will lose its accreditation next year unless changes are made, San Francisco State got word that its accreditation would be renewed for a full 10 years, the longest period allowed.
The surest way for City College to stay open is for the college to be adopted by a healthier institution. State community college officials have dismissed the idea as impractical because nearby community colleges are too small or too fragile to absorb City College. But by myopically limiting the options to the two-year colleges, they miss the potential savior already in our midst: San Francisco State.
Mayor Ed Lee should ask Wong to develop a proposal for a vibrant, multipurpose urban educational powerhouse that would absorb the troubled community college into the much healthier and well-managed state university. We could call the combined institution the City University of San Francisco.
San Francisco State is not a stuffy, ivory tower university incompatible with the grassroots nature of a community college. Much to the contrary, San Francisco State was praised by its accrediting agency for its commitment to social justice and civic engagement, representing "the gold standard" for an urban university, "not merely aspiring to be responsive to diversity but embracing it wholeheartedly as the intellectual and civic lifeblood of the university."
Like City College, San Francisco State made its case for renewing its accreditation while it was beset by unprecedented multiyear cuts in state funding. Instead of blaming the funding cuts for its problems, however, San Francisco State managed through them, with a leadership system that emerged "stronger than ever across all levels" while the university "never wavered in its commitment to its mission."
San Francisco State and City College already serve many of the same students and offer similar programs. More than 80 percent of the City College students who transfer to the California State University system go to San Francisco State. In addition to traditional academic courses, the university extension offers hundreds of courses in adult education and job training. And San Francisco State long ago committed itself to serving all comers with its Open University program, inviting anyone to enroll in its courses.
If the prospect of creating the most dynamic urban university in the nation is not enough incentive, or seems too daunting, Lee should consider the hazards of doing nothing.
City College's special trustee has expressed hope that the accrediting agency will see such impressive improvement in the internal operations of the college that it will make an exception to its own rules - which do not allow consideration of new information in appeals - and reverse its denial of accreditation. It is a strategy with low odds: I am not aware of even one case nationally in which a denial of accreditation has been successfully appealed. By contrast, the type of request that San Francisco State would need to make to its accrediting agency, one for "substantive change," is approved 84 percent of the time.
A wait-and-see attitude won't work. In order for a marriage of San Francisco State and City College to take effect in the fall of 2014, Wong needs to submit a request to his accrediting agency in the next two months. In other words, to avoid stranding tens of thousands of students next year, the proposal for the City University of San Francisco needs to be developed now. Meanwhile, someone needs to navigate complex state and local legal and political details. None of this will happen without a broker, like Lee, who is ultimately responsible not to any particular college but to the city as a whole.
A version of this article ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 5, 2013.