The City College trial: A bit of perspective


    ACCJC commission member Marie Smith: I didn't want to shut down the school, but I felt I felt it was my responsibility
    ACCJC commission member Marie Smith: I didn’t want to shut down the school, but I felt I felt it was my responsibility

    By Tim Redmond

    OCTOBER 31, 2014 – I was called for jury duty this morning, so I missed part of the City College trial, but apparently nothing profound. (No, I wasn’t chosen for a criminal trial. I never get picked for criminal juries, although I was the only one of 80 prospective jurors in the room who actually wanted the job.)

    I got to the civil side of the courts in the afternoon, in time to see ACCJC head Barbara Beno back on the stand, this time called by the defense.

    I’m going to take a step back here, since the testimony part of the trial is supposed to wrap up tomorrow, and closing arguments will be set at a later date. My impressions – biased, or course, as they always are – go like this:

    If the case had gone before a jury, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and his team (which has been really impressive all around) would already have won.

    Beno has spent many hours on the stand. I walked away from it all thinking she was arrogant, mean, and lacking in compassion. She seemed to try hard to duck questions. I’ve never met her before, but after watching all week, I understand why members of the state Legislature – on both sides of the aisle – have serious problems with her and her agency.

    The other ACCJC commissioners and staffers who took the stand seemed to act as if shutting down City College was just another day at the office; there was no consideration for the impact on more than 80,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff, not to mention the economy of a city. The ACCJC lawyers were condescending to the city’s witnesses.

    As I sat there listening to commission members and staff talking about the “tough decision” to shut down the school, I kept having Caddyshack flashbacks – to the scene where Judge Smails tells Danny that he’s “sent boys younger than you to the gas chamber. I didn’t like to do it, but I felt I … owed it to them.”

    The witnesses were worried about the school’s financial solvency – so they made a decision that pretty much guaranteed the finances would get a lot worse, just as the people of San Francisco were voting to give City College more money. And they didn’t seem to think much at all about the teaching that was going on in the classrooms, the tens of thousands of people who were learning skills and getting an education. Those people didn’t seem to matter.

    Related article  'And so begins the resistance'

    I can’t imagine a jury in San Francisco – where pretty much everyone knows someone who has a connection to City College – siding with the accreditors at this point.

    But there is no jury of our peers; the outcome will be in the hands of one person, Judge Curtis Karnow, and he gave little indication during the trial of where he will come down.



    Beno was her typical self this afternoon, trying to explain why the commission voted to terminate the accreditation of City College without giving the school the chance to respond to or rebut the factual claims that were used to support the termination.

    The visting team report was supposed to be the basis of any commission action. But the commission went way beyond that report, adding in new areas where City College didn’t meet the ACCJC’s standards. And at one point, Beno admitted that she wasn’t sure exactly why.

    Deputy City Attorney Ron Flynn picked on one of the areas where the visiting team had found City College in compliance but the commission decided that the school didn’t meet the standards.

    The standard:

    The institution’s programs and services are aligned with its mission. The mission guides institutional decision-making, planning, and resource allocation and informs institutional goals for student learning and achievement.

    “What,” Flynn asked, “was the deficiency?”

    “I cannot answer that,” Beno said.

    Then Susan Kazama, the head librarian at Kapiolani College in Oahu, Hawaii, took the stand. She’s a member of the commission, and has been since 2010.

    She said that she’d spend between three and five hours analyzing the City College application for accreditation in 2012, and maybe another two or three hours looking at the termination proposal a year later. She said she voted for the termination because she didn’t see any improvement in the school’s response to the ACCJC’s mandates.

    She was followed by Marie Smith, a retired community college administrator who worked at several schools in California and served on the ACCJC panel. Smith’s testimony was stunning: She said that she was worried that City College was in such financial trouble that it might not survive – even though she knew that the state and the city had both recently passed measures to inject a lot more money into the institution.

    Related article  'And so begins the resistance'

    When asked why she voted to terminate accreditation in 2013, she said: “I felt it was my responsibility.”

    Smith said that she had heard there were “forces that were not in support” of the ACCJC’s agenda at City College. She couldn’t quite point to any of them, but she was sure that such forces existed.

    She also complained that when the school sent a team to the ACCJC to respond to its allegations, there were no members of the Board of Trustees present. That brought an audible gasp from the audience: At the time, the elected trustees had been suspended from their jobs, and the school was under the rule of a special trustee. The elected board didn’t even meet.

    Smith also said that she thought City College would not be able to continue to meet its financial obligations “without things like parcel taxes.” But the city had just passed a parcel tax for that very reason.

    Here’s a snippet:

    Q: When you voted for termination, did you know that there was more money available?

    A: I knew that.

    Q: And did you take that into consideration?

    A: I did, but the college in difficult financial times hadn’t made changes in its mission.

    That explains one of the central issues here: The ACCJC wanted City College to narrow the scope of what it does, to move away from an open-access policy. Under immense funding pressure during the recession, the school instead chose to cut costs (including salaries) but maintain its core mission – and go to the San Francisco voters to ask for funding to maintain that mission.

    The voters agreed. The commission didn’t care.

    • SFreader

      Thank you, Tim, for your ongoing, excellent coverage of the trial, and about CCSF in general long before it came to this. It’s gratifying to know that we can count on you for fair and accurate analysis, unlike the “reporting” from the SF Chronicle. Now that the Bay Guardian (which you helped make it what it was) is gone, you’re the only news source that we can rely on for honest and intelligent writing. Thank you for being there for us.

      • Sam

        I think Tim is doing a worthy job of reporting this but it is a stretch to claim that Tim’s account is “fair” and the SF Chronicle is not.

        Generally speaking, the SF Chronicle takes a centrist and moderate position on these things, whereas even Tim would probably freely admit that he is in left-most one percent of the population.

        It’s often good to see things through the eyes of an extremist because it adds breadth, diversity and perspective. But let’s not kid ourselves that Tim is striving for journalistic neutrality and objectivity here. Most people who read this site, or SFBG before, come here precisely because they know it will be biased in favor of their opinions.

        In fact, we know that Tim wants CCSF to continue regardless of the facts of this case. I cannot imagine what evidence could be presented that would cause Tim to demand that CCSF be closed because he is not capable of thinking that way.

        • Mark

          I disagree Sam. I think a lot of people read Tim’s account of the trial because he gives details. I appreciated him writing about the facts, exactly what happened in court, not because I am looking for somebody to agree with. And that is exactly the problem with the Chronicle: it’s writing just lacks concrete facts and seems more interested in sensationalizing what happened to get a reaction from people. Also, you are off your nut if you think the Kochronicle is centrist. Just saying my friend.

          • Sam

            I was not alleging that Tim got the facts and details that he reported wrong. I have no reason to believe that he did.

            However, much of the bias in news reporting comes not from distorting what happened but rather in the way the information is selected.

            Which pieces you report and which pieces you omit is significant.

            • Mark

              You are absolutely right that reporters carry biases. But when I read both Nanette’s and Tim’s accounts I get the feeling that Nanette is trying to spin something to fit her bias, and Tim is able to back up his bias with quotes and facts, which is all the difference in the world. As an example, in the latest coverage of Thursday, Nanette headlines “Witness: CCSF received warnings for years that it was in jeopardy”. Pretty serious right? Implies CCSF ignored formal warnings, deficiencies were found and clearly communicated, etc. But go back and read Nanette’s coverage. She describes letters that were sent containing ambiguous language. When she actually quotes Flynn and Beno it ironically seems to show the opposite of her headlines’ implications – that is, CCSF was not given formal, clear warning over the course of years. There were ambiguous, informal suggestions and then a middle of the night show cause decision. What kind of reporting is that?

              On the other hand, covering the same day, Tim quotes: “What,” Flynn asked, “was the deficiency?”
              “I cannot answer that,” Beno said.

              And then later, from Smith,
              “I did, but the college in difficult financial times hadn’t made changes in its mission”.

              Do you see, Sam, how Tim’s quote’s actually support his bias, which Tim reveals is “The ACCJC wanted City College to narrow the scope of what it does, to move away from an open-access policy.”

              This is why I said earlier that the Kochronicle just wants to sensationalize the story to get a headline. I personally don’t care about Tim’s, or Nanette’s, or any other reporter’s bias because I look for facts and accurate accounts of what happened (which involves quotes and sources), not the reporter’s conclusions.

              But it is downright irresponsible to throw out a headline with no factual backing in the article, and just plain confusing if the facts you do cite support your opponent’s bias, which is all Nanette can do in this case because the ACCJC is clearly corrupt and everything they say in court shows this. Maybe she should rethink her bias.

    • alachicana

      And thanks to Dennis Herrera and his team for their excellent work and standing up for CCSF – when our erstwhile Mayor stood silent…

    • David Carlos Salaverry

      Redmond is doing a stellar job covering the trial. His blow by blow in depth coverage is just what is needed given the complex dynamics. And he is quite fair IMHO.

      • Sam

        I wouldn’t say that Tim is being unfair so much as he is presenting the case very favorably to one side. Understandable, given his politics, but that bias needs to be taken into account.

        For instance, if you read the Chronicle accounts of the trial, there is much more emphasis on what are really the key issues i.e. CCSF’s financial mis-management, it’s towering unfunded pension liabilities and its failures to co-operate with letters and demands from the authorities.

        Tim has skated over those and instead reports the minutiae of some selected passages of testimony that are designed to make ACCJC look bad, while glossing over the very real defects of CCSF which are ultimately the real reason why we have reached this point.

        I like reading differing accounts of the same story to get perspective, but it is a stretch to believe that Tim’s account is without bias here. He very much has some ideological skin in this game.

        • Bob

          So Sam are you aware that not a single other accrediting body in the United States considers pension funding when evaluating a college? Are you also aware that a member of the ACCJC board also serves on a board that administers an irrevocable trust to handle pension liabilities? Are you also aware that CCSF was following the recommendations of the state chancellor’s office with respect to pension liabilities in 2012 when it was evaluated by the ACCJC which was to continue at that time with pay as you go?

          I also wonder if you are as zealous in opposition to other entities mismanaging your tax dollars. For example the University of Phoenix (a for profit school) has over 250,000 students in its online program of which 59% receive Pell grants averaging $5300 and it has a 6 year graduation rate of 4.3% so the “university” ends up pocketing over $700 million annually for students that never compete anything…

          • Sam

            If other accrediting bodies ignore something as fundamental as a pension black hole, then that signifies a problem with their limited scope. That is no argument that more prudent and perceptive entities should ignore a massive problem like that.

            Your Phoenix example is irrelevant because, as a private institution, any fiscal failure does not fall upon the taxpayers, whereas CCSF’s gross negligence in failing to bolster their pension fund most definitely does.

            If the taxpayers are on the hook for a massive pension liability, then we are entitled to demand that the problem be contained, by either down-sizing CCSF or, if that is insufficient, closing it down or privatizing it.

            • NotBlindCCSFSupporter

              Sam, are you aware that Pell Grants are federal (taxpayer-funded) aid? Your cherry-picking of facts, lack of logic in your comments, and time spent inserting them makes you come off as a desperate accreditation figure dishonestly trying to promote your wayward (from the actual mission of accreditation) agenda.

            • Sam

              I was talking about mandatory pension liabilities that cannot be reversed, and not discretionary scholarships and grants, which can always be stopped.

              Private entities do not have the power to tax me more because they have bad financial controls.

        • Sam – please be aware that Asimov also has bias. SF Chron lies and exaggerations were detailed 18 months ago at beyondchron (link at bottom). Regarding the ‘unfunded liability’ there is a reality check on this provided by the central constra costa water district. Coincidentally their “unfunded liability’ is about the same as that of ccsf . See their FAQ on page 4 of their Spring 2013 newsletter:

          SF Chron Bias:

    • Olga Osborne

      Tim Redmond has it right! Thanks Tim and all the City College Supporters of this great institution! How can the ACCJC live with themselves? Don’t they care about affordable education in SF? Obviously they don’t care! How tragic for our city!

    • Carlota Babilon

      Thank you Tim for your informative and clear reporting. In the early reporting stages of the CCSF saga I grew tired and upset with the so-called impartiality of the Chronicle. Ms. Asimov’s reporting, clearly out of touch with reality, encouraged me to cancel my subscription and to convince eight of my relatives and friends to do so as well. Please continue with your reporting and do know that there are thousands of people who got tired of the Chronicle’s bashing of a great college and who appreciate your work.

      • Sam

        Yes, impartiality is just so tiring. It’s so much more comforting to read an account that is skewed in favor of our innate prejudices, isn’t it?

        • Russo

          That’s enough, Sam-John. You wrote the same thing three times on this page. Get a blog already.

          • Greg

            Who would read it? Besides, it’s not his job. Trolling is a fundamentally different skill set than journalism. Best to feed him as little as possible, though sometimes it’s hard to resist.

            • Sam

              Neither of you can refute me, so you personally attack me instead.

              The same tired old tactics of those who wish to avoid criticism and responsibility.

    • Coming from a European background, I find it exceedingly bizarre that a private body has oversight over a public one. I am under no doubts as to mismanagement at CCSF (as with most other SF Municipal institutions), but shouldn’t accreditation be about the academic soundness of the programs, not the financials or administration, except when it gets in the way of the academics? Why are a bunch of administrators (i.e. overhead US higher Ed has too much of) the ones doing the accreditation? All excellent questions Tim is right to ask (for the record, I tend to agree with Sam more often than Tim).

      • Sam

        Governments contract with private entities all the time. There is nothing radical about that. In this case, the fact that ACCJC is independant of government interference makes them more objective and less susceptible to outside influence.

        And the financial and administrative incompetence is at the heart of the problem here, because the taxpayers are on the hook for the mismanagement of CCSF. We the people are entitled to demand the closure of CCSF if it is heading towards bankruptcy.

        Whether CCSF meets academic standards is a separate issue. Community colleges are the bottom rung of the educational ladder and so nobody expects academic excellence from CCSF. I am willing to believe that their tuition is adequate, but that’s irrelevant if they can’t balance their books.

    • Accreditation is about telling potential students “Yes, this school is legitimate and your degree will not be worthless parchment from a diploma mill”. In other words, a pass/fail minimum standard of quality. An accreditation commission is not a financial audit firm, and if that was what is needed, a commission staffed with administrators is the last thing we’d want, given college administrators’ profligacy (starting at home with rampant salary inflation) is a big cause of the nation’s education affordability problem. We’d want forensic accountants and the like.

      As for ACCJC, it clearly has conflicts of interests, and resembles the American Medical Association, i.e. the foxes guarding the henhouse. CCSF may be far below UC Berkeley or SFSU in the pecking order, but it serves a valuable purpose in providing continuing education, affordable part-time education for new immigrants striving to better themselves, and very specialized vocational programs, specially in the medical fields, that are not covered by snootier institutions. The Cal State schools were supposed to do that, but in their rush to compete with UC, they abandoned the low-end mission.

      Once again, I have no doubt CCSF was wasteful (just looking at their fancy digs on Ocean and Phelan gives you an idea), but that is a job for the city controller and the mayor, not an academic accreditation board.

      • alachicana

        “(just looking at their fancy digs on Ocean and Phelan gives you an idea)” – Are you being facetious? I’ve been in about every building on that campus and the overwhelming majority of it is not even close to being ‘fancy’….