SAN FRANCISCO — A panel overseeing the 85,000-student City College of San Francisco on Wednesday moved to revoke the institution's accreditation effective July 2014, setting in motion a radical effort by stunned state and city officials to rescue the two-year school.
The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges last year had demanded that City College — a 78-year-old multi-campus system that is one of the country's largest — "show cause" as to why it should remain accredited, citing a litany of financial, governance and administrative problems. That falls just below loss of accreditation, a designation crucial to the awarding of student financial aid and to the school's reputation.
Although administrators, faculty and staff have scrambled over the past year to remake the college, a five-page notice to Interim Chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman on Wednesday said the efforts had fallen short in 11 of 14 areas.
The revocation decision is not final: The school can now ask for a review and then an appeal — a months-long process during which state and city officials have vowed to make the changes necessary to persuade the commission to restore the college's standing.
"I am extremely disappointed that the progress City College made was not enough to bring it into compliance with the standards" of the commission, California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris said in a conference call. He added that his office "is going to do everything in its power to make sure the college retains its accreditation."
Still, he said the news was not necessarily surprising, noting that a separate report issued last week by a state crisis management team also showed "that the fiscal problems of the institution continue."
The most sweeping and imminent move, Harris said, will be appointment of a special trustee "with extraordinary powers" to oversee the college, sidelining its elected board of trustees. That person will have the ability to close campuses and shutter programs, though not to override collective bargaining agreements.
The California Community Colleges Board of Governors will make the appointment at its regularly scheduled meeting in Sacramento next week.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who joined Harris on the call, said, "We have to respond to this with more than has been offered in the past."
"City College has been the hope of so many people for so many generations" and is crucial to businesses looking for hires and for students, among them "returning veterans and people in their mid-careers trying to catch up in this economy," Lee said. "It is simply too important to our social and economic future."
Rafael Mandelman, a college board member, had a measured reaction to the impending appointment. "The good news is that we're not alone and that the state of California [will] be standing with us to try to keep City College open," he said. "The price of that [will] be the loss of local control, and that is a sad thing."
Within hours of the announcement, members of the Save CCSF Coalition protested outside the main campus. Labor leaders said more demonstrations are planned, including one on Tuesday.
The former Compton Community College lost accreditation in 2005 and was taken over by El Camino College, but the size of City College makes such a handover more unlikely. Still, local and state leaders called for calm, stressing that even if the college ultimately loses accreditation, the state will ensure that students' credits and degrees are honored and transferable to nearby institutions.
"We are open for business," Scott-Skillman said. "We are accepting students for the fall semester."
Meanwhile, anger mounted toward the accreditation commission, which governs community and junior colleges in western states. The California Federation of Teachers has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education asserting that commission's actions are capricious and damaging to local control.
"The commission acts as judge, jury and executioner ... with little concern for the consequences," said CFT president Joshua Pechthalt in a conference call.
Mandelman said he had previously withheld judgment on the commission but now feels that its determination — which came after the institution did what he called "backflips" to improve conditions — is "absolutely outrageous and a violation of the public trust."
Faculty union president Alisa Messer, an English instructor, said "thousands of hours" of collaborative work had led to a closer look at student data, an overhaul of the governance structure and a return of revenues to pre-recession levels.
She vowed "to fight to ensure that we remain a school that offers quality education," yet acknowledged that the past year has brought an exodus of talent — and a decline in student enrollment.
There were at least some expressions of trust in the commission's decision. Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,600 university and college presidents, called the action "regrettable — and absolutely necessary."
"An institution that does not meet accreditation standards cheats its students and its community," she said in a statement. "It is apparent that dramatic change is needed at the City College of San Francisco."
The commission declined to comment on criticisms of its reach and referred reporters to the letter to Scott-Skillman posted on its website.