Attack on City College SF

Historical Essay

by Molly Hankwitz, September 24, 2013

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A beautiful mosaic of the Aztec calendar greets those entering the City College Mission Campus

Photo: Molly Hankwitz

This Attack Goes Against Our History and Any Meaningful Sustainable Solution for San Francisco

Maneuverings of The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, (ACCJC) around City College's accreditation and threats of closure this July 2014 came as and unwarranted attack on the community. To many here, CCSF exemplifies the best of this part of the world: its inclusive, diverse, intellectual and progressive populations. How is it possible, then, that CCSF had gotten behind on paperwork and standards when the education is widely valued? What could this event do to the exceptional cultural diversity and educated workforce of the city? How has CCSF sprung back? Moreover, what is the responsibility of Californian cities to their lower income and minority residents with respect to higher education?

After the 2008 economic “crisis” affecting California's community and state colleges through budget cuts and reduction of the number of students who could feasibly attend, which took its toll upon the departmental quality and egalitarianism of the UC system by way of budget cuts and tuition hikes, the continued pressure on CCSF to change its ways or lose accreditation is yet another set back to our State's higher educational system. This small democratic institution, a College of some 85,000 students,(Baum) has worked to deliver quality higher education to its students. Many are under-served, newcomer, transitional, or older adult residents of the city. CCSF has been an employer which has paid its faculty and staff some of the highest salaries and benefits for public workers anywhere in the nation,(Baum). Against this history, CCSF has already suffered loss of funding due to State budget cuts and protected both students and faculty, (Baum) yet has been made to scramble to fulfill the requirements set by the ACCJC.


Threat to CCSF may first have appeared rigorously authoritative from mainstream news reports. It may have appeared a sincere effort to clean up a faltering and unworthy institution. But, it's easy to send morality plays through the news when "quality education" is held up as a highly as it is as a cultural idea. However, more astute thinking cannot separate one act of large-scale political indifference from another. These are politically divisive times in the US. From the Federal government shutdown by the Tea Party to the plethora of evictions and foreclosures plaguing citizens' housing. One must read such swashbuckling moves to destabilize institutions as having a politically divisive and conservative similarity.

In truth there has been, in our news, a spate of recent political attacks on minority and lower-income citizens (and their history) including the Supreme Court's decision on the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Trayvon Martin verdict, the Tea Party's blockade against Obamacare, and the "secret, nighttime addition of limitations to contraception" attack on womens' reproductive freedom.

Indeed, globally, entire governments of poorer countries have been seized and strangled by the neo-liberal force of destabilization. Economies have fallen, but not without political resistance, and state measures towards "austerity" have been enforced, frequently through violent police "militarization". Privatization of public assets, promoting the idea that there is no money without privatization, has proved hideously successful in spreading the belief that the public sector can no longer "do its job" without private control. But, what has this to do with the future of CCSF?

Laying Blame and Taking Action

Bodies of “interest” behind frequently clandestine initiatives, like those used to discredit CCSF, must be resisted at all cost. They are working to undermine the foundations of free thought and the right to self-government of our educated population.

In a singularly well-worded lawsuit, City Attorney Dennis J. Herrera's office has proceeded against the ACCJC for “using the accreditation process to squelch debate with respect to education reform in Sacramento”.(LA Times,2013) Their move sheds light upon the agency's agenda for including CCSF in its already tough-nut track record of punishing California's community colleges. This commendable support for San Francisco's urban community and insight into the political practices of the ACCJC, across the state, comes as welcome relief to an else-wise silent or "on side" City Hall.

Resistance, Protest, Student Speak Outs: The Community Rallies Back

Other efforts to sustain CCSF and to resist the attack such as [1] has emanated from the CCSF and city community: students, unionists, faculty, and administrators have been working to keep the college doors open despite an imposing “deadline” of July 2014 and declining enrollments. Declining enrollment means continued loss of funding and loss of accreditation will make that situation even worse. The San Francisco Chronicle has done little but follow along and agree with the “official story”, recently spotlighting the one Trustee who has been given nearly autocratic control of reworking CCSF along ACCJC lines. CCSF administrators, faculty, and students have been held responsible without discussion of the State budget cuts with which CCSF was already dealing and the cuts to courses, departments and services that those cuts brought about.

Why destroy an institution which is the city's largest provider of workforce education? Why shutdown the US government so that citizens' don't have affordable healthcare? Herrera's law suit alleges that “the panel is biased against the college and its advocates because of differing agendas.” CCSF's value to faculty and students has long been its openness to political difference and the diversity of the city's culture. This event may simply be one, sorrowfully, in a long line of continued fall out from greed, corruption, and years of knee-jerk reaction on the part of powerful interests actively working to destroy our civil society.

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Keeping the doors open!

Photo: Molly Hankwitz

Watch Out for Morale Killing Efforts!

It is important to name the ways in which threat of CCSF's closure from outside agencies has been felt across the spectrum of the community. In the mainstream press, CCSF has regularly been assailed as fiscally irresponsible, failing to maintain appropriate standards for its students, with the implication that CCSF is notoriously behind the times. Therefore, this is an old and new argument, preparing us for real change, as it were, which will be managed and created to keep us up to date. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, reliably left wing, published an editorial, however, on how elements of Obama administration rhetoric is to blame for much of this pushing and maneuvering around education at state and national levels. (Bay Guardian editorial, 2013)

Surely, most schools across this nation could be improved in some way. But, when is "educational reform" a restructuring for purposes of elitism, profit-making, downsizing, and labor breaking maneuvers, and when is it something which will not hurt students and faculty? Is CCSF, like a small country, not capable of meeting its own challenges without a colonizing force?

Sustainability is the key to meaningful growth and stable economy, not stripping institutions of their worth so as to retool them for the private "use" of outside management. City College should not close because City College has a long history of excellence and service. City College is a foundation of education and culture for the city.

Measures to disrupt CCSF's practices from the faceless regime enforcing new management, have been extensive. In total Faculty have received eleven percent pay cuts, a measure which Prop A, voted in by citizens of the city, was supposed to prevent. But, where did that money disappear to?

After teaching for years, reduced course loads, renamed classes with syllabi handed over to someone younger, are offensive contract-breaking tactics which hold faculty responsible for management. For instance, attrition rates have been blamed on teachers, when in truth enrollment has been declining since the ACCJC came on Board and even before that with cuts in State funding.(Baum) Department chairs have been fired and departments consolidated. This string of events has done little more than create internal division and fear, confusion and loss of morale for the community, making it even harder on the College.

A notoriously democratic institution, CCSF has long served students of minority and low income backgrounds. It has offered sanctuary to the nearly homeless, to recent veterans returning from the nation's wars. It has enabled single moms, young students looking for careers, and older adult populations to flourish intellectually. CCSF buildings house murals by Diego Rivera. As Herrera's suit points out, CCSF is a very different kind of place than the one promised night and day to the wealthy,the customarily privileged of our society, and the conservative.

Interim Chancellor, Dr. Thelma Scott Stillman's “welcome” address was boycotted at the start of the school year. Instead of attending, a press conference was held by the City College community.

Confusion and Undermining Tactics

Threats of closure from the ACCJC have made the community feel that CCSF was literally being robbed from them. Ultimately, its an issue of self-government v. "top down" management. When locks were suddenly changed in classroom buildings without notifying those using them, the message was clear. 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, faculty pay cuts, “downsizing“ of student services, and commercialization of the bookstore all happened so quickly, in retrospect, that nothing but fear was produced. It was as if the College were slated for demolition. Visions of the new campuses falling silent have haunted the public. With San Francisco's history of land grabs and current rapid gentrification it is apparent that the CCSF campuses, with their huge building footprints, lawns, playing fields, and parking lots — and the brand new multi million dollar architecture are gems of assets and real estate. Where is the assessment that would decide to keep CCSF open on the grounds that residents deserve an excellent, affordable educational opportunity? Where lies the democratically held belief that public sector higher education improves the lot of humankind?

The demeaning trend towards closure, and silence of City Hall, needs be redressed for CCSF to move forward. Focus should be placed upon the social history of CCSF as an institution of public good and its influence on our City as an educational institution which we hold in high esteem. Radio talk shows about CCSF's accreditation debacle have had people expressing anger over a perceived anti-immigrant, minority, and low-income student bias. As one angry ESL teacher from the East Bay stated, ”Oakland has no more adult education.” Obviously, the Bay Area, with all its progressive politics is not exempt from colonization.

Racism and Educational Equity are a National Issue

There have been too many national events targeting the public sector and particularly its people of color and lower-income populations. 1 in 5 children live in poverty in this country according to a recently published census. (NY Times, 10/1/2013) This lends a cumulatively disturbing background to the events surrounding the dis-accreditation process and threat of closure to CCSF. It appears to be yet another aspect of the specific set-backs being leveled at minorities and low-income people, which in turn have a deeply racist and malevolent cant in their intent.

Starting from the top, the judicial attack on the civil rights movement of the 1960's lead by Martin Luther King and his cohorts is evident in the recent Supreme Court decision to deconstruct the 1965 Voters' Rights Act on the grounds that racial discrimination originally leading to this seminal legislation is simply no longer extant. to be clear, the Voter's Rights Act is but a thin piece of Law, put into place to protect minorities from discrimination, just as Roe v. Wade is a thin piece of law that enabled women to gain the right of privacy over their own bodies. To be clear, within hours of the Court's decision, notoriously racially segregated Southern states set about re-zoning voting districts, drawing boundaries which would affect voter turnout thus potential outcomes in future elections. It is a well-recorded fact that Obama won in states where voter turn out among minority and low-income populations was high.

A not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting has also sent a disturbing message. Such an event legitimates discrimination and violence towards young people of color by those armed and sanctioned to use weapons. In my humble opinion, it constitutes another link in a chain of the highly-conservative backlash brewing which is regularly glossed over by the “Martinizing” of the Obama presidency, as Smiley and West have pointed out, which does little but put frosting on a situation that cannot be condoned ---that is the trading of civil rights laws which protect citizens for ineffectual "feel good" histories as easily forgotten as they are enjoyed. Despite my deepst respect for the work of Martin Luther King, the melodrama in his re-glorification via the Obama Presidency is a dehumanization of reality that passes for political freedom in the US. What is real is the continued shape shifting of top courts and Justices, making legal maneuveurs tantamount to oppression of people of color, closing of borders, and the de-waging and under valuation of low income citizens. Where can this be seen? In the cuts to spending of public higher education, in attacks on the cultural ideal of education for all and in the frightening concept of urban populations becoming worse off than they already are when so many in power have gained huge salaries with no questions asked. The bottome line is that ignorance of humanity leads to the othering and policing of so-called "dangerous" urban populations, usually shown as people of color. The same money could be spent on educating people to move out of poverty and out of cycles of violence. This beleagurement of the other, the poor, the ethnic minority is a pernicious outcome of white, male dominated ruling power. It can be observed in the widespread modeling and adoption of “Stop and Frisk” police methods in Oakland, in the problem of Oscar Grant's nearly excused death, and of “inner city” hatred emerging as far back as the Nixon and Reagan administrations put urban policing laws on the books or more people on the streets. 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 levels" of violence from someone wearing a badge, who will be pardoned for shooting you.

Thus, to destroy from the inside, an institution which for nearly a century has served well a predominantly minority and lower income student body, unfortunately, to my mind, fits to right in to the current, reactionary cycle of governmental shutdown/control and domination that we are witnessing. It is nearly an act of war against the population supported by justifications in the same way that the invasion, occupation and "rebuilding" of Iraq has been justified. It is a movement of empirical thinking, as Hardt and Negri pointed out, and one in which the modus operandi is clear.


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, including myself, 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 being undertaken to protect public schools from outside "takeover". This is in the context, too, of neighborhoods being gentrified and of the extensive publicity of crime rates and levels of involvement from Oakland's black youth. At the same time, it is very important to respond to the fact that if it had not been for the African American press, the Oscar Grant story would probably have disappeared altogether.

In the modern history of the United States, the quality of life, and open, free-wheeling civic participation of community politics have been upheld as standards of indisputable progress embodied by the city of San Francisco. Residents here helped build a movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and have been the first to implement many critical chapters in the history of womens' rights, gay rights, and AIDS research, Moreover, the people of this city have demanded tolerance and sanctuary for undocumented workers and immigrants coming here to be at home. Part of this progressive tradition has been the building of the institution of CCSF which has provided low-cost higher education to the lumpen mass and brought opportunity for betterment to the many without student loan debt.

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Copernicus and the Aztecs as inspiration.

Photo: Molly Hankwitz

Regardless of obvious faults which one could find with City College, the point here is to lay bare the methodology of the neo-liberal attack strategies, the connection between depriving populations of public assets and other oppressive events in the national political landscape, and, above all, to point out the right to the city and the right to decent affordable education for all citizens, a feature of San Francisco's support for CCSF and its history as an idea

We must not allow "the wrecking crew" (as SAVE CCSF affectionately refers to its captors) in their effort to control every aspect of our lives, to destroy what freedoms have been dreamed and built for nearly a century by City College

Save City College!

The author wishes to thank Richard Baum for his camaraderie and factual assistance, and Walter Alter for his correspondence and research. She is the initiator of The City College of San Francisco Community History Project (continually being added to Found SF) and seeks to collect stories, photographs, and details about CCSF from the community of San Francisco. She is working on a video installation about City College and urban education for the masses for ATA's window gallery on Valencia Street.

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