Interview, Marcy Rein's Blog

Fighting for a College’s Survival: Interview With the Authors of Free City!

By Hank Reichman
Academe Blog
May 15th, 2021

In the current issue of Academe magazine I reviewed a new book, Free City! The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All It’s a terrific book, which details the five-year fight to save the college from an over-aggressive accrediting agency and expand access.  I had previously posted frequently about that struggle on this blog (see here or here).  Excited by the book, I reached out to its authors, Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger, and Vicki Legion, with a few questions.  The following are my queries and their collective replies.

Hank Reichman: One thing that I found really impressive about Free City! was how you managed to tell the story of the CCSF accreditation fight largely through the words of participants.  You interviewed more than 90 people — that’s a lot of folks!  Can you discuss how you approached writing this book and why you decided to rely so heavily on interviews with participants?

Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger, & Vicki Legion:  In 2012 City College had the population of a medium-sized city, with ninety thousand students and campuses and community sites all over the city.  People’s experiences of the college, and the turbulent years of the accreditation crisis, varied depending on where they worked or studied.  The crisis hit students, staff and faculty in different ways, and people took up different roles in the all-hands-on-deck effort to keep the college open.  We talked to a lot of people because that seemed the best way to learn about all those different roles and perspectives – even though we tell the story through a particular lens, that of the activists in and around the Save CCSF Coalition and the faculty union, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121.

But also, we felt that the story was really authored by all those people who gave their time and energy and heart to defending CCSF and making it tuition-free.  We wrote it down.  We wanted to tell a story because stories have a unique power to engage people.  There aren’t enough narratives that document and celebrate what people can do when they organize – and organizing begins with one person after another deciding that they can be a protagonist in their own history.

HR: In my review I wrote, “Free City! does not pull punches in tackling the inevitable divisions and conflicts that challenged CCSF’s defenders and the broad coalition they built.”  Uniting a diverse coalition is a challenge that everyone who seeks to defend higher education must deal with.  Can you talk more about how CCSF faculty managed divisions and built unity — and how they sometimes fell short in that task?  What are the main lessons that people can learn from their efforts in this regard?

MR, ME, & VL:  AFT 2121, representing the City College faculty, faced three main challenges in building unity: pulling its membership together, working with the chapter of SEIU 1021 that represented classified staff, and overcoming divisions in the community that stemmed from different views of what was going on at the college.

After a brief period of cooperation in 2012, long-standing divisions between faculty and the staff unions reasserted themselves.  Both sides contributed to the longstanding schism—the faculty with sometimes elitist attitudes, the staff union leadership with readiness to take offense and a strategy of aligning with administration in order to get concessions for its members.  The personality and approach of the entrenched SEIU chapter leadership made the differences hard to bridge during the crisis, although some staff members participated in the Save CCSF Coalition and public events in defense of the school.

Political education and deep listening helped overcome the divisions among faculty members and differences in the community.  When the ACCJC first sanctioned the college, few knew the commission’s true nature.  Even those who did were understandably afraid.  AFT 2121 needed to keep members from being paralyzed by the fear, and grapple with the fact that it had been running for years with an activist base that was deeply committed but small.

With the help of an organizer on loan from AFT national, the local began a systematic effort to contact the entire membership and listen to people’s concerns.  With the ammunition provided by CFT President Emeritus Marty Hittelman’s dossier ACCJC Gone Wild, and the work of the Save CCSF Research Committee, people across the college learned about the hyper-aggressive accreditor.  When the commission announced that it would close the school, the need to act proved stronger than fear.

Friction in the community stemmed from divergent views of what was happening at City College.  Some faculty, students, and community members saw City as a racist institution.  They cited inadequate learning conditions, the disproportionately white faculty, and long remedial sequences in English and math that trapped students who came to City from under-resourced schools—including many Black students.  In their view, the ACCJC sanctions could open a path to progress on these issues.  The other view blamed years of underfunding for the deficits in conditions.  It cast the accreditation sanctions as part of the effort to downsize and privatize CCSF, causing grievous harm to the students, more than three-fourths of whom were students of color.

A long debate and dialogue anchored by San Francisco Jobs With Justice provided space for the students’ concerns to be heard, and for the research on the politics behind the attack to be presented.  A community-labor coalition gelled that is still to this day showing up and speaking out for City College.

HR:  Your book shows how the attack on CCSF was in critical respects an extension of the privatization agenda already devastating much of K–12 public education.  Community colleges may well be a kind of mediating institution between K-12 and four-year colleges and universities.  Can you discuss the ways in which the CCSF struggle was an extension of what’s been happening in K-12 and the ways in which it was similar to challenges that faculty in four-year institutions also face?

MR, ME, & VL:  Our book committee has a mantra: “Everything we know about corporate education ‘reform’ in the community colleges, we learned from K-12.”  Early on we studied a book by Chicago researcher and education justice activist Pauline Lipman, The New Political Economy of Urban Education.  Dr. Lipman had mapped school closures in Black and Latinx neighborhoods with indicators of gentrification, and found that school closures were precursors to mass eviction of low-income residents from their neighborhoods.  This sensitized us to watch for the real estate interests at play.  As CCSF has been downsized, several pieces of prime land owned or used by the college have been taken over for high-end housing construction.

We set up a two-column table of parallels between education “reform” in K-12 and in the community colleges.  First, we noted that “for-profit colleges are to community colleges as charter schools are to K-12,” meaning that downsizing public schools makes space for privately governed schools to grow.  Second, accreditation commissions became ramrods to push through “reforms.”  Third, state takeovers were used to overrule local governance.  In 2013, when City College was taken over, more than 100 school districts across the country—85% of them in Black and Latinx-majority districts—were also under state takeover.  Finally, aggressive attacks on teachers’ unions, new emphases on reporting metrics in the name of “accountability,” and the narrative of “failed public education” characterized the “reform” projects in K-12 and community colleges alike.

The state universities are subject to some aspects of the corporate agenda, including heavy new pressures to have students attend full-time—a policy long sought by the student loan industry because students carrying a full-time load are most likely to require student loans.  This appears as the push for the universities to report “on-time graduation” in high-stakes metrics.

HR:  The CCSF fight was, at least initially, a fight over accreditation.  Some have argued that ACCJC, the college’s accreditor, was a “rogue” body, headed by a particularly difficult individual.  But others see the agency as less “rogue” and more a potential avatar of a broader threat.  At the same time, many faculty members believe that we could make some gains by compelling accreditors to live up to their supposed principles.  How do you see the role of the accreditation fight and what implications do you think it had for future struggles?  Will accrediting agencies always be the enemy or could they become useful allies?

MR, ME, & VL:  The Save CCSF Research Committee learned that the ACCJC was implementing policies formulated at the national level by foundations operating in the interest of the corporations that funded them, and passed down by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).  It, like other accreditors, was insulated from accountability.

In Free City! we identify the Lumina Foundation, which was started with funds and staff from the student loan industry, as the initiator of many “reform” policies for community colleges.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others linked to the tech industry also play big roles.  Many other entities, including for-profit colleges, stand to gain from downsizing and privatization of public colleges.

The Research Committee found that some DOE accreditation staffers had been subject to “regulatory capture” by the industry they were supposed to be regulating.  For example, the person in charge of accreditation rule-making went through the “golden revolving door” to become a vice president of the second-largest for-profit college, racking up a salary of between one and three million dollars per year.  The ACCJC sanctions on City College reflected the “reform” priorities.  The accreditor insisted that the college shrink its community-serving mission, focusing on certificates, career and technical education, transfer and associates degrees, and basic skills.  Gone were life skills, lifelong learning, cultural enrichment and civic engagement.

ACCJC Vice President Steven Kinsella spoke to the DOE’s role at a “listening session” after a California Community Colleges Board of Governors (BOG) task force recommended the state find a new accreditor.  “The Department of Education told us twice we hadn’t been hard enough on City College,” he said.

Accreditation agencies have tremendous unchecked power, with no direct accountability to the institutions subject to their dictates.  The ACCJC’s membership is self-selected and stacked with administrators; their deliberations are secret; there is no appeal from their rulings to a possibly impartial body; and they are regulated by unaccountable bodies.

Federal appointees in the DOE authorize the accrediting agencies.  When the ACCJC first sanctioned City College, this meant that ultimate authority rested with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in his previous role as Chicago Public Schools superintendent had presided over the closing of more than 150 schools in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

In California the accreditor is hired by the BOG, whose members are appointed by the state governor.  They work most easily with other unaccountable entities.  During the City College crisis, this was the Special Trustee with Extraordinary Powers, appointed by the BOG.

So the fight for CCSF’s vision and for that of community colleges in general has to disrupt the disruptors by exposing the corporate agenda.  As steps in that direction, the vision of CCSF will benefit from more local control and public support, from allying with the faculty of other colleges through their faculty organizations, and with supportive student and community groups.

HR:  Your book ends on a somewhat somber note, given that in the wake of the pandemic CCSF was subjected to further cuts and layoffs.  Since you wrote the book Bay Area newspapers have been filled with accounts of new cutbacks and problems at CCSF.  Can you tell our readers what has been going on with CCSF, and especially with its faculty, since the fight that you chronicle in Free City!?

MR, ME, & VL:  Keeping CCSF open was an important victory and it definitely made accreditation a less powerful cudgel for the downsizers.  The entire leadership of the ACCJC had to step down, and statewide sanction rates dropped like a rock.  The free tuition program at CCSF was the most inclusive in the country.  Free City! was written in the afterglow from that victory and we think it’s very important to acknowledge and celebrate our wins.

But the war continues.  Since 2008, the entire California Community College system has lost more than 600,000 students, while the state’s population climbed by three million.  Relative to the state’s population, the colleges have been downsized by more than one-third.  Three-fourths of California’s Black and Latinx college students attend community college.  They are being shut out by what the state chancellor’s office refers to as the “Vision for Success”—a vision that shrinks the colleges’ mission and educational offerings as well as enrollment, prioritizing the one-fourth of the student body that attend full-time (in the case of City College, only one tenth of the students).

During the accreditation crisis, and especially during the state takeover, City College lost the bulk of its experienced administrators and institutional memory.  They have been replaced by administrators who bow to the logic of austerity.  College Chancellor Rajen Vurdien said in a March 21 public forum that “the state sees the school as a school that can serve no more than 18,000 – 20,000 students.”  The trustees have gone along with this narrow vision.

Enrollment is the chief source of revenue for the school, but the administration has refused to take practical steps to boost enrollment.  Instead it proposed to lay off 65% of the faculty, at the expense of hundreds of classes and thousands of students.  When presented with the prospect of funding from the city of San Francisco, the previous chancellor turned it down.  When told that federal recovery funds could be used to avert layoffs and bolster enrollment, this administration dismissed the idea.

CCSF faculty just bought more time for organizing by taking a deeply concessionary contract – as they did in 2013. They are looking at pay cuts of up to 11%, but have bought another year for organizing.

One outcome of the struggle we chronicle in Free City! is that people are much clearer that the fight is about vision, not just about money, and that it is a fight that has to be waged at the state as well as the local level.  Faculty and students have swung into action.  The union and new coalitions are raising the visibility of this fight for the soul of community college education.

One important ally is the Faculty Association for California Community Colleges (FACCC), an advocacy organization based in Sacramento that is waging its own campaign against the cuts.  See also

San Francisco has always supported CCSF and has set an example for other colleges that when we organize, we can win; we are optimistic this will continue.


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