By Sara Bloomberg
Preface: On Feb. 7 The Guardsman met up with Interim Chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman for an exclusive interview about the college’s accreditation crisis. She replaced the previous interim chancellor, Pamila Fisher, on Nov. 1 and has a one-year contract with the college.
Larry Kamer, the college’s spokesman, and Jennifer Aries of 25th Hour Communications—an outside marketing firm recently hired by the college to help boost enrollment and handle other marketing needs—were also present.
The Guardsman: What are the primary issues that led to this current crisis?
Scott-Skillman: The real issues surround governance, administration and fiscal solvency matters. Those are the primary ones. Certainly when you start peeling those back, it’s layered.
It’s an opportunity, quite frankly, from my point of view, with accreditation to seriously take a look at any weaknesses that are cited. And any other weakness that pop up as a result of the review that’s being done, and being able to address them in a very up-front and clear perspective.
TG: Will the college survive?
SS: You know, I hear that a lot. People ask all the time if we’re going to make it. We are accredited, ok? And until we’re not accredited, we will be working very, very hard to make sure that our deficiencies are met, all the structural issues are corrected.
So, can we do it? Absolutely, absolutely it can be done. We have to work together, we have to come together and work together.
It’s an opportunity to take a look at everything at this college and across the entire district to ensure that we can address those and move forward with it. I’m positive that the kind of work that i see, the different task groups performing the kinds of analyses that are going on, the data gathering that’s taking place, the very critical eye that’s being looked at just about every single thing possible, that yes we can make it.
TG: Is the college going to look very different from what we’re used to?
SS: Whenever you have an opportunity to assess and evaluate, to step away from it, to really see the nuts and bolts and then also have to align it with the kinds of standards, the kinds of regulations, that are part of the community college environment that we’re in today, yeah there are going to be some changes. Change is very difficult. Transformation is hard for many people.
So, yes, there are going to be changes. I think they are changes for the better to be able to deliver the kind of quality education and services that citizens in this area actually need.
One of the biggest things has to do with the governance—with the authority of the administration in working with faculty and department chairs. There has been a reorganization, not just for academic affairs but also for student services.
There’s going to be some changes in terms of restructuring of the various schools of education. There will be more authority provided for the instructional deans to really do the job that they should be doing as administrators in assuring that things are in place and moving forward.
There has to be more definitive planning, long-term planning, not short-term planning, not day to day monitoring.
TG: The reserves are slowly getting back to where they should be, right?
It’s a little bit above $4 million, okay? We have nearly a $200 million budget. All throughout the state, community colleges, in terms of reserves, the prudency of that should be a minimum five percent. That means it should be closer to $10 million and reserves are just that—they’re reserves.
Having to dip into the reserves is very, very challenging because it’s difficult to replenish those reserves. So, to get below a minimum of five percent in reserves is very, very risky for an institution of this size and an institution of this age.
Look at the facilities. Walk into the restrooms. You just don’t build buildings without having clear plans for sustainability, in terms of upkeep and for maintenance.
TG: Do you think that presents a problem for the performing arts center that hasn’t broken ground yet?
Absolutely. I have asked the board not to move forward with that for that very reason. It does not make good judgement, if you will, in terms of moving forward on a project that has no sustainability plan whatsoever, no operating plan whatsoever. And it needs to be addressed.
TG: There has been a lot of negative press for the school lately and a lot of people feel that the Chronicle has been insensitive and unbalanced. Do you agree with that?
SS: I’ve heard comments that the Chronicle is in the administration’s pocket. I don’t know where that comes from. Is it accurate? No.
Stuff that I’ve read from the articles, not just the San Francisco Chronicle, the accuracy is not there and it’s very unfortunate that people are able to put their spin on things that they believe are true or are happening.
TG: What’s missing from those stories?
SS: I’m not gonna sit here and cite or pick out any one particular reporter. I’m just not gonna get into that. The facts are not clear in a lot of the articles that I have been reading. And quite frankly I don’t pay attention to who’s writing those articles. I really don’t.
TG: Are there some bright spots around the college that you can point out?
SS: There are a lot of bright spots around here. There are so many bright spots around here, it gets blinding sometimes.
Yesterday at the Downtown center, the [Educated] Palate was being featured [by Channel 7]. I understand that [Pierre Coste here at Ocean campus is being featured on Channel 7, too].
I grew up on the other side of the Bay, so I’m a Raiders fan but with that said, one of the former City College folks, Larry Grant, was playing in the 49er’s Super Bowl this past weekend.
I’ve been really impressed with the radiation therapy program. Unfortunately, because the entire college has had to undergo the show cause with the accreditation, what happens when that occurs is programs that also have other outside agencies that do accreditation as well, they get impacted.
So the radiation therapy program has been re-evaluated, re-assessed. It passed with flying colors. It’s a very strong program.
And men’s basketball, the men’s basketball team is undefeated and the women’s basketball team is in fifth place. So there are good things that are happening here and unfortunately they are under a cloud.
Hopefully, eventually we’ll have a marketing department here. We don’t have one. You talk about changing organizational structure, that’s something that has to get developed. There hasn’t been one for three years, that’s a problem.
TG: As far as the college’s finances go, how much can we blame the state’s finances on our predicament here?
SS: I’m not in the business of blaming anybody. It’s about alignment, okay? The state of California has money for higher education.
Over the years, it has fluctuated. It has gone up and down, up and down. It’s very cyclical. It’s very unfortunate it’s not stable. Years ago, when Prop 98 was what we thought was an opportunity to be guaranteed a certain amount of money, has never really kicked in on a continuous basis.
So, the state of California with their pot of money and their requirements for higher education working with the State Chancellor’s office and the governing board for community colleges, we have those entities. And here we are with an institution that has a mission that goes far beyond what the resources are capable of being able to handle.
At some point there has to be a true alignment of those resources and regulations and policies that supply those funds to the institution and to be able to align them in such a way where it works well.
City College of San Francisco needs to respect that piece of where their resources are coming from, how much those resources are, what those regulations and policies are and find a way to come together and align them so that they provide the necessary validation to be able to deliver the services and education here.
TG: There’s certainly a problem with funding for education. California has been disinvesting from public education and other colleges have been making cuts that City College hasn’t, right?
SS: I wouldn’t say that they’ve been making cuts. When you say that, what you’re suggesting is colleges are here and have to come down to here. I think what has been happening is colleges have been realigning.
They have been realigning over the years. They have been collaborating and working closely with the state agencies to ensure that based on the kinds of resources, based on the mission, that for community colleges that they’re doing as much as they possibly can. And so, yeah, they’re having to redefine themselves as institutions and many of them have.
Things like repeatability. They put limitations on students repeating courses.
The college that I came from, the district where I came from, we had been engaged in those conversations for three or four years prior, and knowing it was going to be coming down. Eventually it did. And, so we planned for that.
We have to make these “cuts” if you will, to where they are today. There are places where you can plan in advance so that it does not negatively impact students.
TG: Funds are primarily going to be used at this point for pension obligations and to up the reserves. Was it known ahead of time or what point did you or the administration, as a whole, realize that this is where the Measure A funds would be going, because this is not how it was billed to the San Francisco voters?
SS: You know, when you go back and look at the accreditation, the accreditation has identified a number of deficiencies, okay? So you have all these different deficiencies stacked up. You look at Prop A funds. Prop A funds are essentially to “Save City College.”
Without accreditation, there will be no City College the way it is today.
So, you take a look at what those areas are and, yes, the reserves, the maintenance categories, technology categories, pension fund pieces. All of those things are on the table requiring funding.
If those areas are not funded, where do we get the funds? We get the funds from cutback in programs. The question becomes, is that what we want to do? Cut back in programs? In course offerings? Is that what we want to do?
TG: No, of course not.
SS: The other side of this is technology, maintenance, the pension funds, the reserves all of those are there and can be very definitive in terms of “Saving City College.”
TG: But in the language of Measure A, the language that was sent to San Francisco voters had to do with specifically saving classes and faculty wages and staff wages. It didn’t talk about pensions. It didn’t talk specifically to my recollection about reserves. So, that’s where the frustration comes from.
Larry Kamer [college spokesman]: It didn’t talk about wages.
TG: Well, it definitely talked about classes.
LK: It talked about classes, but there is nothing in the language that speaks to wages.
TG: Not pensions either, though. I don’t want to get stuck on this point.
LK: The Prop A argument is so, um, it is getting thrown in here as if there is a division and there isn’t a division. There’s no division. The Prop A funds are going to get spent exactly as voters intend them to get spent. End of story.
People are getting very upset about speculation on how a decision might get made which hasn’t been made yet, but you know what we have been saying, and I’m sorry to jump in, is that Prop A will be spent entirely according to the letter and the spirit of what the voters intended.
SS: I think what happens is a matter of interpretation of what “Saving City College,” the definition or interpretation of “Saving City College.” I do understand different constituent groups have different interpretations of that.
There is absolutely nothing, in my mind or on the books, as far as I am concerned that would suggest that we would be doing anything but that, in terms of identifying areas to be able to allocate for Prop A funds.
Everything we can possibly think of, as far as I’m concerned, is going to save City College. I can’t see where it wouldn’t be to save City College.
TG: Are there conversations happening with other districts and what particularly is being planned for students preparing to transfer to State or a U.C.?
In a closure of an institution, the commission requires the college to first and foremost develop a pathway for students who have completed 75 percent of their program. For the college to do what’s called a “teach out.”
Students who have completed 75 percent of their program would be able to finish their program here at City College, under City College. Students who have not completed 75 percent of the program would certainly, because the institution would be accredited to a closure point, they would be able to transfer to other institutions.
All of the students’ credits or units are accredited and they’re all transferable. So students will not be harmed. They won’t lose any credits should the institution close.
TG: If the board offered you an extension in your current position or offered you a permanent position as chancellor, would you consider taking it?
TG: What are your plans?
SS: I was retired. I had just retired [before accepting this position]. I plan to really retire.
TG: So, is the plan as far as the college administration goes, to finally find a permanent chancellor to replace you?
SS: One of my responsibilities is to work with the board to gear up that process for having a permanent chancellor come on board [by the time I leave in October].
TG: The Chronicle reported that you make two additional pensions, so that bumps your total income up to nearly half a million dollars. I know that doesn’t all come from City College but that still sounds like a lot.
Our previous chancellor, Don Griffin, gave back about $20,000 of his annual salary before he left. Natalie Berg also donated some money back to the school to save a couple classes. Would you be willing to take a pay cut and give some of your salary back to the college?
SS: Well, first of all, I’m not gonna discuss my pensions. I spent 42 years in our system. So that is completely off the table of conversation.
With regards to my salary here, when I accepted it I took a six percent cut initially and then at Christmas time, like everyone else, I took the 8.8 percent cut, as well.
TG: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
SS: There’s so much negativity out there in terms of whether or not City College is going to make it.
I’m pretty confident that we can address the deficiencies, not correct them all by March 15, that’s for sure. I’ve stated that numerous times.
We will make our report and will submit it and it will identify some deficiencies that we’re correcting, and it will most definitely identify a game plan and timeline for addressing the remaining deficiencies.
We have been working on all of them, but it’s simply the timing element that’s associated with submitting that self- evaluation report. Given the number and the types of deficiencies that we have, it’s just an impossible task to complete them all in that short time frame [of nine months].
So for us, the biggest job that we have aside from, of course, correcting all of the deficiencies, is convincing the accrediting commission that we have the appropriate pieces in place to do that.
That’s where I think faculty and staff have been able to really help facilitate this in terms of gathering data, providing the evidence, doing the analysis to help ensure that we are moving forward.
I’m very confident of that piece. Being able to present it in such a convincing way is the most critical hurdle that we have to overcome.
Follow Sara on Twitter: @BloomReports
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