Interview by Gina Scialabba
Preface: On Feb. 19, The Guardsman spoke to Alisa Messer, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2121. She represents the instructors, counselors and librarians of City College.
The Guardsman: How many faculty or staff members do you represent?
Alisa Messer: We are down to about 1500 people, which is much less than the 2000 people we had five years ago. It’s significant.
TG: Why are we down so many faculty?
AM: Well, the budget cuts for one and the slow downsizing of the college. We had 100,000 students in ‘08-‘09. We are down to about 85,000, possibly as few as 80,000 students.
TG: What were, in your opinion, the primary issues that led to the current crisis that City College is now facing?
AM: There’s been so much interest in figuring out who is to blame and what’s at stake. I think the thing we always look to first is that the funding crisis has been huge in the community college system and in public education overall. In the last several years our community colleges have lost half a million students in California. At City College, there are a lot of factors that go into the current situation. While we tried to save students, we tried to keep cuts away from the classroom and we tried to save jobs. That caused some tremendous strain while we kept a lot of funding in the classroom, but didn’t fund other things at the college, which long term or even medium term, that created some huge challenges.
TG: What are some of those things that were not funded?
AM: Significant amounts of maintenance. You see a lot of concern around technology which is also something that ultimately we need to fund.
TG: Are you optimistic about funding in the future?
AM: I’m optimistic about a couple things. For many years we had a revenue problem, not a spending problem. It was our goal to change that. Some of that goal happened through Prop A. We got $16 million a year for eight years from SF voters. The California Federation of Teachers was among the most involved early on in really pushing the state to say, you know what, we can bring more revenue back to our schools and back to the state. We can do it through what became Prop 30. We brought millions of dollars back to California.
TG: Are part-timers going to lose benefits?
AM: We want to ensure that part-timers don’t lose benefits. We have continued to say that is not an option for us. For 30 years our part-timers have had access to benefits, and just saying, ‘oh no, never mind, we don’t need to insure you anymore,’ or ‘we only want to insure half of you,’ as has been suggested, really isn’t an option for us. It is not a reasonable thing to do for our most vulnerable faculty and some of our most vulnerable employees, and it’s not to the benefit to the quality education or even to what San Francisco is about. I don’t think that’s what San Franciscans said when they voted for Prop A at 72.9 percent.
TG: Are we at risk of losing certain diversity departments as a result of reorganization?
AM: It remains to be seen exactly what will happen with the reorganization of the departments. We are really concerned that it hasn’t been transparent. That is something we have seen happen at other colleges, particularly with ethnic studies.Those classes get shunted to the side as not the core academic things. We want to ensure they remain intact.
TG: In recent months, the college has faced what some would call “negative news coverage” that isn’t providing both sides of the story. Do you agree?
AM: In my classroom when we talk about both sides of the story, we often like to open it up and consider there are not just two sides. Things are nuanced and complex. I do think that much of the coverage has not been balanced. I agree with that overall. I also think that a lot of the complexities get lost as agendas are pushed and various ideas are moved forward.
TG: Have you contacted the media and voiced the opinion that the other side of the story may not be getting told in the reporting you see?
AM: I have personally written letters and emails. I have sent corrections. Sometimes those corrections are noted, but usually the damage is so far done by that time. I have personally seen dozens, if not hundreds of emails from faculty, students and staff and from the public that people cc’d me on to say, ‘Look, I tried to make this point. I tried to send this in.’ So much has gone not just to the Chronicle, but other media outlets as well, but we haven’t seen much of that bubble up.
TG: Do you think the administration has done a good job of putting a human element to the problems and challenges the college is facing?
AM: Well, certainly not. For instance, we haven’t heard from the administration around the bargaining table or outside the bargaining table why it is that the administration apparently thinks that the college shouldn’t have access to benefits for part-timers, or should greatly restrict that. It’s really about the bottom line. It’s about bean counting, and you lose the human element when you are talking about the bottom line. Doesn’t mean City College doesn’t have some pretty intense fiscal challenges to face right now or over the next several years, even though things are getting better. It’s hard to have a human element when what you are talking about is simply about what the costs are.
TG: Do you think the administration has gone far enough to seek out the opinions of faculty, staff and students and incorporate them into decision making now?
AM: One of our big criticisms has been disappointment around just what you are asking about. There’s a lot of pressure around the timeline, and there are opinions the administration has about how we need to proceed. Frequently we’ve felt left out. We’ve felt left out even in the collective bargaining process where we have really been circumvented. I sit down once a week with folks from our union to do bargaining with the college and we feel left out even with that going on and even though we are sitting on the work groups and I’m on the steering committee, but we don’t always feel like we are listened to or engaged. We hear from students all the time that they’ve been asking to have a meeting with the chancellor, they’ve asked for a town hall. They want questions answered. They want to understand what’s happening. Everyone wants to understand what’s happening.
TG: Is Interim Chancellor Scott-Skillman creating an atmosphere of transparency?
AM: It’s not my impression that we have an open door policy. Or that anyone is pretending that we do. At this point I think it would be a good thing to have. I know for myself and those of us that are leading the faculty union effort, there is so much happening all the time. It has been very hard to get information out. I can self-reflect a little bit on how challenging it is because of how much we are doing all the time at every moment to address so many things. I can imagine that is the same for the interim chancellor as well. On the other hand, there’s a lot of staff and a lot of folks who could be and should be trying to find ways to engage the constituencies more deeply.
TG: When Prop. A, the parcel tax, was brought to the voters, it was labeled, “Saving City College.” I know you were instrumental in getting out the vote and getting the message across. And, correct me if I am wrong, it is set to bring in [$]14 million?
AM: Actually, the city says [$]16 million. The college is saying [$]14 million.
TG: The administration has made it clear that those funds are not going to be earmarked for salaries and programs. Instead, those funds are going to be used for pensions for retirees and to pump up financial reserves, primarily.
AM: Not actually pensions, but to fund retiree health benefits.
TG: Were voters misled?
AM: I think we have a lot of work to do with the community of San Francisco to ensure that voters were not misled. But right now I think they are being misled. I certainly feel that we were misled and the college was misled.
If you looked at the Prop. A ballot language, it was very clear about what the funds would be used for. The funds would be used for programs and maintaining classes, to prevent layoffs, and the big one was to offset state budget cuts, which have been tremendous over the last year. It was to start to fill the funding again that hadn’t been cut so that we didn’t have to downsize the college further.
We’ve been saying we need to start to build up our reserves again. That’s the responsible thing to do, but we don’t need to overbuild it at the point when we’re also turning around and making cuts. We need to build up slowly and steadily, but clearly to a prudent reserve. That’s something everybody agrees we should do.
TG: Is the administration prioritizing the reserves over keeping faculty jobs or not cutting a class or any of the other things that the voters thought the money was going to?
AM: They are. They’re saying, ‘well, it’s nice that San Francisco voted on these things, and it’s nice that San Francisco said we want to support maintaining the college.’ But then they’re turning around and saying, ‘but we think this money really needs to be put over aside over here and it needs to be used for other things than what the public said it was going to maintain.’
It’s a little bit preposterous if you think about it. Everybody agrees that we need to keep our accreditation and we need to address the recommendations. How we do that should be a college conversation, not just a top-down imposition in terms of what it ends up looking like.
TG: Bryce Harris, the California Community College’s chancellor, delivered a rather stern message to college trustees on Jan. 21.
AM: Yeah, that’s true.
TG: He essentially warned that City College is not “too big to fail.” Is that true? And do you feel that message is warranted at this time?
AM: You mean to make that statement and deliver that message?
TG: Right…Well, first. Is it true? Is it true this college isn’t too big to fail? And, the second piece, is that a message that would be warranted?
AM: The first part, I would just reframe it. When we say “too big to fail,” it assumes we are talking about banks, right? I think every public education institution shouldn’t be too big to fail. It’s not because it’s too big, but because it’s too important to lose, and I think that City College is too important to lose. It’s too important to San Francisco to lose. So, there’s a lot at stake.
There are some people who think it doesn’t matter what kind of college we have, maybe. As long as we have a college. So, our goal has been to ensure that through this process we get through it as clearly and with as much integrity as we can, and with the school in tact.
TG: Some people have criticized both the interim chancellor and the special trustee Robert Agrella as, and these are not my words, “carpetbaggers” who are “using the crisis to bust unions.”
AM: We are certainly concerned about having new interim folks come in. Or folks with power from the outside, who haven’t gotten to know the college and don’t necessarily have the depth of experience with SF, and our students’ needs in SF and our community’s needs in SF. So, I would frame it a little bit differently, but we definitely have that concern.
TG: Anything else you would like to add that I haven’t already covered?
AM: I haven’t forgotten that it really wasn’t that long ago that community colleges were free and were accessible to everyone and offered so much, and particularly to our most vulnerable students. Community colleges used to really be, and I believe still are and still can be, about community and that includes the pipeline to transfer to four year institutions, which is what I do every day in the classroom. I’m an English teacher, and I teach basic skills. I help students navigate their way to State or Davis or Stanford or UC Berkeley, and I’m always really excited to do that. We also teach immigrants English and it’s incredible that we do that in a city like this. That’s not something that other cities have to the same extent that we do. We are the place folks come when they haven’t finished their high school degree or sometimes even their junior high school degree. They come here and get a degree in our transitional studies program.
I think that ultimately the state used to value that and still could if we were able to do more to shift the conversation about who deserves education. What education is for. The fact that it’s a human right and people should have access to it and extended access to it if they need it. That is something that is really about the health and wealth of our communities and that is what we think education is about.
I grew up in San Francisco and the reason that I came to work at City College of SF. I said, ‘I want to come and work in the city that I grew up in, with the students that City College of San Francisco serves who would otherwise have no other opportunity often for any other education.’ We tried really hard not to lay people off over the last several years in really challenging times. It seems strange to me that those things, even health benefits for part-timers, all those San Francisco values, it’s almost like they have been criminalized under this current situation.
There’s such a shift in how we talk about what City College of San Francisco does, and what it does well. And the idea that we have somehow criminalized the San Francisco values or criminalized our dedication to offering accessible education has really been a shock to a lot of folks within the college. It is something I still have hope we can turn around.