By Gina Scialabba and Sara Bloomberg
On April 29, we sat down with Shanell Williams, the newly elected student trustee and now-former Associated Students president, for a conversation about her experiences with City College and the recent accreditation crisis. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges is expected to release its final decision in early July.
The Guardsman: Other than being a student, tell us what you do here at City College.
Shanell Williams: For the past two years I have been heavily involved with the Associated Students as both vice president of communications and president.
The Associated Students has 12 resource centers and 100 clubs. We are also charged with advocating for the student body. This past year I have been really active in accreditation workgroups, in addition to managing Associated Students. I’ve also been active in mobilizing students, stopping the budget cuts, getting more students services and more classes.
TG: You are the newly elected Student Trustee. Do you get paid for that?
SW: There is a $500 a month stipend. (laughter) It will buy me coffee. It helps though. Everything helps.
TG: How much longer will you be at City College?
SW: This will be my last year, hopefully. I still have some courses I need to get through. I am applying to UC Berkeley and Stanford.
TG: What has been your biggest contribution during your time here?
SW: I am really proud we were able to get 500 sections of classes added back into the budget. At first, that wasn’t on the table. They (the administration) was more concerned with beefing up the reserves. Now, we have shifted the narrative on both a City College and statewide level. We have shown that CCSF is an amazing institution. We deserve an investment in our students, faculty and staff. Getting those classes added back in was really awesome.
Also proud of the student activism and getting more and more students engaged, knowing what’s happening, knowing how accreditation is not only affecting us, but affecting people on a statewide level.
TG: Those additional classes you helped get added, are they for Fall 2013?
SW: Summer and Fall.
TG: Are you a part of the Save CCSF Coalition?
SW: Yes, I am one of the lead organizers.
TG: What is the goal of Save CCSF?
SW: We want to keep CCSF affordable and accessible, like the Master Plan for Education states.
We want to see that CCSF doesn’t push more students out the door. At one point, we had 110,000 students. Now we have around 85,000 and we could be losing more.
So, we are saying this is a valuable resource for working class folks. Low-income people depend on this college for access to higher education. Also for people who are trying to get their GED. Recent immigrants who want to learn English as a second language, they depend on this school for that. We want to protect the promise we made to those communities.
Another goal is democracy. Keeping our decision-making democratic. Students, faculty, staff and community members should have a voice at the table in making decisions about things such as the budget.
On a statewide and national level, we are for educational justice. We are in solidarity with all of the students in the state, K-12 and university students, in defending public education on a large scale. Education is a right and that’s what we are about.
TG: If I was a recent high school graduate or about to be one, why would I want to come here?
SW: I would have to ask the student what their goal and background is. There is not a blanket, cookie-cutter model for every student. For some students, this may be the best bet, for others, it might not.
For me, it was a good next step because I don’t have the resources to pay for my college education. If there are students out there that may not have had access to AP classes or have not gotten through their remedial work in math and English, then this will be a great next step. It’s great to get that work done at an affordable price.
TG: But why City College? Why not Skyline College, for instance?
SW: CCSF because we have a history of promoting diversity and amazing programs like the first LGBT major in the country. City College has it all: remedial and adult education, ESL, GED. If you want to transfer, we have a ton of offerings in all the requirement areas and support centers. Retention centers geared at retaining students of color, we have the Extended Opportunity program. Second Chance for students formerly incarcerated. It’s here. We really believe in diversity. We are a large school, with diverse offerings and a lot of support no matter where you are in your life. Affordability is a key part of it, too. $46 a unit. That’s a great bargain.
TG: There was a recent effort to have you impeached. It didn’t happen but how has that affected your ability to do your job?
SW: Well, it was crazy. The special meeting notice where some board members were calling for my impeachment was March 14, which was the same day we had the big rally at City Hall. Being one of the lead organizers for Save CCSF, it was like, here’s this notice, and then I’m having to get ready for this rally and get people organized for this march to City Hall. So, I mean, it was a little discouraging and hurt my feelings, at first.
TG: Was it surprising?
SW: It was not completely surprising. I could see the political differences with some of my board members. I feel that I’ve been pretty much representing all students. Those political differences were there when I came into office in July 2012. There were members on the board that were from an opposite slate. As president, I welcomed everyone.
TG: What were the primary issues that led to the current crisis City College is facing?
SW: First of all, us going into the reserves was an issue. Not making the cuts the state would have wanted to see our faculty and staff make. City College lost $53 million from the state in three years. You can imagine that with that reduction of funding, any institution would struggle with how to maintain its mission and still function.
TG: How does funding play into this?
SW: We are being put into a state where we can’t serve students because we are losing so much funding. The state needs to readjust its priorities. It’s not that as an institution we are so broken. We don’t have the dollars we need to do the work that community colleges are supposed to be doing.
TG: What changes have you seen taking place at City College as a result of the “show cause” sanction?
SW: Last summer, when we first got placed on “show cause” sanction, there were students who demanded to get on one of the 14 work groups. They were told they had to first read a 300-page document, take a quiz and submit a resume. You had to jump through all these hoops.
There were meetings already happening about changes to our mission statement and restructuring how the college does business and administering student services. A whole restructuring of our college. Those decisions and conversations were happening without students being present in the room.
We got back in August and students were finally allowed on the work groups, but the decisions were already made. We were shown what the mission statement should be. Pamela Fisher said this to both me and Diamond Dave (Whitaker), the only way we can save our accreditation is if we take cultural enrichment, lifelong learning and civic engagement out of our mission statement.
We looked at other colleges’ mission statements and they still had some of that stuff in there. I don’t think we needed to remove those pieces from our mission statement. There were also talks of closing certain centers without even looking at the data from the centers.
We found out at the last board meeting (that) they are self-sustaining. All of our centers are profitable.
The same with changing the department head structure and the deans. Also, they want to consolidate all of our retention centers.
There’s a long list of decisions this interim administration has made that goes contrary to 14 recommendations put forth by the accreditation commission.
TG: Do you have an example of that?
SW: Our accreditation commission said we should stabilize our administration, that we should get more administrators that have a long history and are stable within the college. What do they do? They (the interim administration) wants to fire all of our deans. We need more maintenance staff and just staff in general to manage financial aid. We laid off 60 of them and all of our part-time counselors.
So, how are these decisions in line with the recommendations and how are they in line with factual data of what is happening at other colleges and what is even happening within our college? The information speaks for itself. This is a political agenda to downsize City College of San Francisco and for private universities to have more business.
TG: Have you met with Interim Chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman?
SW: I met with her and it was a really strange meeting. She spent a lot of time talking about how I should be focused on myself as a student, rather than getting involved in this—the accreditation and organizing and being active.
She was kinda grilling me, like, what’s your GPA and what’s your major and when are you gonna be out of here? More what you would expect from a counselor or a mentor, which she’s neither one of them to me. And I see us as equals. I think she should be listening to what I have to say because I’m representing 85,000 students.
TG: Now that Prop 30 and Prop A have passed, how confident are you that the school can maintain fiscal solvency?
SW: I feel confident that we can do it and I think that it’s going to take the entire campus community to work together. So that all constituencies can feel respected and so that all constituencies can get what they need.
I’m committed, as the newest board member, to make sure that cuts that are not necessary do not happen. We have to make sure that every decision we’re making is well founded, it’s based in the data, it’s based in what’s really available and what the rules are.
We have more classes that need to be offered. Our faculty deserves to have a living wage.
So we have to look at all these issues and we have to be humane and we have to be rational. We have to justify our decision-making and justify the budget. I want to see every line item broken out. I don’t want just some number, I want to see what does that number mean. It’s really being critical of the board and our decision-making and listening to our constituents.
TG: What do you foresee as the future of City College?
SW: I think we’re gonna retain our accreditation. I am excited about our future. We’re going to be leaders alongside folks in Chicago, Philly and L.A., and in Santa Monica and all over the nation to resist this whole education reform agenda, this privatization agenda. I feel excited about engaging students and working with students, and I think our future’s really bright. I think we can be a model for justice here in San Francisco and I’m excited to be a part of it. And i’m gonna fight really hard.