By JohnTaylor Wildfeuer and Annette Mullaney
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It has been 10 months since the Board of Trustees approved the hiring of Dr. Rajen Vurdien as interim chancellor, and in that time he has overseen a critical period in City College’s history.
“It was an interesting experience,” the chancellor said, “very challenging, and very eye opening. I think I learned a lot … and I’m glad I came.”
The interim chancellor, who came out of retirement to take on the position, has likened addressing City College’s financial crisis to righting the ship. As he prepares to leave the helm, faculty, their union AFT 2121, and the Board of Trustees continue to work to reconcile salaries, employment, and program offerings with his administration’s Multi-Year Budget Plan.
On June 30 the chancellor’s contract will expire, leaving the position vacant with no permanent chancellor to take his place until Oct. 1, as the Board of Trustees delay choosing a candidate while focusing on budget negotiations and faculty loss mitigations with AFT 2121, and to allow time to attract a larger pool of qualified candidates.
Vurdien, on whether he would consider extending his chancellorship if asked by the board, said, “I cannot speak about that.” Currently, there will be at least a three-month gap until a permanent chancellor is hired, due to a pause in the hiring search from July 1 to Sept. 30.
Several administrators and assistants declined requests to provide comment on their year working with the interim chancellor.
For City College, the current moment is both familiar and unprecedented, and with it comes a heightened level of public and administrative dialogue over budget reconciliation, faculty cuts, and other items of public concern. Vurdien instituted monthly open forums, in which he spoke directly to the college community and provided some space for questions. To date he Vurdien has held 11 such events.
City College enrollment, and its 10-year downward trajectory, has been a recurring topic for debate in the chancellor’s monthly forums and Board of Trustees meetings.
“The college has a major fiscal problem. It is not something that happened overnight … it is something that has happened over the years,” Chancellor Vurdien said, “And it cannot be fixed overnight.”
At the forefront of these issues, according to the chancellor, is chronic under-enrollment caused in part by having too many course offerings.
“We are offering too many sections,” Vurdien said, “and we are allowing sections to be half empty.”
On solving that problem, Vurdien said, “Next year’s schedule is going to be more efficient … If we put a class there our goal is to have that class probably 96% or 97% full … Currently those classes are filling at about 70%. You can’t continue like that.”
Vurdien partially attributes this decline to long-term demographic changes in San Francisco, and general population stagnation. “In fact, it has been declining,” Vurdien said. “Not significantly, but there is a slow decline in that population.”
Specifically, Vurdien cited decreases in the number of K-12 students in the city’s public school district, and in the number of immigrants coming to San Francisco. Of the latter, he asserted that the “immigrants that are coming in don’t seem to need community college instruction.”
As evidence, the interim chancellor cited low enrollment, saying, “In the ESL [English as a Second Language] programs we are running classes with 10 or 12 students.”
The chancellor went on to assert that, in addition to course consolidation, efforts are being made to increase enrollment in these programs. “We are doing everything we can,” he said, adding, “Right now, with a pandemic … even now we’re trying to do in-person registration for ESL and non-credit.”
Ten years from now, Vurdien would like to see City College “have a system where it will be able to pay for its expenditures.”
“Once in a while you may perhaps overspend,” he said, “but that should not be the norm.”
To this point Vurdien added a dire warning, saying, “That’s a requirement to exist as an institution, for accreditation.”
The consequences of losing accreditation would be severe. “If the college loses its accreditation, your degree is worth nothing,” Vurdien said.
Transferring students, too, will be affected. “The credits you get here will be worth nothing because the CSUs won’t accept them; the UCs won’t accept them,” Vurdien added.
Last November, at his urging, the Board of Trustees approved Vurdien’s Multi-Year Budget and Enrollment Plan, which sought a 27% decrease in spending and targeted at least 600 class sections for elimination.
Three months later, instructors returning to class for the spring semester were met with news that the college would begin issuing pink slips to faculty. AFT 2121 president Malaika Finklestein, reacting to both the substance and timing of the news, summarized the message sent to staff as effectively saying, “Welcome back, maybe we’ll lay you off.”
Broadly, Vurdien and the City College administration’s handling of the institution’s budget crises has provoked strong opposition and emotional public comment from labor and student organizations, as well as individual faculty and student community members, who see these proposals as a deliberate reduction of the institution.
A March tweet from AFT 2121 said the chancellor’s policies amounted to an attempt to “cut our college in half right when our city will need it most.” On Friday, after several weeks of protests and negotiations, AFT 2121 and the school administration reached a tentative agreement to rescind all full-time faculty layoff notices.
Asked if he had any advice for his as-yet unnamed successor, Vurdien demurred, saying, “I don’t think it is really appropriate for me to give any advice to any incoming CEO, because I wouldn’t be there. Situations will change … the environment would be different.”
Instead, he hoped that the next chancellor would “come in and do his or her own evaluation.”
As a rationale for this stance, Chancellor Vurdien cited an interview with George H.W. Bush. “His son was elected president in 2000 … [and he was] asked that question, ‘So what advice do you have for your son?’” Vurdien said. “I thought it was brilliant — he said, ‘I had my chance to run the country for four years, I did the best I could. It’s his turn now, he is president, he knows the issues, he knows what is going on. I don’t have any advice for him other than well go ahead and do what you have to do.’”