Exclusive Q&A with Special Trustee Robert Agrella


Robert Agrella. Photo by Sergio Barreno/The Guardsman

By Sara Bloomberg

The Guardsman

On March 15, we sat down with Robert Agrella, City College’s special trustee, to talk about the accreditation crisis and the show cause report, which was delivered to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges that same day by FedEx and email.


The Board of Trustees voted to approve a special trustee in September, and Agrella was hired Nov. 1. His job is to guide the college through the accreditation process and has veto power over board decisions. As special trustee, he is paid $1000 a day.


The Guardsman: What were the primary issues that led to this current crisis?


Robert Agrella: Well, one was financial. The other was governance issues within the institution that were reported within the accreditation report that came to the college. They issued their show cause report in July, and so I came on in the fall semester.


TG: In January you told the Board of Governors that City College might miss the March 15 deadline. Why did you say that?


RA: Some people interpreted that we wouldn’t get our March 15 report in on time. That’s not ever what that alluded to. What that alluded to was the fact that the amount of work that has to be done by City College within a very, very short period of time — essentially July 1 to March 15 — is a tremendous amount of work to be done. There would literally be no way that all of that work could be accomplished in such a short time.


TG: Just today in the Chronicle, Nanette Asimov described you as “sanguine” about the future.


RA: When she interviewed me, she asked me the question, “Where do you think you are? How do you think you’re doing?” I said, well, I’m really cautiously optimistic, because we have come a long, long way in both the finance side of the house thanks to Prop 30 and the parcel tax.


Literally hundreds of people in the college have been working very, very hard to not only make sure that we get the March 15 report in on time — oh by the way that’s today — but that the report indicated significant progress on the part of the institution.


So yeah, I feel really good about where we are at this point in time.


TG: Do you think the college might be in a position to do better than probation?


RA: I doubt that, quite frankly. Quite honestly, that’s a major, major step that would have to be taken but, again, who knows? I don’t make that determination.


TG: What are City College’s strengths?


RA: Well, I think first of all we’re a really strong faculty. The students seem to love City College. The faculty, I think, are really devoted to trying to do the best job possible. So, I think the strength is the core program that the college has.


Another major strength City College has, as proved by the parcel tax passing and certainly everybody that I have met, is the community strength. This community embraces City College, does not want to see anything happen to City College, and that’s a major, major strength. You always want an institution that’s wanted in the area, needed in the area and has produced things for the area.


TG: What are some of the challenges that City College will still face in the future?


RA: Well, I think a number of the changes that probably need to be made are within the collective bargaining realm. So part of the challenge is to work with the unions to get collective bargaining agreements straightened out to allow the institution a little greater flexibility with respect to its financial base in the future. That’s a major challenge.


TG: In our interview with Chancellor Scott-Skillman, she told us that she has asked the board to not move forward on the performing arts center due to some funding concerns. Do you agree with that position?


RA: Absolutely. I think it would be a mistake, and we discussed that at length, Thelma Scott-Skillman and I. It would be a mistake at this time, number one in terms of what we need to find out on July 1, what’s the actual status of the institution.


Number two, we’re concerned about some of the funding and making sure that we get that funding mechanism really known within our heads. Unfortunately there hasn’t been a good business plan on how that performing arts center is going to develop outside of the class offerings.


TG: Are we at risk of losing federal funding?


RA: It’s state funding, not federal funding. At this point in time we’re not.


We’ve asked for an extension on the state funding. We’re very confident that we will receive that. What we really need to do is make sure of what that state funding is. What did they agree to? There seems to be some question on that.


TG: Have you had to veto any decisions by the board?


RA: No, at this point in time I really haven’t. The board has asked me for advice and counsel. I’ve given it to them, and they’ve listened intently, and I haven’t had to veto, stay or rescind any of the board decisions.


TG: With all the cuts being made, and the financial situation that the college is facing, can the school really afford to literally pay for your services right now?


RA: I think they can literally afford to pay my salary. There seems to be a rumor that we’re going to reduce further classes and that’s absolutely false.


TG: How many days a week do you work as special trustee?


RA: Actually, I’ve been working anywhere from four to five days a week. I can do some work at home, which involves not only using the computer but lots of phone calls and other kinds of things, but most of my work has been here.


Lately it’s been much closer to five days a week. And part of the reason for that is the big push to get that March 15 show cause report completed, number one. But secondly and probably most important is to be involved in a lot of the meetings that are going on.


I really learn also what’s going on inside the organization so that I can assist to a much greater extent.


TG: What experience do you bring to the table?


RA: Well, you know I spent 14 years in Arizona. I was a founding president for two campuses and was a provost for a large campus there. I was president of Mendocino College. I was president of Cabrillo College in Aptos in the Santa Cruz area and then for the last 22 years — I retired in May — I was president of Santa Rosa Junior College which was an institution of about 36,000-40,000 students a semester. I have a pretty broad background.


TG: Where did you go to school yourself?


RA: I’ve gone to quite a few different universities, filling in classes, taking graduate work at various places, but my bachelors and masters degrees are from Purdue University. And then my doctorate is in educational administration from Nova Southeastern out in Florida.


TG: Have you ever taken a community college class?


RA: Yeah, actually I did. I took community college classes early on while I was going to high school at one point in time. We didn’t call them at that point community colleges, we called them junior colleges. Santa Rosa incidentally still uses the term “junior college”. It’s a part of their history and tradition.


I taught mathematics at both the high school level and at the junior college level. So I have a bit of feeling for both the instructional side as well as the administrative side. And as president at Santa Rosa, I was fortunate enough to also teach a mathematics course on occasion.


TG: At what point will City College no longer need you?

RA: That’s a good question. That’s a determination I think that the state chancellor’s office will determine. That’s not a determining factor for me, but I can’t answer that. It certainly will go on through whatever action is taken in June by the commission. I suspect the college will go on in some sort with a special trustee well beyond July 1, regardless of what the action of the commission will be. Now, whether that’s me or not, I don’t know. I’m not looking for a real, real long-term commitment, but that’s not a determination that I make.

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