Q&A: Nanette Asimov, higher education reporter for the SF Chronicle

A portrait of Nanette Asimov. Photo by Sara Bloomberg/The Guardsman

On March 25, we sat down with Nanette Asimov to talk about the accreditation crisis and her coverage of City College for the Chronicle. This is part one—part two will run in the next issue, along with an analysis of stories in the Chronicle that have been published about City College since July 2012.

By Gina Scialabba
The Guardsman

The Guardsman: Are you the niece of the famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov?

Nanette Asimov: (Laughter) He was my dad’s brother, yes. I’m very glad more than 20 years after his passing people still want to know that. That makes me happy.

TG: How long have you been the San Francisco Chronicle’s higher education reporter?

NA: I’ve covered higher education since 2009. Prior to that I covered K-12 education all around California for 20 years.

TG: Why did you choose education reporting?

NA: I didn’t. It chose me. I had been covering features for the Chronicle in the old “People” section, and I decided that I was more interested in the hard news. So I asked to be a part of that news team, and when I joined I came armed with my 10 story ideas I was going to do that day.

I sat down at my desk and they put a stack of test scores on my desk and said, “You. Do something with that.” Pretty much I’ve been doing education ever since.

TG: Where did you go to school?

NA: I have a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. I went to Queens College for my undergrad in sociology.

TG: What’s been either your most challenging or one of your favorite stories?

NA: I really love the potential of journalism to look at what may not be going right and shine a light on that, and, if possible, laws change and people change… because I am exposing something. I’ve been lucky enough where I’ve had that happen a few times. I’m thinking of charter school laws that were changed as a result of reporting in the Chronicle. We discovered that public money was going to religious education against the law. That was exciting.

I wrote a story about how Scientology had an anti-drug program called “Narconon” and that it was in public schools up and down the state. I revealed that and it was removed. That was in the mid-2000s.

TG: How do you go about choosing the stories you cover?

NA: There’s a lot of ways. Sometimes, like today, I am going to go back to my office and the Public Policy Institute is issuing a report. It looked like a pretty good report. So they came to me, and I am going to write about that for tomorrow’s paper.

Other times I get a tip.

TG: What is your personal relationship to City College? Have you taken a class here?

NA: I have taken a class here, actually. I took a great biology class in the ‘90s because I felt that I didn’t have a great biology background. I took a night class after work and I learned a lot.

TG: As the education reporter, what, in your opinion, are the primary issues that have led to where City College is today?

NA:  I’m not going to give you my opinion on that. I am going to tell you what I read in the ACCJC report and the FCMAT report and what I’ve learned from interviews. In general my understanding is that City College was very generous and interested in maintaining their employees. They have good contracts. Not the best contracts employees would be the first to say, but perhaps better than other contracts. For example, part-timers are able to get full-time benefits. That is a pride here. There was not advanced budgeting. In general,  the college did not keep pace with the realities of California budgets.

Another thing, in 2006, the accrediting commission came and verified the accreditation of the college. Then, in 2009 … I think what they did was give a long list of things they had to repair. That was during the time of [former City College of San Francisco Chancellor] Phil Day and he had a lot of other things on his mind. Then, in 2009 during the interim report, City College verified that it had made the repairs or done a number of them. The accrediting commission accepted that. It did not do a verification visit in the interim because that is not what they do. It was not until 2012, when they returned and made a visit, that they found that many of the things hadn’t been achieved.

TG: Do you think City College had enough of a warning before it got the “show cause” sanction?

NA: I have interviewed the ACCJC, and they say that six years is enough time. I don’t know what was going on with the 2009 report, but apparently that is an inadequate procedure if they were not able to determine that things were going to their satisfaction in 2009.

I can also tell you that the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the accrediting commission, put the screws on them and said, “Look, you are being too lenient. You have to hold your member colleges to the six-year limit and not give them additional time.” So maybe that was part of it as well.

TG: What are the biggest changes you have seen taking place at the college as a result of the crisis?

NA: There’s a lot being done. I think the college is very proud of the student learning outcomes piece of it and Kathryn Reese is the professor who has taken on this job. She has recognized as the college recognized that they need to measure how effective their teaching is.

They have overhauled what they teach, the way they assess their teaching. That’s a huge thing, and it answers a big piece of the accrediting requirements. They have also started looking ahead at future budgeting. They are doing something called “Enrollment Management.” It is an attempt to match what is going on at the college with what is happening in the state budget and how much money they have which is huge for them. They had never really done that before.

With students, I was told that a big problem is redundancy. Students were not getting the courses they needed because the college was offering too much of one type and not enough of what they needed. Nobody in the college was paying attention to what the students really needed but more toward what they felt like teaching. Evidently, that is changing.

TG: It sounds like, from what you are saying, a lot of problems come from fiscal mismanagement on one end, and just a general mismanagement from the Board or administration.

NA: The word “mismanagement” can mean a lot of things. Nobody has found any cheating or nefarious activity or pocketing of funds. Last time that happened it was several years ago and that’s been legally taken care of. That isn’t going on now to my knowledge.

When we look at the fiscal side of things, it’s been an unwillingness to do proper accounting. Maybe proper is the wrong word. To just do it in a way that matched the funding. You might call that “mismanagement.” “Poor management” might be a better way of thinking about it.

TG: How much do you see budget cuts from the State as playing a role in the problems the college is facing?

NA: It’s a huge role because it is the driver of the problem. There are 112 colleges in the community college system in California. Every single one of them had to look at the declining state funding, called the “plunging funding,” and say, “What are we going to do about this?” That’s a starting point. If everything was flush, I was told, the problems would still be there, but they would be more hidden because there would be more of what everyone needed and wanted. Maybe that’s what’s been going on. There was more money. Now there’s less. So problems get unearthed.

TG: What do you perceive are City College’s strengths?

NA: City College is a complete gift to the whole region, not only San Francisco. It’s a treasure because you go here and learn stuff and change your life. So many people work and live in the region have learned and gotten their degrees and certificates here.

TG: What challenges will City College face in the coming years?

NA:  I am going to assume it will survive. Let’s just start there.

TG: That’s a good starting point. Will the college survive?

NA: We will find out in June/July. Suppose it does as we think it might. Then, whatever it did this year to achieve that, it will have to keep that up.

TG: Do you see a much smaller college in the future? Will the college have to downsize their course offerings and overall mission to achieve accreditation?
NA: Yes and no. I have been interested in that question myself. Just listening to people made me write in the paper that the college is going to have to shrink. It is and it isn’t. It’s already shrunk in the sense that the non-credit, free classes are fewer. There used to be far more non-credit students than credit students. That has flipped to the dismay of many people, and the reason is because that is changing all across the state. That’s the reality of finances. Hopefully non-credit classes and older adults and people who want to take enrichment classes, those will be somewhere else. Or maybe they will offer them here, but they will have to pay. I think that the number of courses has shrunk because enrollment has recently shrunk, but the college wants to improve that. I’m told they plan to add more classes if the new budget for 2013/2014 goes in.


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