Special Trustee Robert Agrella speaks about his new role and the future of City College

Robert Agrella. Photo by Sergio Barreno/The Guardsman
Robert Agrella. Photo by Sergio Barreno/The Guardsman

By Sara Bloomberg

 As City College fights for its life, Special Trustee Robert Agrella is the sole decision maker since the Board of Trustees was stripped of all power on July 8 by the state chancellor.

That was the day the Board of Governors authorized State Chancellor Brice Harris to appoint a special trustee with extraordinary powers to take over the board.

Harris picked Agrella, who has been the school’s special trustee since November 2012. Agrella previously held only an advisory role with power to veto the board’s decisions if he deemed it necessary (which he talks about in the following Q&A).

Agrella met resistance even before he was initially appointed to his current position last year—a group of students and community members disrupted a meeting last October when the board voted to voluntarily appoint a special trustee.

Despite any ideological differences, many members of the college community believed that Agrella’s presence and help would appease the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

It did not.

The school has less than one year now to prove to the commission that it should reverse its decision to revoke the school’s accreditation July 31, 2014.

The Guardsman sat down with Agrella on July 17 and July 24 for an exclusive interview about the challenges facing the college, including enrollment; the chancellor search and the ultimate fate of the school.

The Guardsman: Last time we talked, you were cautiously optimistic that the commission would bump the school up to probation. So, what happened?

Robert Agrella: The school didn’t show sufficient completion of all the requirements and there are still a lot of deficiencies.

The two big areas that still need to be addressed are financial and governance structures. We’re waiting for the latest FCMAT report to be released, but Michelle Plumbtree told the board at their last meeting that there are some major financial problems that need to be fixed.

TG: She did say that there’s no financial malfeasance or fraud happening, which is important.

RA: Yes, that’s right. And when the visiting team was here in March, we demonstrated that in the short run we had a good roadmap for financial stability, but it still isn’t sufficient according to the commission.

TG: Even with the funding gained through Prop A and Prop 30 that voters passed last November?

RA: Yes.

TG: Isn’t the whole point of having different levels of sanctions to recognize progress that’s been made while allowing an institution time to address remaining deficiencies?

RA: There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between progress that’s made on specific recommendations and the commission’s overall decision. In the commission’s eyes, the school has had seven years to address the deficiencies and that the progress made over the last year wasn’t sufficient.

TG: Can you go through the recommendations with me and point out which recommendations the college is close to satisfying and making progress on?

RA: I have a grid outlining that but I don’t have it in front of me. The best person to talk to about that would be Gohar Momijan (the college’s accreditation liaison).

TG: What is your priority right now? Is there one thing high on your radar?

RA: Finances. The school didn’t meet its enrollment numbers in the spring or this summer, and class offerings were increased. We’re not on target for fall enrollment either.

TG : When Compton College lost its accreditation in 2006, the school hemorrhaged students before it closed and many of those students dropped out altogether, instead of going to other regional colleges. Now, Compton’s situation was very different than City College’s, but the commission’s decision definitely hurt enrollment there. Is the commission’s decision to revoke the school’s accreditation hurting enrollment here at City College?

RA: Yes, it’s definitely hurting enrollment. You’d have to be sitting under a rock not to see that. People are confused and the headlines that say, “City College has lost accreditation,” aren’t helping and of course aren’t true.

TG: What would you say to media outlets covering City College right now?

RA: Choose your words carefully. The school hasn’t lost its accreditation yet and in fact is accredited. And any credits students earn right now will never expire.

TG: What’s your plan to make sure the school retains its accreditation?

RA: To work on all planning areas and continue to work on the action plans that have been set. To meet all the standards and to review the FCMAT report when it arrives. Also to get more people on board to understand that we all have to work together to make sure the school remains accredited.

TG: Do you understand the frustration people have with the decision and the commission?

RA: Yes, I understand the frustrations, but the protests are not helpful. If you’re protesting the decision, you’re protesting the standards that the commission has set for the entire system to adhere to. Everyone has to meet these requirements. We shouldn’t fight the commission.

TG: Are you referring to the march and rally last week on July 9?

RA: That and others.

TG: There have definitely been some colorful protests but they’ve all been non-violent.

RA: I don’t think any of the protests have been violent, but it still isn’t productive to protest these decisions and the commission.

TG: Do you think the commission’s lack of transparency is a problem?

RA: I don’t think commissional lack of transparency is a problem. They have a very different responsibility than we do, as a public institution that’s subject to open government laws, and they have to discuss sensitive topics related to other institutions. The City College board also holds closed session meetings.

TG: The commission actually held a public meeting recently and then decided to bar most of the public who showed up from entering. What are your thoughts on how the commission operates?

RA: I think the way the commission operates is OK. I’ve dealt with their policies and operating procedures at other institutions where I worked that were dealing with addressing accreditation problems—not to the same degree as here at City College—and the process worked there.

TG: There are lots of different voices and constituent groups with a vested interest in making sure the college remains open—students, staff, faculty, administrators, the state chancellor, the Board of Governors. How do you plan on holding yourself accountable to all those different groups and including all those voices in this process?

RA: Well, the state chancellor was given authority to appoint me to this position, and we’re on the same page about what needs to happen.

TG: What about the chancellor search? Is it going to be difficult?

RA: No, I actually don’t think it will be difficult. There are many people that would welcome this as a challenge to overcome.

TG: You recently removed three board members from the search committee: Anita Grier, Rafael Mandelman and Shanell Williams. What’s your thought process there?

RA: I wanted to reduce the size of the committee and thought that, as the president of the board, John Rizzo should be on that committee. But I decided to take the others off.

TG: What about Shanell Williams, the student trustee? She’s the highest elected student official at the college. Why take her off?

RA: She wants to be treated the same as everyone else, and I’m treating her like a member of the board. And actually, depending on how you count, she’s not necessarily the highest student representative.

TG: The student trustee is a member of the board, but their vote has always been only advisory. So her role is a little different. Now all the other board members only have advisory votes, but that’s always been the case for the student trustee.

RA: That’s right.

TG: Did you veto any of the board’s decisions over the past year?

RA: No. I certainly influenced some of their decisions over the past year, but I did not veto any of their decisions.

TG: Can you point out some of the milestones that the college has made over the past year?

RA: We laid in place a new participatory governance process, which is a key decision. All the work that we did with the department chairs to still maintain the department chair structure but modify it, and we’ll probably continue to do that. The work that we did in the area of developing an eight-year fiscal stability plan, which now again will probably be modified. I think those are some major issues that we addressed.

TG: Are capital projects suspended until further notice?

RA: Capital projects are pretty much on hold at this point in time. It would be very difficult to take on some more major capital projects at a time when we’re trying to look at some of the changes that need to be made to meet those accreditation standards.

TG: A few of the school’s sites are already slated to close, including Castro and Park Presidio. Do you intend to close any other sites?

RA: I haven’t made any decisions on that. Those decisions will be made primarily on if they’re costing us a lot of money. Who are they serving? Can those populations be served in another manner?

As you know, that’s one of the questions that the accreditation commission asked, and that is, do you know the total cost of ownership of all the sites across the district? And the answer to that was no.

TG: We know that now, don’t we? It was discussed at the June board meeting.

RA: We have the initial analysis of what those sites cost. That analysis is not complete. There have been no so-called indirect costs evaluated. What really is the cost to the business office, to the admissions and records office? None of those costs have been factored in at all to the cost analysis.

TG: The school’s current 10 year master plan for education was approved in 2004, so it’s time to revise it. How is the college dealing with that?

RA: We’re going to have to do a new educational master plan. We’re in the process of writing an RFP, a request for proposal, because we’re going to have to go outside of the organization and get some professional assistance in developing that.

It’s a major task and it’s not unusual for organizations to use outside individuals to assist you in developing that educational master plan. But that’s one of the activities that has to be accomplished.

TG: Will the school remain accredited in a year?

RA: I’m confident that the school will remain accredited past next July.

TG: What will that mean? Could the commission keep the school on show cause? Put it on probation? What’s the most likely outcome?

RA: Exactly what that will entail is hard to say.

TG: You retired from Santa Rosa Junior College in 2012. Then you came here to City College in November 2012. When will you finally be able to retire?

RA: Not soon enough! I’m looking forward to not having hour-long commutes and being able to enjoy a normal life.

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