Monday, August 13, 2012

Crisis in Context: The Role of the Student in the Battle for CCSF (by Stephan Georgiou)

“He who counts heads always silences facts and voices.”
- Michel-Rolph Trouillot

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”
- Walter Benjamin

“There is not enough time.” Many have used these words since the CCSF accrediting report was released – in Facebook threads, Board meetings and organizing spaces – in response to challenging the legitimacy of the private body that will decide our school’s fate. We have until October 15 to address the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges’ (ACCJC, or WASC) problems; “not enough time,” they say, so we react. We scramble to form committees. We cut and reform. If we submit to the crisis, and work hard enough, perhaps two months will be enough time to save our school. But while our heads are spinning, plans are already being made for further changes. We do not have time to seek out, absorb or reflect on this information. And then the next crisis will fall.

On October 15, the Board of Trustees must submit a plan addressing CCSF’s “problems” or risk losing accreditation, public funding and being shut down. Groups have been formed to deal with each of the 14 “problem” areas in the report. Perhaps students are being solicited for input. For the last six years, however, since the last commission report highlighted eight areas the Board of Trustees needed to address, students were not informed or invited to help. Conversations took place among those in positions of power, and in the face of massive public education defunding, the leadership structures that exist did not address the commission’s demands. And now there is not enough time.

The leaders, the specialists, the policymakers have enough time. They work ahead of us, above us, with the arrogance that they know best. They deal the changes, and we play to keep up. They are the subjects; we are the objects. At a Board of Trustees presentation last month, President of the ACCJC Barbara Beno described the accrediting process. In three hours and twenty PowerPoint slides, she nearly eliminated students from the equation. Our sole factor in accreditation is our product: test scores. They are analyzed, and our outcomes are plotted on graphs. We are data. Opinions about our learning environment are not related to accreditation. “We don’t want to hear stories,” said Beno’s co-presenter Bill McGinnis. With numbers, the accreditors can wrap their small minds around us. It excuses them from taking the time to ask us; it gives them the excuse to transform our existing structure into something they feel more comfortable with. Certain things must go: the shared governance model, the low number of administrators, the percentage spent on teacher and worker pay. A top-down business model would be more efficient. Meanwhile, the students – of which there are 90,000 at CCSF – move to and from class, sharing, learning; transformations occur around us. We study, work; they study us. But not our stories, for which there isn’t enough time; they study the quality of test scores we produce. We do not know what’s best for us. There is not enough time.


We need not look far back for the last crisis. In 2010, the California Community College Board of Governors created a twenty-member Student Success Task Force to address issues of completion among – predominantly – students of color.1 One student was invited to sit on the body of mostly administrators and specialists – the Student Trustee of the 112-college system. His task was to speak for more than two million students across the state. When the Task Force recommendations came to the Board of Governors for approval last January – a sweeping overhaul that included taking autonomy away from individual campuses and consolidating power with the Board of Governors in Sacramento – many spoke out against the recommendations. CCSF students, faculty and workers were among the most represented. But it was too late. The Task Force had been at work for a year, and aside from a few ill-publicized town halls, the time for voicing opinions had been taken from us. The Board voted unanimously, with two abstentions, to endorse the recommendations. Now, a series of bills and regulation changes move through the legislature to transform our schools without our input.

Here, power and time reinforce each other to silence student voices. We cannot speak if we are not asked; we cannot influence if our voices do not bear the weight of titles. During the week following the accrediting commission’s report, one CCSF student leader advised me that the conversations I was having jeopardized his position. These “conversations” dealt with the formation of a student union on campus. I was referring not to the building that houses the campus café and student government offices, but the potential for a united body of students capable of mass action. He could not have these conversations because his position prevented him from thinking or acting outside of that position. There are limits in speech and action, in scope and functionality, which accompany positions of power. Our student representatives – hardworking as they may be – are not exempt.

If the Board of Trustees and the Interim Chancellor – those powerbrokers currently possessing clout – are successful at saving CCSF (and their willingness to do anything necessary to satisfy the accreditors indicates they will be), the real battle for CCSF will begin. Problems facing CCSF students, after all, hardly began last month. Most of us, for example, do not remember that our college was free 25 years ago. We do not remember because we were not here, and because we do not have a plaque at CCSF to commemorate each time our tuition was raised. The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education outlawed tuition at California schools – hence the term “enrollment fees” – so publicly enshrining our costs might provoke distress. Most of us were not even here 10 years ago when fees were a quarter what they are now. Years of austerity and a global financial crisis have turned public education into a commodity we must work long hours for, go into debt for, and struggle through a jobless market to repay. Our classes are overcrowded, or eliminated – sometimes mid-semester, as happened in the spring. At Santa Monica City College, a two-tier tuition system would have forced students to pay four times as much for popular classes, crystallizing class-based access to education. When students attempted to speak out against the plan at a Board of Trustees meeting, they were pepper-sprayed. Violence is used to silence us when less visible means fail – say, when we are simply not invited to the conversation. Money, economics – these are things above us we are not thought capable of dealing with. Nevermind that according to the 1960 Master Plan, we shouldn’t be paying any fees. These issues, along with the Student Success Task Force recommendations, preceded the accrediting crisis. If the administrators are successful at saving CCSF, we can expect more.


Let us slow time down for a moment, take back those moments of inquiry that have been stolen from us. In this liberated space, let us give ourselves space to question our roles as students and our functions within present operational structures. Can we begin to ask ourselves the kind of college we would like to see in the future, even once we have left the terrain of buildings and knowledge exchange? Can we witness ourselves as imperative subjects, who have the power to expand the possibilities for not only ourselves, but for future students?

Perhaps we should begin by questioning the legitimacy of power structures and leadership bodies that exclude us from the processes that will shape our futures in profound ways. These are political questions, and they require care and patience from those most affected: students. Will the changes desired by the commission improve CCSF for us, and for the teachers and workers who sustain it, or will they benefit an increasingly hierarchical, data-driven public education bureaucracy that places the needs of the state and global competition above those of the people utilizing and maintaining the system? While there may not be enough time before October 15 to challenge the legitimacy of the ACCJC (there is not meant to be enough time, after all), this will expand our conceptions of the possible, and begin to shift the balance of power.

Many have already questioned the ACCJC’s legitimacy. In 2010, in response to the large number of California community colleges placed on sanction between 2003 and 2008, California Community College leaders, including representatives from the Board of Governors and the Academic Senate, formed a task force to investigate the ACCJC.2 Chancellor Jack Scott wrote to the U.S. Department of Education claiming that the ACCJC was not following its own bylaws in selecting commissioners. In a KQED Forum segment last month, College of Marin Instructor Patrick Kelly voiced outrage at the high percentage of WASC-overseen colleges given “warning” status or worse, compared to the low percentage in the rest of the U.S. “Is it really that the colleges in California and the Western U.S. are that much worse?,” he asked.3 In a 2008 letter to Barbara Beno from Marty Hittelman, President of the California Federation of Teachers, Hittelman accused the ACCJC of violating state law in its push for Student Learning Outcomes in teacher evaluation.4 And the Chair of the accrediting commission, Sherrill Amador, was involved in a prolonged labor dispute during her tenure as President of Palomar College in San Diego County. She received two votes of no confidence from faculty and staff and resigned in 2003; the following year, she began her tenure as ACCJC Chair.5 Let us build upon these facts by continuing to research and ask questions.


CCSF is a place with a depth of human experience unmatched at most colleges and universities. It is not a school solely for those directly out of high school; it is more complex than that. It is a school of immigrants, workers, adult learners, the formerly incarcerated, those with few spaces left that offer the possibility of transformation. If the ACCJC and the forces above them – like the U.S. Department of Education, which many seem unwilling to recognize as connected – have their way, CCSF will be a more streamlined place, where one comes not for possibility, but for the certainty of a life pre-planned, a social identity pre-constructed. The populations who most need City College will be forced to look elsewhere, and when there is no public place to turn, perhaps they will find the for-profit education engine. A recent Business Insider article described a meeting of investors eager to capitalize on a gutted public education sector. “You start to see entire ecosystems of investment opportunity lining up,” said one consultant.6

When we, a rich and diverse body of students, place our trust in single leaders – in the case of the one student representing millions on the Student Success Task Force, for example, or the leader who warned me about “dangerous” conversations – we are diverted from acting ourselves to create change. We have voted, so we can sit back. Even if we did have the time to organize, which many of us at CCSF do not, because of work, family, and other commitments, we trust that others are acting in our place. Elected leaders, restricted by their positions and structures, are powerless to create the change we need, or they act in accord with the power structures against our interests. We resign ourselves to the idea that “there is nothing we can do;” we feel helpless. We become displaced from the political, alienated from the decisions that most directly impact our lives, and we relinquish our power – as individuals first, and then even more disastrously as a collective of voices and bodies.

What is our role as students? What is our function? During a 1968 student-worker uprising in France, individuals experienced a crisis of functionalism, ceasing to function along rigid social lines. Identities that had been taken for granted – student, worker, farmer – were challenged as individuals looked outside of their own places in society and recognized the Other within themselves. Universities and factories were occupied, transformed into organizing spaces, and the streets became sites of information exchange and identity complication. The individual recognized her full power as part of the collective.

At CCSF, the crisis of functionalism is built in to our structure: community college. Learners at City College are not only students – their identities have already been complicated. They are workers, adult learners, undocumented immigrants, members of oppressed communities of color. What is missing is our recognition of ourselves as imperative subjects, recognition of the Others within each of us as an untapped energy reserve. With 90,000 students, the potential for CCSF student power is enormous. The first step is subjectivation – the recognition of this power – and then its seizure.

When the present crisis subsides and the administrators and leaders congratulate themselves for “saving” CCSF, it is the students who will inherit a radically different college. There will be limits on the types of futures we can have; the least socially and economically advantaged of us will be shut out altogether. What type of school do we want? What kinds of things would we like to preserve, and what would we like to change? These are questions existing powers do not want us to be asking. They certainly have not asked us themselves. It is the students who are paying tuition and community members who contribute taxes, and it is us who have the ability to imagine new possibilities for City College, new relationships among students, and between students and administrators. Will we continue to go to Sacramento to beg for an accessible college, only to be congratulated for exercising our rights to free speech and then ignored, or will we call into question the very legitimacy of bodies like the Board of Governors and the ACCJC? Will we accept rapidly rising and discriminatory tuition costs? If the positions of our elected student leaders limit their abilities to speak and act on behalf of the student population, will they abandon these positions and join the students in the streets? Will we continue to accept our positions as objects to be studied and measured, plotted out on the graphs of “experts” and used to justify the failure of our school, or will we claim something more? Will we recognize our position as subjects, deserving a direct role in the operation of our college, committed to meeting our own needs and realizing our own ideas?

Because whether it is the Board of Governors-appointed Student Success Task Force or the WASC accrediting commission or another body enforcing its own code of operations on our college, setting boundaries, limiting access, deciding what is best for us, our future possibilities are diminishing at the hands of our “leaders.” The only people who can challenge this assault on our futures is a united body of students, aware, connected; a new body in recognition of its power and its subjectivity, a body capable of wielding that power through action.

1 comment:

  1. excellent article. I love your use of history and the nuance you are able to articulate. for example: "There are limits in speech and action, in scope and functionality, which accompany positions of power. Our student representatives – hardworking as they may be – are not exempt" If and when you are successful at creating a student union capable of mass action, then the student representative will have the leverage he/she does not have now. I think your questions are excellent and analysis of the power structure spot on. the fight has just only begun, indeed, and needs to be waged with great "care and patience." the students and the wider community must be organized. to do this involves some seriously dedicated and brilliant organizers like yourself. let me know how to help.