Robert Agrella, who led Santa Rosa Junior College for two decades, was put in control of City College of San Francisco on Monday to fix its financial and governance problems, which threaten to shut one of the nation's largest two-year institutions.
California's community college chancellor named Agrella special trustee of City College. He will effectively replace the school's elected governing board, giving him extraordinary power to correct problems identified by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, a private, nonprofit regional agency recognized by the federal government.
The commission decided last week to end City College's accreditation in July 2014. Commissioners cited a number of deficiencies in fiscal planning, administration, student support services and other areas that the college failed to remedy a year after it had been put on notice to "show cause" why it should retain its academic standing.
The multi-campus institution with about 85,000 students was allowed to maintain accreditation during an appeals process that could stretch beyond the 2014 deadline.
In videotaped remarks, California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice W. Harris said: "Loss of accreditation would in many cases void the ability of students to transfer credits, jeopardize financial aid and cut off state funding for the college. Essentially, the loss of accreditation would be the death penalty for City College. We simply cannot allow that to happen."
Agrella, former president of SRJC, was not available for comment. He has served as an advisor to City College since last fall.
Paul Feist, spokesman for the state community college system, said Agrella will take immediate steps to trim or hire in important administrative positions and make changes in financial operations.
Feist said Harris also indicated he wants to fast track the search for a permanent chancellor for City College, which is now headed by an interim appointee. The chancellor will report to Agrella.
Several qualified candidates have already expressed interest, Harris said at a meeting of the community colleges Board of Governors meeting in Sacramento.
Several City College leaders said they are skeptical that the appointment of a special trustee would change the minds of accreditors.
"It's good and reassuring that the state chancellor cares about City College and recognizes that allowing it to shut down is not a reasonable option," said City College board member Rafael Mandelman. "But I have a real question about whether we can retain accreditation without a governing board, a question about how the process moves forward without locally elected officials participating."
Faculty union President Alisa Messer was also unconvinced.
"It doesn't appear that there are a lot of things, unfortunately, that will satisfy the accrediting commission," said Messer, an English instructor. "By all accounts we had been moving in the right direction and had made a tremendous amount of progress in every area."
The only other known instance of a special trustee appointed to turn around a troubled community college district does not bode especially well.
In 2005, the Compton Community College District lost its accreditation and the ability to offer classes and grant degrees. It subsequently partnered with the nearby El Camino Community College District, which provides accredited instruction and support services.
The Compton district is still governed by a special trustee and is still seeking to regain accreditation — a six-year process that means essentially starting from scratch.