The evolution of crisis at City College of San Francisco

In July of 2013, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) determined that the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) did not meet the eligibility criteria and standards for accreditation and announced that they would terminate accreditation within one year. Following this decision, it was revealed that there were early warning signs of impending financial insolvency and a history of noncompliance with regulatory standards. In the 1980’s, the college experienced a similar crisis, after which it embarked on a major reorganization designed to integrate operations, improve communications, and ensure fiscal solvency. But decades later the college found itself in the same condition. Studies of community colleges in fiscal or accreditation crisis focus on leadership responses and recovery; however, few have closely examined the evolution o f the crisis through a historical perspective. This qualitative study examined the factors that may have contributed to the development of an institutional blindspot that prevented CCSF leaders at all levels from recognizing and responding to the impending crisis. Through interviews and archival document review, this study found that college leaders consistently normalized deviations in financial operations and in decision-making processes on student learning outcomes. Three factors that contributed to normalization of deviance included an environment of competition for scarce resources stemming from shifts in state community college finance laws and increasing accountability standards, a culture of expectation to be “all things to all people”, and a self-affirming ideology fed by a culture o f “uniqueness”, which isolated the institution and insulated its leaders from acting on the warning signs of impending crisis. Recommendations outline strategies for leaders to better recognize problems before they become major crises.