The San Francisco crisis has roots that stretch back a half century, to the 1960 creation of the state’s blueprint for public higher education. The California Master Plan established three institutional tiers: The best students would attend elite University of California research universities; the next-best would enroll in the California State University System; and the bottom 60 percent or so would start in two-year community colleges, with the possibility of moving to a four-year college later. It was, in theory, a way to educate a rapidly growing student population inexpensively.
But when it came to actually running community colleges, the state fell short. Many of the existing two-year schools had begun as locally run junior colleges with no tradition of state control. Instead of being led by a single chancellor, like the universities, each of California’s 112 community colleges is governed by a locally elected board. The state also passed a law requiring the boards to share day-to-day decision-making power formally with faculty unions.
A result has been chaos and dysfunction in many places. …
The accreditor, an independent, nonprofit body that determines whether colleges can receive federal financial aid, is the only outside organization with substantial regulatory authority over schools like City College. But like an army with no weapons other than thermonuclear bombs, its power is too potent and blunt to use.