For a year, Robert Agrella helped leaders at City College of San Francisco implement reforms designed to stave off school closure. And once accreditation officials proclaimed those changes insufficient, the retired chancellor inherited all decision-making power in a last-ditch effort to turn CCSF around.
But the elected trustees whose authority Agrella is inheriting are skeptical that he can accomplish what they could not.
Earlier this month, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges withdrew CCSF's accreditation as of July 31, 2014. Without accreditation, CCSF will lose state funding and student financial aid, forcing the 85,000-student college to close.
The ruling came a year after CCSF received the commission's most severe sanction for failing to meet its operating standards.
Agrella was then appointed to advise the board about how to comply with commission standards. Last week, he was elevated to take over all decisions at CCSF for a year.
The former Santa Rosa Junior College chancellor was not made available for comment. Five trustees described him as a reliable adviser to whom they could turn to for guidance, yet could not say what reforms he would now champion.
"We certainly did think we corrected what we needed corrected, and Dr. Agrella was the person helping with that process," Trustee Anita Grier said. "So to find out ... we didn't get compliant is staggering."
Trustee Rafael Mandelman was blunter.
"If the accreditation commission is right and justified — I do not believe they are — then it is Agrella's failures as much as anyone else's," Mandelman said.
Trustee Chris Jackson fears that the college won't be the same when the state returns power to the board.
"We know he's up to the task, but my concern, and other trustees', is at what cost?" Jackson said. "We've already downsized, but what are we looking at now? Cutting noncredit courses? ESL, GED classes? Closing campuses?"
Board President John Rizzo hopes Agrella will turn the college around. But Rizzo wasn't optimistic, given the changes the board itself made prior to this decision — including closing campuses, instituting pay reductions, reforming the administrative structure and approving a budget with much larger financial reserves.
"I don't know what more the board could've done," Rizzo said. "The board did everything that the administration asked it to do."
California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris doesn't share Rizzo's viewpoint.
"When you have 112 colleges in the system and only one in this instance, its pretty tough to blame the commission," Harris said.
"There's plenty of blame to go around of why the college got where it is today," Harris added. "Believe me, everybody shares in that, but the way to get out of it is to solve the problems with pretty significant and rapid action and that's why the special trustee was put in place."
At present, Harris said, CCSF meets none of the commission's four accreditation standards and only four of 21 eligibility requirements.
Harris said Agrella possess the skills to thrive in this exceptionally challenging environment.
"Dr. Agrella is a very relaxed guy," Harris said. "He's not confrontational. He's very principled and value-driven and just keeps working to try to help people understand. But at the end of the day, he's not afraid to make a decision in the face of opposition."
Trustee Steve Ngo said the college community must now work together.
"The fate of the college lays in the willingness of its employees to save the college," Ngo said. "This M.O. of resisting any standards or any authority even when the college is on the line must end if we are going to survive."