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CCSF leaders give new chancellor favorable marks in his first months on campus

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City College of San Francisco Chancellor Mark Rocha attends a rally celebrating free tuition for San Francisco residents outside the Civic Center campus on August 3. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Faculty union president Tim Killikelly gave a hat tip to the City College of San Francisco’s Board of Trustees and new chancellor, Mark Rocha, at a hearing in the Panhandle neighborhood earlier this month.

“The [contract] negotiations this time around are so much better than they have been,” Killikelly said Nov. 9.

It may be too soon to grade Rocha’s performance, but with the better part of his first semester behind him, the college’s newly minted leader has swayed some of his critics and is even receiving tempered praise for his vision of growing enrollment.

“I think the campus climate is very healthy and very collegial,” the 63-year-old New York City native, who is now a resident of Nob Hill, said in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner on a recent Thursday.

“People saw my commitment to the future of the college and to making a plan that was about growing and not shrinking,” he continued. “And that’s what people were afraid of before.”

In July, Rocha was hired by the CCSF Board of Trustees as the college’s first permanent chancellor since 2015, though not everyone was on board with that decision.

The fact that Rocha received a vote of “no confidence” while serving as president of Pasadena Community College after he supported cutting a winter session in 2013 without the input of students and faculty didn’t sit well with some in the CCSF community.

The choice to hire Rocha was deemed “ill-advised” and “tone-deaf” in a statement issued in July by the CCSF faculty union, American Federation of Teachers Local 2121. CCSF Trustee Rafael Mandelman also questioned Rocha’s past record, voting to oppose his hiring at the time.

But months later, Mandelman said he is “impressed by Rocha.”

“He hit the right note on a number of contentious issues,” Mandelman said. “I don’t think he holds my vote against me. “

During the first round of contract bargaining between AFT 2121 and the college’s administration earlier this month, the two entities quickly came to a tentative agreement on working conditions. But the controversial contract provisions, such as compensation and benefits, are yet to be discussed.

“There has been a loss over the years of full-time positions,” Killikelly told the Examiner. “We want to move in a new direction where we end up hiring more full-timers.”

Rocha agreed.

“Our board approved 66 new faculty positions that we are searching for right now — full-time,” Rocha told the Examiner. He expects to tackle CCSF teachers’ wages after the holidays and settle quickly.

“We need to pay competitive salaries — that’s a goal we share — so we can actually live in The City,” he said.

GROWING ENROLLMENT

Rocha has more than a decade of experience at the helm of community colleges and private institutions in Southern California, where he said he successfully attracted more students into classrooms.

“Everywhere I have been, enrollment has gone up, not because I am some enrollment genius, but because you have to put students first,” he said. “If you ask your customer what they want, they will tell you, and you just do that.”

At the once-embattled CCSF, the focus on student retention is crucial.

In its first semester of offering free tuition, CCSF has attracted more than 6,450 new students. The enrollment boost is a sign of rebirth for the college that just a few years ago was on the brink of losing its accreditation.

CCSF lost two-thirds of its enrollment and significant state funding after its accreditation was nearly revoked in 2012.

While CCSF and city leaders in recent years have paved the way for the Free City College program — Supervisor Jane Kim advocated for a real estate transfer tax approved by voters in 2016 that supplements city funding for the program — Rocha is now tasked with managing the college’s funds and relationships to ensure its longevity.

“He is enthusiastic and has certainly been trying to raze down some of the walls that past administrations have put up in terms of building relationships with outside partners and The City,” Kim said about Rocha. “CCSF cannot survive by itself — it has to have a really strong communication protocol with stakeholders.”

According to his new colleagues, the chancellor seems to have learned from past criticism.

“He is one of the best communicators we have ever had,” CCSF Trustee John Rizzo said. “He puts in the time to meet with people and he doesn’t let misunderstandings just flare up.”

Five acting or permanent chancellors have led CCSF since 2012. In March, Interim Chancellor Susan Lamb announced she would not be seeking a permanent position after leading the college through the last two years of the accreditation crisis.

Of the some 35 applicants interviewed, Rocha stood out as a forward-thinker.

“The board went out on a limb in choosing this chancellor and we are looking carefully at everything, but it seems like it’s going well,” CCSF Board of Trustees Vice President Brigitte Davila said.

STUDENTS FIRST

From the get-go, Rocha has touted two goals: making students “front and center” of the college’s efforts, and an emphasis on enrollment growth.

On Nov. 9, the Board of Trustees approved a resolution to raise the minimum wage for CCSF student workers from $10.74 to $14 per hour. While student advocates had long worked on the resolution, Rocha helped advance their efforts when he took over.

The new wages will come at an $800,000 annual cost to the college, but Rocha said he sees the expense as an investment. In light of a some $200 million budget for the 2017-18 school year, “it seems like a priority that we ought to fit in,” he said.

Rocha backed a resolution brought forward by Mandelman earlier this month that aims to address homelessness and food insecurity among CCSF students.

“At this point in the 21st century, with large swings in economic inequality causing these kinds of conditions in our schools, we can’t ignore it,” Rocha said. “We can’t say for a student to graduate it’s just about passing English and math.”

By declaring his commitment to growing enrollment at CCSF, Rocha is speaking the language of the college’s faculty union.

“Some classes have been added, people have been added, and they are talking about the hiring plan,” Killikelly said. “We support the board wanting to move in that direction.”

Rocha said the college is “completely together” on the path to 32,000 FTES (full-time equivalent students), referring to the calculation used to restore enrollment funding by the state.

According to Rocha, 32,000 FTES is equivalent to about 80,000 students — the number of students enrolled at CCSF before the accreditation crisis took hold of the college.

CCSF receives about $5,280 per FTES from the state. Last year, enrollment hovered at 22,000 FTES, Rocha said.

Rocha said the college has a five-year plan to completely restore state funding at CCSF, which Killikelly called a “laudable goal.” Long before Rocha’s hire, the union vehemently opposed cuts to classes and college programs that were sanctioned under previous administrations.

NO CAMPUS CLOSURES

Students and faculty members alike are also looking to Rocha to quell fears of campus closures that took hold in the CCSF community in recent years.

In the midst of the accreditation crisis, former Chancellor Art Tyler moved to temporarily shutter the Civic Center campus in 2015, according to Wynd Kaufmyn, a CCSF engineering instructor and AFT 2121 representative.

“There were students that were displaced from that [closure],” Kaufmyn said.

More than two years later, that campus remains closed. CCSF spokesperson Jeff Hamilton said the campus was closed due to “serious seismic issues,” and that the college has since applied for funding to upgrade the building.

More recently, the proposed closure of CCSF’s historic Fort Mason campus — which was hit with a 48 percent rent increase over five years and is in need of seismic upgrades estimated to cost millions — drew the ire of the campus’ predominately senior and artist student population.

The campus’ lease has been extended twice under Rocha, who said he plans to take a second look at the costs of fixing up the four-decade old campus.

“You won’t be covering a story ever that Fort Mason is closing,” he promised.

Rocha’s leadership style will likely be put to the test in the next few years as the college and The City gear up to develop a parcel of land known as the Balboa Reservoir. The reservoir is adjacent to the college, which for years has hoped to build a Performing Arts and Education Center (PAEC) for students on the northern portion of the parcel.

The southern portion, which currently provides over 1,000 parking spots to students, is slated for redevelopment into mixed market rate and affordable housing.

Members of the CCSF community concerned with the loss of parking and affordability of the proposed housing project have called for a transfer of the land, which is owned by the Public Utilities Commission, to CCSF.

A resolution floated by two CCSF trustees in October that would have opposed the development was tabled. Rocha said that he is working closely with The City to ensure the development serves CCSF and its students.

Rocha said the college is moving ahead at “breakneck speed” on building the long-promised PAEC, though some $70 million in funding are still outstanding. In October, the Board of Trustees approved the hire of a construction manager to jump start the design process, said Rocha.

“We did that, so we expect to have a completed project ready, shovel in ground, in two years,” said Rocha, adding that the college has applied for state funding for the project.

Rocha admitted that he had concerns about a possible overlap of construction of the PAEC and the housing development, and the impact on the local community.

“The solution is a design solution. I frankly don’t know what that is yet, but we will find one,” he said. “The decision that we are making will affect the college for many years to come. We need to kind of pause and take our time.”

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