New College Out of Money: Teachers Unpaid, Not Teaching

Katie Paul, a tall, brown-haired psychology student, is driving south along the peninsula, watching her future recede in the rear-view mirror. "I wanted to go into a public agency and work with people who don't have funds to go to a private practitioner, and give them the respect and support that someone paying $200 per hour would elicit," says the 26-year-old, who was close to completing her master's in psychology when San Francisco's New College of California began to financially implode last fall.

School was supposed to start more than a month ago. Teachers haven't been paid for nearly four months. Classes are now postponed indefinitely, with the possibility that the college may soon cease to exist.

New College, a self-styled progressive school begun in 1971, is deep in a bizarre meltdown that is creating a wake of human suffering. Students dependent upon financial aid are seeing their aspirations dashed. Teachers are leading classes and helping students, but without getting paid. Meanwhile, a skeleton leadership group is struggling to control an accelerating cascade of financial and organizational crises, all while the school's Web site cheerfully and appallingly invites students to enroll for 2008.

Just as San Francisco has benefited over the years from the work of idealistic New College graduates anxious to change the world, it's now the city's responsibility to halt the potential catastrophe. Community leaders, particularly those with expertise in education (and no prior affiliation with New College), need to step forward and augment what is a decimated and overtaxed board of directors. San Francisco philanthropists, who have long shown a soft spot for advancing idealism and alleviating suffering, now have an opportunity to do both by setting up and contributing to a trust designed to support the school — as long as the trust is independent of the New College leadership responsible for the current mess.

New College, a über-leftist school that inhabits a former mortuary and several other buildings along Valencia in the Mission district, is in a bizarre state of suspended animation in which it doesn't have enough money to function, yet refuses to formally cease operation.

The school can announce that it will close and undertake what is called a "teachout," in which the Department of Education releases enough aid money for students to complete the current semester. New College trustees and interim president Luis Molina have refused to take that option, despite appeals from students and faculty that the school officially shut down so they can get on with their lives.

"I don't know what it's going to look like," said a defiant Molina, a real-estate attorney who has served several years on the school's board of trustees. "But the plan is we'll still be around next year."

This situation has aborted the futures of hundreds of students. It's impossible to say how many remain, as the school has no registrar, but last year there were around 500. Those leaving now would technically be dropping out thanks to the school's ghost-ship status, so many would forfeit tens of thousands of dollars in federal financial aid. For some students, New College credits aren't transferable — the school is famous for its nontraditional curriculum — so they will essentially have to start over.

Paul, who used to cast plays in New York before coming to New College to prepare for a career as a family therapist, says she anticipates dropping her studies and taking a job, and then perhaps starting over in a year or two. "Most programs would accept only one-fourth of my graduate work," she says, which means she'd be out around $30,000 in student loan money.

School staff, meanwhile, haven't been paid for months, despite repeated promises last fall that their next cashable paycheck was around the corner. Several learned at doctors' visits that their health insurance hadn't been paid. Tom Clark, a core New College poetics instructor who was once poetry editor of The Paris Review, became so distressed that his health seriously declined.

"One of the members of our union, Tom Clark, has suffered a stroke because of the financial stress, and it's further complicated by the fact he doesn't have health insurance," said Steven Kushner, New College shop steward for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents school staff and some faculty. "He's one of the most brilliant guys you'll ever want to speak with, and now as a result of the stroke he has a slur. He's not managing, just like most of my people are not managing. They're praying."

New College's situation is changing daily, and specific information about its financial situation is scant. But the news this week was that most of the school has shut down, remaining in business in name only as its directors await a miracle that might allow it to reopen at an undetermined date. It has a small satellite school in Southern California that Molina said is still giving classes — although it's unclear how, given its financial status. The New College of California School of Law, which has been run somewhat independently from the core humanities school, is still operating, though its teachers haven't been paid for several months. Law dean Ed Roybal said he has been in discussions to have the law school absorbed into another institution if New College folds.

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