Saturday, November 30, 2013

Trifling with tradition

A dangerous experiment

The initial notice came from my mother, who called with information about the family's holiday plans: “Thanksgiving dinner will be at your brother's.”

I felt a sudden frisson of anxious concern. And skepticism.

“He has your permission for this?”

“Oh, I think it's a great idea!”

My suspicion was not alleviated. Surely Mom was in denial. Or perhaps she had forgotten the lessons of the past, back when we tried this experiment before. As best as I can recall, it was in the early seventies. Perhaps late sixties. The family had quite overwhelmed the grandparents' dining space. Holiday dinners were served in shifts—menfolk and children at the first sitting, womenfolk and stragglers at the second. (I often managed to prolong my meal through both shifts, occasionally provoking my obese aunt to remark “I hate people like you” as she regarded my scrawny frame.)

In the year in question, someone (I don't know who) hit upon the idea of relocating the family holiday meal to my godmother's home. She had a spacious dining area with ample room for folding tables and an adjacent kitchen counter with stools that the kids loved. My avó (grandmother) was prevailed upon to give her assent and the new world order was implemented.

As I recall, my grandmother did a minimal amount of cooking that year and all the main dishes were prepared by my godmother, Mom, and aunt. Avó was enthroned as guest of honor and scarcely allowed to lift a finger. She presided over the adult table in a regal manner instead of bustling to and fro between kitchen and dining room. She seemed serene.

That's why it came as a shock and surprise when she burst into tears upon returning home and wept the afternoon away. There was no holiday mess in her home and no lingering cooking odors in the air. Avó sat in a home bereft of any trace that it had been a special family holiday and it sucked all the joy of the occasion out of her.

We never made that mistake again. For the rest of my grandmother's life, every subsequent Thanksgiving was squeezed into her home. While others gradually took over more and more of the cooking, Avó was unambiguously in charge of the event and no one trifled with the matriarch's prerogatives as queen of the kitchen and hostess of the event.

Hence my trepidation. While Mom appeared to be on board with my brother's plans, I wondered whether she remembered her mother-in-law's emotional trauma at being displaced.

On Thanksgiving morning, I arrived at the old homestead to find my brother in Mom's kitchen, carving the Thanksgiving ham. Our mother was hovering over the turkey, which was nearly ready to remove from the oven. Shortly before noon, a stream of pans, dishes, and bowls were conveyed outside to the runabout (an electric-powered light utility vehicle used to run errands on the dairy farm) and trundled next door to my brother's workshop. The shop floor had been cleared of current projects (like my brother's rebuilding of the family's old Willys-model Jeep) and a series of round tables and folding chairs set up in the open space—with enough room left over for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren to run about like maniacs. The pans, dishes, and bowls were arrayed on a long buffet table, people filled their plates to overflowing, and Thanksgiving dinner got underway.

“How does it feel to have dinner with everyone else, Mom?”

The question came from my brother.

“Pretty nice,” she replied, smiling, with no hint of reservation.

The leisurely meal lasted well over an hour, winding down with a dessert service. Mom and Dad were at the table where I was seated, so I kept an eye on her, nursing an abiding suspicion. Eventually various family members began to take their leave in order to meet other responsibilities. (My goddaughter would rack up five separate Thanksgiving events by the time she finished visiting relatives and in-laws and close friends.) Before the event had quite broken up, Mom announced that we would be meeting in the same venue for Christmas and my brother nodded his head in confirmation.

“That was really nice,” she said, as we left. “And such a relief!”

I guess those who remember history are sometimes doomed to worry needlessly about repeating it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

It's the law!

Can't anybody here play this game?

My lack of interest in sports is well-nigh complete. Please don't bother making small talk with me by asking whether I “saw the game last night.” Nevertheless, even I remember Casey Stengel's lament about his wretched New York Mets: “Can't anybody here play this game?” Stengel's question sometimes echoes in my head whenever I see another fumble by the Obama administration. (Yeah, I know: “fumble” is football. Did you forget that I don't care?)

Obama and company could stand to be a little more aggressive in the face of constant carping, petty backbiting, and outright lies. The president has been largely content to allow tea-stained critics to denounce him for “lying” about his statements that the Affordable Care Act would allow individuals to keep health insurance plans they liked. A little push-back would have been a good thing, instead of stoically accepting so much abuse and then apologizing.

In particular, I'm thinking Obama should have cited chapter and verse from the healthcare reform legislation itself. Yes, the measure is big and unwieldy (and Republicans like to pretend that no one knew what was in it despite months of delays and debates), but it's not impossible to look things up if you have specific questions. Have you ever read Sec. 1251? Did you even know it exists? Check it out:

    (1) IN GENERAL.—Nothing in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) shall be construed to require that an individual terminate coverage under a group health plan or health insurance coverage in which such individual was enrolled on the date of enactment of this Act.
    (2) CONTINUATION OF COVERAGE.—With respect to a group health plan or health insurance coverage in which an individual was enrolled on the date of enactment of this Act, this subtitle and subtitle A (and the amendments made by such subtitles) shall not apply to such plan or coverage, regardless of whether the individual renews such coverage after such date of enactment.

(b) ALLOWANCE FOR FAMILY MEMBERS TO JOIN CURRENT COVERAGE.—With respect to a group health plan or health insurance coverage in which an individual was enrolled on the date of enactment of this Act and which is renewed after such date, family members of such individual shall be permitted to enroll in such plan or coverage if such enrollment is permitted under the terms of the plan in effect as of such date of enactment.

(c) ALLOWANCE FOR NEW EMPLOYEES TO JOIN CURRENT PLAN.—A group health plan that provides coverage on the date of enactment of this Act may provide for the enrolling of new employees (and their families) in such plan, and this subtitle and subtitle A (and the amendments made by such subtitles) shall not apply with respect to such plan and such new employees (and their families).
That's right. The provisions of the healthcare act expressly establish a person's right to keep a health plan! The language is clear and explicit. In what way, then, did the president lie? Why, then, are people losing their current plans despite Sec. 1251?

Simple. Nothing forces the insurance companies to continue to offer those plans. Sec. 1251 has an invisible and unanticipated qualification: You can keep your current plan if your insurance company doesn't cancel it! The Obama administration cared enough to put the language of Sec. 1251 in the bill, but it failed to anticipate how many insurance companies would use the measure's enactment as an excuse for immediate cancellation of plans that don't meet Obamacare standards. Are we grandfathered in for a period of time? Who cares? We insurance companies sure don't!

Perhaps the president needs a little help in rebutting his critics, but it's probably too late for him to deliver the following short speech I just drafted:
My fellow Americans, you have heard many critics accusing me of having lied to you when I said, ‘If you like your health plan you can keep your health plan.’ Most of them know that accusation is false. In fact, that provision was expressly written into the Affordable Care Act. I quote word-for-word from Section 1251: ‘Nothing in this Act ... shall be construed to require that an individual terminate coverage under a group health plan or health insurance coverage in which such individual was enrolled on the date of enactment of this Act.’ So what happened? I'll tell you. Many insurance companies decided to cancel policies anyway, abandoning their clients despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act does not require it. Perhaps healthcare reform needed more mandates rather than fewer, but we did not require insurance companies to maintain their existing policies during the transition period. We should have been stricter.

Let me remind you again that nothing in the Affordable Care Act requires anyone to terminate a current health plan that does not initially meet the requirements of healthcare reform. They were grandfathered in. Unfortunately, the many people who were tossed aside by their insurance companies have not had ready access to a fully functioning health care website in order to seek out their most affordable alternatives. We are committed, however, to rectifying the situation and improvements are being made every day. We will stay the course and get the job done. In the meantime, whenever you hear someone screaming about the supposed lies and failings of healthcare reform, be sure to ask them what they are doing to help, besides just making baseless accusations. Thank you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lesson unlearned

College crisis by the Bay

The example of the accreditation crisis at City College of San Francisco is being cast as an important lesson to those involved in higher education. I fear, however, that not everyone is learning the right lesson. Consider, for example, the unfortunate Rafael Mandelman, first elected to the CCSF board of trustees in November 2012. He joined a board in upheaval. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior colleges had rejected the college's self-study report and application for reaffirmation of accreditation. Instead, the ACCJC had issued a “show cause” decision at its June 2012 meeting, which meant that CCSF had one year to show why it should not be shut down. Five months were already gone when Mandelman was elected to his board seat. By the time he was sworn in as the board's newest member in January 2013, two more months had gone by and the deadline for CCSF's response to the ACCJC was looming.

On March 15, 2013, CCSF submitted its Show Cause Report to the accrediting commission in hopes of having made its case for the college's continuing existence. In June the ACCJC met and in July the commission revealed that it had voted to terminate the college. CCSF had neither resolved the deficiencies identified in the 2012 evaluation nor demonstrated sufficient progress toward alleviating them. Barring dramatic developments, the college would close after its spring 2014 semester.

Trustee Mandelman, of course, had minimal impact on these developments. Not only was he the board's junior member, the entire board had been subordinated to a special trustee selected by the statewide community college chancellor. The dysfunctionality of the board had been highlighted in Recommendation 14 of the ACCJC evaluation, so the board was not being trusted to devise its own solution; adult supervision had been imposed. Even that, however, had not been enough to save the school. Understandably frustrated, Mandelman expressed his outrage in an opinion piece published in the July 21, 2013, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle:
If the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges is correct and City College has failed over the past year, there is plenty of blame to go around.

But I do not agree that City College has failed. There have been missteps, to be sure, but the facts do not support [California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice] Harris' portrayal of a recalcitrant institution resisting change. Rather, they show one that has moved quickly to bring itself into compliance with accreditation standards.

That real progress has been made over the last year is evidenced by the report of the accrediting commission's visiting team, which indicates that although work remains to be done, significant progress has been made in each of the 14 areas cited.
“Significant”? Perhaps. But obviously not deemed “sufficient” by the accrediting commission members. A dozen of the deficiencies had been previously identified in the ACCJC's 2006 evaluation of the college. Accreditation was reaffirmed, with a reasonable expectation of resolution of the problems by the time the 2012 cycle rolled around. Instead, the ACCJC found continued neglect and added two more deficiencies, producing the new baker's-dozen-plus-one recommendations. (In one of the more amusing responses to the lack of progress by CCSF, one of its exponents commented that it was never clear that CCSF could not just take it or leave it when it came to “recommendations.” But one should not take an Internet comment as representative of the college's understanding of the imperative nature of ACCJC recommendations.)

The list of recommendations constitutes a strong bill of indictment against CCSF, even when rendered in buzz-word summary form by the college itself in its Show Cause Report:
The College has focused its attention on responding to all 14 current Recommendations over the past nine months by:
  • revising and focusing the College Mission Statement (ACCJC Recommendation 1);
  • creating a more effective, integrated, data-informed planning process with the Mission Statement and Program Review as central mechanisms for decision making that promotes institutional effectiveness (ACCJC Recommendations 2 and 3);
  • engaging in a comprehensive, College-wide effort to centralize the documentation, reporting, and assessment of SLOs [Student Learning Outcomes] that informs institutional planning (ACCJC Recommendations 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6);
  • identifying and implementing changes to the delivery of student services to better promote student achievement and access by all students, regardless of location (ACCJC Recommendations 2, 3, and 5);
  • developing more efficient administrative structures with greater authority and accountability (ACCJC Recommendation 7);
  • improving the management of physical resources, including the development of a model to determine total cost of ownership (ACCJC Recommendations 2, 3, and 8);
  • creating a comprehensive plan for equipment maintenance, upgrade, and replacement (ACCJC Recommendations 2, 3, and 9);
  • improving the College’s financial stability, integrity, and reporting (ACCJC Recommendations 2, 3, 10, and 11);
  • developing and implementing a new Participatory Governance system that is efficient, serves an advisory function, and promotes transparency (ACCJC Recommendations 12 and 13);
  • and providing the Board of Trustees with opportunities to realize fully their appropriate role and responsibilities (ACCJC Recommendation 14).
No wonder that CCSF could not adequately address all of these deficiencies between the “show cause” ruling in June 2012 and the response submission in May 2013, especially given the shortcomings in the college's planning and administrative processes.

While CCSF remains accredited through the current academic year, the negative impact of the accreditation ruling is already evident. Student enrollment is dropping and open staff positions are difficult to fill. Trustee Mandelman is ready to place the blame:
What City College does not need are stern lectures or threats, from Brice Harris or the commission. What it needs now is time: time to continue to address the real problems the commission identified last year and the ones they missed; time, frankly, to recover from the damage that the commission has done.
Chancellor Harris's people have been in place during the past year attempting to bail out CCSF, but Mandelman does not appreciate Harris's frank acknowledgment of the college's shortcomings. Almost all of the deficiencies have been on the record for half a dozen years while the powers-that-be at CCSF took a mañana approach to addressing them, but now there is no tomorrow.

I might point out that Dr. Harris is probably the best advisor and overseer that CCSF could hope for. When he was chancellor of the four-college Los Rios district based in Sacramento, Harris steered all of his schools through three rounds of accreditation with no significant findings of deficiency and numerous commendations. It's worth listening to him.

I have yet to mention a side-issue which some people in the CCSF community may be contemplating with undue optimism. The ACCJC has long been regarded as more draconian than other regional accrediting agencies—and there's evidence to support the charge, especially given the higher rates at which the ACCJC imposes sanctions compared to other regional accreditation agencies. The U.S. Department of Education has slapped the ACCJC with its own list of deficiencies. The unduly optimistic are therefore celebrating the treatment of the gander in accordance to what it inflicted on various geese. 

In brief, the Department of Education cited the ACCJC for lack of clarity in providing institutions with due process and in appropriately constituting its evaluation teams. The commission's responses to these shortcomings should make future evaluation cycles a little more civilized. However, there was nothing in the Department of Education's recommendations (there's that word again!) to suggest that previous accreditation decisions were so flawed as to require review or revocation. CCSF has to play the cards it was dealt.

The college needs to acknowledge more frankly the stark reality of what occurred: Its problems do not stem from the arbitrary decision of a star chamber tribunal populated by faceless bureaucrats. In reality, an evaluation team of peers—staff, faculty, and managers from other community colleges—visited CCSF and found it wanting. The peers reported to the commissioners of the ACCJC—who are also peers recruited from the ranks of community college faculty and management—and the commissioners concurred with the findings of deficiency. Until your peers agree that you're doing a good job, you're probably not.