The California Community Colleges Board of Governors unanimously named Dr. Brice Harris*, a longtime community college leader, as the 15th chancellor of the statewide higher education system. Just hours later he received an unexpected gift from Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed SB 1456, the Student Success Act of 2012, into law.
The bill, by Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), seeks to improve graduation and transfer rates at community colleges through better academic counseling and support services, setting tougher standards for students to receive fee waivers and requiring colleges to make public completion rates of students and progress toward closing the achievement gap.
Harris succeeds Jack Scott, who retired earlier this month and personally courted him to apply for the position. “This is the right person, for the right job at the right time,” said Scott at a news conference yesterday morning in Sacramento. “He has the experience, he has the skills, and we are extremely fortunate that he also has the willingness to tackle a job of this nature.”
As Chancellor, Harris will earn $198,500, the same as the man who talked him into seeking the job.
Michelle Pilati, President of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and a member of the search committee, described Harris as “a smart man, a good communicator and kind of everything that you want in a chancellor.” She said another plus is that having been part of the system for so long, he understands and appreciates the struggles the colleges are dealing with. “I think he’s going to be good for everyone. I think he’ll work well with everyone across the system.”
California has the largest community college system in the nation, with 112 campuses and 2.4 million students. Harris oversaw 85,000 of those students as chancellor of Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento. Before that he was president of Fresno City College. He started his community college career four decades ago, in 1972, as a young faculty member in Kansas City, Missouri.
“At that time, we looked at California and what was going on here and thought it was the most exciting place to be in terms of American higher education,” said Harris. “Everything that was great that was going on in higher education in America was going on right here in California.”
He still feels that way, despite $809 million in budget cuts since 2008 that forced colleges to reduce courses and led to a drop in enrollment of nearly half a million students. “You can’t look at any other corner of the globe and find a more diverse, a more comprehensive system of higher education that is impacting a given state or jurisdiction more than the California community colleges.”
Day one, Prop 30
Harris is also keenly aware that it’s a system facing significant challenges that will affect the state’s economic vitality, and he may have to confront the worst-case scenario on his very first day at the helm. Harris officially steps into the chancellor’s post on November 6, Election Day, when Californians will vote on Proposition 30, Gov. Brown’s initiative to raise some taxes to increase funding for K-12 education and community colleges.
If the tax measure succeeds, community colleges may be able to open up a few more seats for students. If it fails, they stand to lose another $338 million and perhaps another 100,000 students.
Harris said he sees the impact of the current cuts on a daily basis. The young woman who works at the coffee shop where he stops most mornings told him it’s taken her four years to get all the classes she needed at Sacramento City College. Now that she’s finally eligible for Sacramento State, the college is so affected by the cuts that it isn’t accepting transfers until next fall.
He hears similar stories from neighbors whose sons and daughters can’t get into the English and math classes they need to graduate or transfer. He hopes that instead of just being frustrated by the situation, people will understand the connection between adequate state support and access for themselves and their families.
“I believe we’re starting to see some of that. Now how that will translate in November I don’t know,” Harris told EdSource Today. “The risk that we run is that we could look back ten years from now and realize we left a good chunk of an entire generation of Californians standing on the street corner without access to education.”
Efforts to stabilize shaky finances will dominate his time at least for the coming year, but there are other issues that Harris is eager to work on, including some of the proposals outlined in the newly minted Student Success Act. He was a member of the Student Success Task Force, which spent a year holding hearings and developing the recommendations that became part of the bill.
* Brice Harris is a member of the EdSource Board of Directors.