California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott stepped down Saturday, after leading the nation’s largest higher education system through its stormiest time. Scott took the helm on Jan. 1, 2009, just as the state was entering a deep financial slide. Since then, community colleges have lost $809 million, or 12 percent of their budget, nearly doubled tuition and fees, and cut course offerings by about 15 percent, all of which knocked down enrollment by roughly 485,000 students.
“That wasn’t a lack of demand, that was a lack of supply,” Scott told EdSource Today recently, during a nearly hour-long, wide-ranging conversation as his tenure wound down. (Read the full transcript here.) “All I can say is, ‘Wake up, California! Because you’re slowly hurting your future, because educated personnel make a difference.’”
That warning isn’t the exaggerated ranting of someone seeking a final flash of publicity. Scott is measured and composed, a bearing no doubt honed after nearly six decades of public service. Before being tapped as Chancellor, he spent 12 years in the state Assembly and Senate, where he chaired the Senate Education Committee until being termed out of office. Before that, Scott was president of two community colleges, Pasadena City College and Cypress College.
We asked him why. Why did he go back to a system that’s expected to be all things to all people, that’s short on funding and even shorter on success? Just 30 percent of all California Community College students who say they want to earn an Associate’s degree, earn a certificate, or transfer to a four-year school manage to do that within six years; the numbers are lower for Latino and African American students, just 25 percent. This at a time when analysts say California is facing a shortfall of college graduates. Scott had a ready answer.
“I don’t feel that leadership is only supposed to be exercised in good times,” he said. “Obviously it’s a little more fun when the times are better, but I honestly think that you can make good decisions. I sometimes quote that statement by Rahm Emanuel, ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’”
He stuck to that philosophy. During his tenure, Scott oversaw the rollout of the most comprehensive changes to the community college system since the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. Through SB 1440, a 2010 bill, community college students who complete certain two-year degrees will be automatically enrolled as juniors at California State University if they choose to transfer. The most significant changes are beginning to come about through the Student Success Task Force. Early in 2012, after a year of public meetings, the panel released a report containing 22 recommendations to increase degree and certificate completion and transfer rates. Many of the Task Force proposals were included in SB 1456, the Student Success Act of 2012, which the Legislature passed and is now in Gov. Jerry Brown’s hands.
If he signs it, the bill would recalibrate student services to provide better academic advising and help students develop educational plans to reach their goals with as little interference as possible. Community colleges are notorious for inadequate and often inaccurate counseling, which leaves students floundering and trying to get into classes they may not need while missing the deadline for courses that would help them graduate sooner.
“There’s an old saying that students don’t do optional,” said the Chancellor. “Too often, if we just let a person come into a community college and don’t give that person direction, they wander about and then wander out.”
Scott has also tried to apply some of that organizational efficiency to the entire system by seeking some centralized authority. Unlike Cal State and the University of California, the state’s 112 community colleges have a lot of autonomy. On one hand, that’s crucial to their mission of serving the local community. If a region needs nurses, dental hygienists, or electrical engineers, local control allows a college to quickly develop or expand courses in that subject. On the other hand, local control can also lead to inefficiency, confusion, and needless duplication.
Right now, for instance, each college chooses its own technology system, making it expensive and complicated for them to communicate with each other. It’s a sensitive issue, though, asking schools to give up some authority. Scott denies, as some critics have suggested, that it’s a bit self-aggrandizing. “I’m not in this business to gain more power for myself, but I think the system itself, just looking at it objectively, would be better if we had a little more centralization than we presently have,” he said.
One problem has grown worse in recent years: More community colleges are facing accreditation troubles, and the blame isn’t all on budget cuts. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges has slapped three colleges with “show cause” sanctions, the last step before withdrawing their accreditation. Another 24 campuses face less severe sanctions. The Chancellor’s office is providing some assistance to San Francisco City College, which was cited for a number of financial and management problems. Scott puts some of the blame on the school for ignoring reality and not making difficult cuts like most other campuses did.
He places more of the blame on lawmakers, however, who seem to think that public education has an unlimited capacity for absorbing budget cuts. “You know, money is not the only solution, but there’s no way you’re going to have a great educational system by starvation and, frankly, some politicians have kind of said, ‘Well, money’s not the problem.’ Well, of course it’s part of the problem,” said Scott incredulously. “I’m always a voice for reform, but I’m also a voice to say, ‘Increase the amount of money.’”
In a few days, Jack Scott will hand off the promises and problems of the community college system without any regrets. At age 78, he chuckled, “Don’t you think I’m old enough to quit?” He does plan to relax a little with a his wife Lacreta, but later this month Scott starts a new venture as a scholar in residence at his alma mater, Claremont Graduate University, where he earned a doctorate in history. The former chancellor will lecture and help launch a certificate program for community college professionals in the School of Educational Studies. After 58 years in public service, retirement for Jack Scott is will be a gradual process of change, much like transforming the community college system.