Calbright selects advisor to California’s community college chancellor as interim chief

February 11, 2020

Ajita Talwalker Menon

Ajita Talwalker Menon, a former higher education policy advisor for President Obama and adviser to California’s community college chancellor, will be Calbright College’s interim president and chief executive officer, the college announced Tuesday.

Menon is replacing former president Heather Hiles who abruptly resigned in January. She will serve as the college’s chief executive until a permanent replacement is hired and will earn about $23,750 per month, according to the college. On a yearly basis, that’s a salary of about $285,000.

“I’m excited to temporarily lead the effort to help Californians improve their skills and find better jobs,” Menon said, in a statement. “I firmly believe in Calbright’s potential to tackle income inequality in California through new high-quality learning opportunities designed to fit the lives of working adults and respond to the talent challenge facing California employers.”

Calbright, the state’s first online-only community college, opened in October and has since enrolled more than 450 students.

Menon most recently served as a consultant through her firm, Enhancing Excellence in Higher Education, or Ex3, LLC, where she provided strategic consulting services in higher education and other areas. Since 2017, she has served as a special adviser to Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley to work on financial aid policies and federal advocacy. As Calbright’s interim president, she won’t continue advising the chancellor’s office. She has also served as a special assistant to President Obama for higher education policy. While at the White House she helped develop Obama’s free community college proposal known as America’s College Promise and other initiatives.

“As a nationally recognized expert on higher education and workforce training innovation, Ajita will evaluate the progress Calbright has made and bring new ideas to refine and improve our service to Californians,” said Tom Epstein, president of Calbright’s board of trustees. “She brings excellent management skills, public sector experience and a commitment to educational equity that will keep the college moving forward during this transition.”

Calbright offers three certificate programs in information technology, medical coding and cybersecurity, which are designed for students to work at their own pace and complete them in under a year. The college targets working adults who seek better-paying jobs.

Hiles, who remains on administrative leave through March 31, will continue to receive her regular salary and benefits until that time. She also will receive a lump sum payment of about $32,000 as part of her separation agreement.

Although it was Hiles’ decision to step down as Calbright president, her time at the college has been rocky since last year. Community college faculty groups have frequently criticized the college and Hiles for a lack of transparency and how much money the college and Hiles have received to develop programs they view as already existing within the other 114 community colleges. The free community college is getting $100 million in state funds over seven years for startup costs and about $20 million annually for operating costs.

The California Federation of Teachers, the union representing 30,000 community college employees, including faculty members, are planning to voice their frustrations with the new college Thursday during a state Senate Education Committee hearing on Calbright’s finances.

“We appreciate Ajita Talwalker Menon’s work to advance the profile of community colleges while serving in the Obama administration,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, which represents more than 9,000 members and advocates for community college faculty. “However, Calbright remains fatally flawed and no new leadership can fix the inherent deficiencies of the college. The over two million students in our existing community colleges can’t wait to give Calbright more time. Calbright has already been allocated $140 million and serves less than 500 students.”

Hawkins said the $140 million includes two years of operating costs it has received and the $100 million in startup funds allocated by the Legislature.

Hawkins said the money would be far more effective and reach more students if it were reinvested in the college’ current online programs.

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