Credit: CCC, CDE, CSU, UC
California Community Colleges' Eloy Ortiz Oakley (left), Tony Thurmond, state supt. of public instruction, CSU's Joseph I. Castro and UC's Michael Drake.

California is the most diverse state in the nation, so having a diverse leadership of its schools and colleges shouldn’t be that notable.

But it is. Even for California.

This January when Joseph Castro, a Mexican-American and native Californian, becomes chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system, for the first time, leaders of color will head up all four systems of public education in the state.

Credit: Courtesy of CSU Chancellor's Office

Incoming CSU President Joseph Castro

All will have an impact by being powerful role models for the millions of students, faculty and staff in the systems they lead.  A fundamental question, however, is whether the new leadership will translate into concrete changes that create more equitable institutions and contribute to improved education outcomes.

Leaders in the field think it is more likely that it will.

“Diversification of leadership is quite important and significant to meeting the goals of racial equity,” said Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. “Certainly others are capable of such leadership, but the ability to speak from your heart and authentically about this issue and to have a vision for a direction forward is much more likely to happen with leaders of color.”

In addition to Castro, Dr. Michael Drake, who is African American, became president of the nine-campus University of California system in August. Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who is Latino, is chancellor of the 116 colleges that make up the California community colleges.

Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond

Then there is State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who was elected in 2018 to oversee the state’s vast K-12 public education system. Of mixed African American and Panamanian background, he is only the second African American schools chief since the legendary Wilson Riles occupied the post for a dozen years until 1982. Out of 50 state schools chiefs, only one other is Black and a half dozen are Latinos or Latinas.

Together the four Californians — all of them men — oversee institutions with enrollments of nine million students, more than the enrollments in most countries.  Their student bodies are extraordinarily diverse, with white students comprising 26 percent or less of their enrollments, depending on the system (see graphic below).

If this new generation of leaders is able to improve the educational success of their students, they will have an outsize impact not only on California’s future, but on the nation as a whole. How they work together will also make a difference as the state attempts to create a more unified “cradle to career” system of education.

What’s also notable is that they are leading their institutions at a time of extraordinary activism and ferment around a range of issues related to racial equity. With that energy and momentum behind them, that could help them move forward on these issues within their institutions. It could also make running them more complicated.

One reality that all four systems of education face is the impact of the pandemic on their budgets, exacerbated by Congress’ inability so far to come up with any additional funds for education, which will trigger huge state funding reductions as well. That could place additional limits on launching any major initiatives on the race and ethnicity front.

Another constraining factor may be whether voters approve Proposition 16, the initiative on the November ballot intended to undo the 25-year-old ban on affirmative action in the state. The outcome of the election could make a difference in whether education leaders will have an additional tool to use in making headway on racial and ethnic inequities.

To varying degrees, the four leaders won’t be taking on entirely new issues on the race and ethnicity front. These include introducing policies for improved education outcomes for all students, but especially for Black and Latino students who may lag behind their peers, and equally importantly diversifying the teaching force and the professoriate which is still largely white.

They will also have to confront emerging controversies, such as the tougher issues regarding implicit bias and institutional or structural racism, and pressures to offer curricula and courses that more directly reflect the nation’s racial and ethnic history. They will face pressures to change the names of buildings, programs or schools named after historical figures with unacceptable racial views or pasts. Police violence, along with the question of the role of police on campuses themselves, is likely to be an ongoing focus of student activism, including on high school campuses.

“This is a tough period to be a leader of any of our educational institutions,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, the coordinating body for higher education in the United States. “I don’t envy the four leaders that we’re talking about today, and the tasks that are ahead.”

He acknowledged that there may be “heightened expectations” of the new leaders, perhaps precisely because they come from the communities who have been on the receiving end of racial injustices. “Some might be tempted to say, ‘Oh, they’ll fix it,’” said Mitchell, who is a former undersecretary of education and has deep roots in California as an education leader at both the K-12 and higher education.

But he cautioned that this is not a one-person job.

“This is going take all of us,” he said. “It always needed to take all of us, and we need to rally to their support to make sure that they are as successful as we need them to be.”

It’s also the case that many education leaders in California, including those who don’t come from diverse backgrounds have for decades attempted, to varying degrees, to address the reverberations of racial and ethnic inequality in their institutions.

Two years ago, for example, UC president Janet Napolitano launched an expanded initiative on faculty diversity, pledging $7 million to the task. That was only the latest of multiple efforts going back many years. Those efforts have put UC ahead of the 65 other comparable institutions represented by the American Association of Universities. But much remains to be done.   Only 10% of UC’s tenured or tenure track faculty were Black, Latino or Native American in the fall of 2017, compared to 8% at public AAU universities and 7% at private ones, according to a recent UC report.

At CSU, Chancellor Tim White launched the Graduation Initiative 2025, whose goal is to radically boost graduation rates. If successful, Black, Latino and Native-American students would be major beneficiaries because their graduation rates continue to lag white and Asian students. Earlier this year in an op-article White pledged to take “deeper, systemic action to promote social justice in its full breadth and to re-evaluate the structures that constrain us from becoming the full embodiment of our core values.”

Yet the power of the lived experiences of leaders of color can’t be underestimated, says the ACE’s Mitchell.

“What diverse leadership brings is critically a diversity of experience,” he said. “These new leaders have grown up in a system that was stacked against them, and so they know what it takes to succeed and thrive in those institutions. And they will bring that experience to bear when they are thinking about faculty recruitment, about the recruitment of presidents and chancellors on their campuses, about high stakes testing in the K-12 schools. It’s those experiences that we count to help us really make diversity, equity and inclusion work.”

And it is those experiences that will help the leaders of California’s public education systems to respond to hurtful and at times fatal consequences of racism that the Black Lives Matter movement and the activism it has inspired and forced the nation to confront. In one of his first interviews after being appointed president of UC, Dr. Drake, a physician who received his medical degree from UCSF, talked about having been pulled over by police multiple times — even while driving from LAX to his home in Los Angeles. “I am acutely and have been personally aware of the harsh and disrespectful policing that people of color face. I’ve faced it. My sons have faced it. It’s been a part of American life for all too long, and it’s something that needs to stop,” he recounted.

At the same time, a major challenge for all four leaders is that the systems they head are, to varying degrees, decentralized. How much they are able to accomplish will depend to some extent on how much they are able to bring the institutions that make up each system along with them and their powers of persuasion.

That is especially the case in the K-12 system, fragmented in the form of nearly 1000 school districts, varying tremendously in size and diversity, and run by locally elected boards over which the state has very little control. It is also a challenge in the community college system, with 116 colleges, each of which also has its own elected board of trustees.

So what can Californians expect? At CSU, Castro has yet to take office, and Dr. Drake at UC has been in office less than three months, so it is too soon to know the extent to which they will make racial equity a focus of their work.

Photo: Ohio State University

UC President Michael Drake

But Thurmond and Oakley have been in office longer, and provide examples of how their backgrounds are informing what they do.

Even before being elected in Nov. 2018, Thurmond talked powerfully on the campaign trail about being raised by a single mother who died when he was six and being raised by relatives in Philadelphia before returning to California. On taking office, he made making California’s teaching force more diverse one of his top priorities, with a goal of increasing the number of male teachers of color. Black male teachers now make up a paltry 1% of California’s teaching force.

Early in his tenure, he launched a “Closing the Achievement Gap” initiative and established a task force to promote it. After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, he established an “Implicit Bias Training Initiative.” “I believe we need more than talk and platitudes in this country,” he said at the time. “We must not let this moment go unnoticed.”

Just this month, he launched an “Education to End Hate” initiative that, among other things, will award mini-grants of up to $20,000 for professional development for teachers in “anti-racism and bias.” “By equipping our school communities with the tools to teach and promote tolerance, we can use education as the powerful path forward to healing our society so desperately needs,” Thurmond said in announcing the initiative.

At the community colleges this summer, Oakley issued a “Call To Action” to “actively strategize and to take action against structural racism.” The six-part agenda calls for campuses to “audit classroom climate” and to “create an action plan to create inclusive classrooms and anti-racism curriculum.”

California Community Colleges

Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley

He also wants to accelerate implementing the system’s five-year diversity, equity and inclusion plan, and to review police training programs run by the community colleges to ensure that they include training on implicit bias and “deescalation training” with cultural sensitivity.

Oakley has also responded in personal terms to the racial justice issues that have come up in recent months, including the killing of George Floyd. “I’m angry with you, I hurt for you, I stand with you,” he said in a statement to black students, faculty and administrators. “I want you to know that I will do everything I can to support you. And to everyone in our colleges, let’s go out and do what we do best, engage with our communities, and do what we have always done, and help them heal.”

The pandemic will surely make it more difficult for California’s education leaders to achieve their goals. But in one regard they may be fortunate. Most students are off campus because of the pandemic. Thus, they will be spared, for now at least, having to cope with a wave of campus protests and conflict centered on complex and often deeply emotional racial justice issues.

But in practical terms that will do little to offset the multi-layered set of challenges they face. “This is really a perfect storm,” said the ACE’s Mitchell. “We have an economic downturn that’s impacting low-income families at the precise moment when state support for higher education is under threat. At the same time, we’re striving for racial justice. At the same time, we’re trying to keep ourselves and our communities safe. That’s a lot.”

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  1. Christian James Beaver 2 years ago2 years ago

    To Eloy Ortiz Oakley, I am proud of my CCC, and I join efforts with your commitment to provide greater opportunity for all students to be able to achieve the goal of graduating from community college and transferring to a four-year university. Once again, thank you.

  2. Kristen Prestridge 3 years ago3 years ago

    Yes, but they’re all men in a field dominated by women.

  3. Dr. Bill Conrad 3 years ago3 years ago

    Here’s a small challenge for our superintendents of color in California. Will they commit to prioritizing children of color to be the first to be allowed to return to classrooms in California? This would be a small but significant test to see how committed our leaders of color are to real equity in education systems in California. Black and Brown student families have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to a variety of structurally racist … Read More

    Here’s a small challenge for our superintendents of color in California.

    Will they commit to prioritizing children of color to be the first to be allowed to return to classrooms in California? This would be a small but significant test to see how committed our leaders of color are to real equity in education systems in California.

    Black and Brown student families have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to a variety of structurally racist phenomena like no access to computers or broadband. These students deserve the first opportunity for face to face learning. No?

    Devon Horton, a Black superintendent in Evanston, Illinois, took this courageous step recently and is now facing withering white parent blowback.

    In addition to designing ethnic studies curriculum for all students, maybe these superintendents should also focus on some of the adult-generated racism endemic within the education system by taking the following sample actions:
    • Hold Local school district accountable for chicanery in not allocating state funds intended for student of colors in their LCFFs and re-integrating these funds into their general budgets at the end of the year.
    • Transform state budgets drastically to make sure that students of color get adequate technology and broadband to participate in now mandatory online teaching and learning.
    • Mandate an end to police in schools of color.
    • Mandate and end to the malpractice of suspensions.
    • Advocate for an equalization of budgets with state money to balance inequitable funding from local property taxes in California
    • Advocate for the full transformation of the woeful colleges of education so that they can recruit the finest candidates and teach them well.
    • Advocate for strong career ladders for teachers who enter the profession from interns to residents to apprentices to Master teachers and then allocating most Master teachers to the schools of color in order to truly reduce achievement gaps.

    It is not the color of the superintendents that makes a difference. It is their actions on behalf of students and their families of color.

    Let’s hope that the children and families of color catalyze the necessary changes to end racism within our educational systems and that the superintendents get the message and act appropriately.

  4. Terri Soares 3 years ago3 years ago

    Ditto they are all men…where is the diversity in that.

  5. Greg 3 years ago3 years ago

    Pretty sure we aren’t working with the standard definition of “diverse” in this article. There is no evidence presented of a diversity of opinion or ideology.

  6. Kathy 3 years ago3 years ago

    Yet the glass ceiling is still ever-existent and strong…

  7. Matt 3 years ago3 years ago

    All men, all non-white, no Asian representation. Um, that’s not exactly “diverse.”

  8. W. Martinez 3 years ago3 years ago

    And they’re all men…


    • Amanda Roth 3 years ago3 years ago

      I came here to say the same thing!

    • Laurie Shipley 3 years ago3 years ago

      Thank you!

  9. jon debroie 3 years ago3 years ago

    Who are the peers that Black and Latino students are behind? It seems like in all the but the UC system, Black + Latino students make up close to or more than 1/2 of the students (CSU 47%, CC > 50%, K-12 > 50%), so what does it mean to say Black and Latino students lag behind their peers? Who sets the standard? Couldn't we just as easily say that white and Asian … Read More

    Who are the peers that Black and Latino students are behind? It seems like in all the but the UC system, Black + Latino students make up close to or more than 1/2 of the students (CSU 47%, CC > 50%, K-12 > 50%), so what does it mean to say Black and Latino students lag behind their peers? Who sets the standard? Couldn’t we just as easily say that white and Asian students are ahead of their peers?