California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office
Sonya Christian, center, was appointed the next chancellor of California's community college system in February.

Sonya Christian, the chancellor-select of California’s community colleges, already has had a significant influence on the system over the past decade — even though she won’t assume her new role for another month. And that experience could help her tackle the stubborn problems facing the 116-college system.

Christian, who will take over the system’s top job on June 1, is credited with making big strides in improving graduation and transfer rates at Bakersfield College, where she became president in 2013. She did it in part by launching the college’s Guided Pathways program, which overhauled student counseling and clarified which courses students need to graduate as quickly as possible and avoid taking unneeded classes.

She then helped apply that approach at community colleges across California, spearheading a statewide committee on Guided Pathways and helping to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in state investments for that effort.

Christian served as Bakersfield’s president until 2021, when she became chancellor of the Kern Community College District, which includes Bakersfield and two other colleges. She also helped overhaul the state’s community college accreditation process, an important issue for continued funding and national recognition.

Her track record at both a local and state level is why her supporters say she is qualified to become the next systemwide chancellor, the position to which the system’s board appointed her in February. Christian faces big challenges as the system grapples with enrollment drops during the pandemic and lags behind lofty goals set by predecessor Eloy Ortiz Oakley to substantially increase transfer rates and eliminate achievement gaps among Black and Latino students in comparison to their white peers.

“Sonya knows how to move a large system forward and knows where to go and who to lean on to make things happen,” said Geoffrey Baum, the former president of the community college system’s board of governors who is now the executive director of Michelson Philanthropies.

Complicating the job is the diverse nature of California and its 73 community college districts, with 115 campuses and the online-only Calbright College. Those range from the largest community college district in the country — the Los Angeles Community College District with about 200,000 students — to the rural College of the Siskiyous, the system’s northernmost college near Oregon that enrolled just 1,329 students last fall.

Adding to the challenge, the chancellor of the system has less direct power than the top leaders at the University of California and California State University systems. Unlike CSU and UC campuses, community college districts are governed by locally elected boards, giving the colleges some autonomy. In another layer, the statewide board of governors also sets some broad policies.

Faculty and administrators across the colleges say they hope for an improved relationship with the chancellor’s office under Christian. Faculty leaders say they are tired of how many initiatives were implemented in recent years, such as remedial education reforms and a new funding formula. In many cases, they agree with the intent of the plans but say there should be more deference to and advice from local colleges on making them work.

“If you really want transformational change, you have to get people on board to want to do the work,” said Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, an advocacy group for full- and part-time faculty in the system

Sonya Christian

Christian was born in India, where she earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Kerala. She received a master’s from the University of Southern California and a doctorate from UCLA. Christian joined California’s community college system in 1991, as a mathematics professor at Bakersfield, where she would eventually become the dean of math, engineering, science and allied health. She left in 2003 for a vice president position at Lane Community College in Oregon and then returned to Bakersfield in 2013 as the college’s president.

EdSource made multiple requests to interview Christian for this story, but officials with the chancellor’s office said she was not available.

When she accepted the job, she said her priorities will include continuing to advance the system’s Vision for Success initiative with goals of improving transfer rates and closing equity gaps while helping students she described as being traditionally left behind.

She said she hopes to “expand the canopy of community college learners to accelerate the socioeconomic mobility for our most marginalized communities through partnerships that reach working adults, disconnected youth and others who are left behind.”

As chancellor, Christian will earn a base salary of $411,252. The contract is for four years and that base salary will increase by $15,000 in the second year, $20,000 in the third and $25,000 in the final year.

Creating pathways

Soon after her return to Bakersfield, Christian launched the implementation of Guided Pathways.

The goal was to get away from the “cafeteria-style” model of college with students seeing too many courses and major options and little direction, said Janet Fulks, the former dean of student success at Bakersfield College. That often resulted in incoherent course patterns without enough progress for a degree or credential, she said.

In Guided Pathways, entire programs and the specific courses required are mapped out for students when they first enroll. Students are monitored closely by counselors to make sure they’re staying on track.

Under Christian’s leadership, Bakersfield developed 10 separate learning and career pathways, including business, industrial technology, personal and career exploration. The purpose is to give students a better idea of their options and to group degree and certificate programs around specific interest areas. There are even different counselors assigned to each pathway.

“In the past, counselors had to know everything about every degree and program. And you just can’t keep up with it all,” Fulks said. “So we asked the counselors to become specialists in areas and to take on a group of students that they would mentor.”

Bakersfield during Christian’s tenure also launched its Early College program or what is essentially “dual enrollment on steroids,” according to Romeo Agbalog, president of the Kern district’s board of trustees.

Bakersfield partners with local high schools and allows students to take courses for college credit toward specific degrees or certificates. At McFarland High School just north of Bakersfield, students can take classes toward one of several pathways, including photography, business or public health. By the time they graduate from high school, they’ve usually completed 12 or more units.

“A lot of colleges offer dual enrollment courses, but they don’t always lead to specific things. Our model is leading them to a guaranteed outcome,” Agbalog said.

The implementation of Guided Pathways at Bakersfield has also coincided with increases in student success rates. In 2022, the college awarded 5,065 associate degrees, up from 971 in 2015.

Enrollment at Bakersfield has also held steady. While statewide enrollment at community colleges is down about 18% since the onset of the pandemic, enrollment at Bakersfield is about 3% higher now than it was pre-pandemic.

The college’s success has helped put Guided Pathways and dual enrollment on the map, said Olga Rodriguez, the director of the higher education center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“With Sonya’s vision and her ability for forwarding thinking, I’m excited to see the direction she takes things,” Rodriguez added.

Statewide influence

In 2016, Christian approached the state chancellor’s office and encouraged the expansion of the pathways model across the state, according to Fulks.

Christian that year became chair of a statewide committee on pathways and went across the state to promote it, presenting to the systemwide board of governors and the academic senate. She also testified to lawmakers in 2017, advocating for $150 million to implement the model across the state.

A meeting of California’s advisory committee on Guided Pathways in October 2017. Christian, bottom row, left, chaired the committee and helped to expand pathways across the state. Credit: Bakersfield College

Lawmakers agreed to give the colleges that funding, which also was seen as essential to the Vision for Success.

“You cannot look at the Vision for Success without recognizing that Guided Pathways is the heartbeat of the Vision for Success,” said Jessie Ryan, executive vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a group that advocates for better college access. Christian is the vice chair of the group’s board of directors, a position that requires approval from the state board of governors if she wants to keep it.

According to Fulks, all colleges across the state have now pledged to implement pathways.

Christian’s statewide influence isn’t limited to Guided Pathways. In 2015, she became a commissioner for the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the accreditation body for the state’s community colleges. The commission is a nonprofit organization based in Sacramento and also accredits some colleges in Hawaii, Nevada and U.S. territories in the Pacific.

Around that time, the system’s board of governors felt the commission had become overly punitive. There was a point when more than half the system’s colleges had faced some type of sanction, according to Baum, who became chair of the system’s board in 2014. The federal Department of Education in 2013 even warned the commission that it could lose its authority to accredit colleges unless it improved its processes.

“The process had gotten a little bit off track to where it became more of a punitive process than a process of developing and improving,” Baum said.

In March 2016, the college system’s board formally called for changes to the commission, including new leadership and better collaboration with the colleges. The board then launched a work group to recommend changes. Christian served as a liaison between that committee and the commission.

The subsequent changes included reducing the amount of time that colleges spend on their institutional self-evaluation reports and giving them clearer guidelines to provide necessary information showing they’re meeting accreditation standards.

“She stepped into a very thorny situation and helped restore the system’s confidence in the process,” Baum said.

Christian will soon have an even thornier situation on her hands: taking over the country’s largest college system and its many distinct colleges. She should work collaboratively with local districts and avoid giving them too many mandates, said Larry Galizio, president of the Community College League of California, which represents the state’s community college presidents and local trustees.

“Hold us accountable, but don’t tell us exactly how to go about doing it. It’s different in San Diego than it is in Yuba, than it is in Palo Verde or Lake Tahoe,” he said.

Leading the system’s many colleges isn’t an easy task, but with her years of experience in the system, Christian is prepared for it, Baum said.

“To be successful in this position, you’re going to have to have somebody who understands the community college system in California and who has the trust and the cooperation of a very diverse and Balkanized system of 73 districts and 116 colleges,” Baum said. “Sonya is someone who has the experience and the trust of the system.”

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  1. Robert L Crawford 1 month ago1 month ago

    All the best to you Dr. Christian . As a community college math professor, I’m happy to see someone with a STEM background in a leadership position for our colleges. I hope that we can recoup lost students, offer more bachelor’s degrees, especially in majors that are impacted at the university level, and help more students find success at the college level and beyond. Again, all the best to you and Godspeed.

  2. Jim 1 month ago1 month ago

    I’ve taken community college classes for my own edification. I can see the gap between people who are just taking random classes for personal development and those that are on a degree path. She sounds like a great candidate from the article.