Key decisions await next California Community Colleges chancellor as search winds down

January 26, 2023

Foothill College in Los Altos Hills is in the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in Santa Clara County.

California’s system of 116 community colleges is closing in on the hiring of its new chancellor.

Whoever takes the helm will immediately need to contend with declining enrollments, racial disparities in student outcomes and an uncertain fiscal future. And in a system of districts run locally by publicly elected boards, the chancellor has limited powers.

The college system’s board of governors on Thursday began interviewing finalists for the position, which opened when Eloy Ortiz Oakley resigned last year to head a foundation. The interviews, happening in closed session, are scheduled to conclude Friday.

The chancellor will join at a pivotal moment for the system. Enrollment across the system is down by about 18% since before the pandemic, with many adults choosing to work rather than attend college. To deal with that, a main priority of the next chancellor should be to find new strategies for promoting the colleges and convincing prospective students of the benefits and value of attending a community college, experts said.

The system is also lagging behind many of its own goals for improving student outcomes, such as greatly increasing the number of students who transfer to four-year universities and closing achievement gaps between Black and Latino students and their white peers.

At the same time, the state is facing a projected $22.5 billion deficit. And although Gov. Gavin Newsom’s January budget proposal didn’t include cuts for the community colleges, it may be especially challenging for the next chancellor to secure new investments from the state this year.

“This moment in time is unique. We’re starting to emerge from a pandemic, but clearly the world has changed. The world of higher ed has changed,” said Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, an associate dean at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. “We need a strong voice that will help remind state leaders and policymakers and people across higher education in California what the community colleges are and what they do. They’re the veins of America at this moment. If you think of any challenge, community colleges can help.”

Several community college stakeholders and experts said they hope the next chancellor is someone who has experience at a California community college and thus understands the complexities of the system.

The nature of the state chancellor’s role is much different than the top roles of California’s other higher education segments, the University of California and California State University. Unlike those systems, which have centralized boards that are in charge of all of their campuses, the state’s community colleges are divided into 73 districts governed by locally elected boards.

“The districts have a lot of autonomy,” said Susanna Cooper, executive director of Wheelhouse, a community college research center at UC Davis. “It’s a challenge to be a really effective chancellor in that setup.”

How much the statewide chancellor should try to dictate to the local districts is up for debate. The previous chancellor, Oakley, implemented and advocated for a number of statewide changes impacting the colleges.

He pushed for major changes to how the colleges are funded, and a new formula that gives more dollars to colleges with higher student success rates was enacted in 2018. He endorsed AB 705, a 2017 law that made it much more difficult for colleges to enroll students in remedial math and English courses. And his signature initiative was the Vision for Success, a plan that laid out specific goals for increasing student transfer and completion rates and closing equity gaps.

In Cooper’s view, Oakley was a particularly successful chancellor because he used his platform to set “ambitious goals” for the colleges, which she said “organized and galvanized” the system.

Several of the Vision for Success goals have not been fulfilled, but the system has made some progress. There are now more students transferring and earning degrees than there were five years ago. But the system is still far off some of its specific targets: Oakley wanted to increase transfers to UC and CSU by 35% over a five-year period, but only upped them by 15%. At the same time, significant achievement gaps remain for Black and Latino students despite his goal to reduce them by 40% within five years and eliminate them within 10.

The next chancellor will need to decide whether to move forward with initiatives like the Vision for Success or set new priorities. The board’s preference appears to be that the new chancellor serves as a continuation of Oakley’s regime.

“We’ve done a lot of work in these last five to six years, and we don’t want to lose that,” said Pamela Haynes, a member of the board who served as the board’s president last year, at a meeting last fall of the search committee for the next chancellor. “We really do need to be thinking how can the next chancellor help us move forward.”

But to some, Oakley’s approach was too heavy-handed. Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said that while he appreciated Oakley’s ambitious goals, he felt his administration was “a bit too prescriptive and hands-on” and that the Vision for Success in particular lacked faculty input and may have been overly ambitious.

Hawkins added that he hopes the next administration puts more trust in local districts and their faculty.

“The previous administration came in and said there were so many things wrong with our community colleges,” Hawkins said. “I can certainly appreciate wanting to be bold because we all know we need to do better for our students. But now here we are nearly five years later and we aren’t anywhere close on a lot of the goals, especially on equity gaps. So it’s a bit demoralizing.”

Larry Galizio, president of the Community College League of California, which represents community college presidents and trustees across the state, agreed that the next chancellor should prioritize working directly with local district leaders and faculty. He noted that the state’s education code specifically dictates that the board of governors is supposed to maintain and continue “local authority and control in the administration of the California Community Colleges.”

Galizio didn’t criticize any specific policies of Oakley or other past chancellors but said it’s problematic when statewide chancellors are “overly prescriptive” and try to implement “one-size-fits-all” policies. “That does not help and just creates more problems,” he said.

But one area where all stakeholders and experts agree is that the next chancellor needs to do more to promote and market the community colleges.

Rios-Aguilar said there are “so many misconceptions, so much stigma” around community colleges and that the public discussion about the colleges often centers around where they are failing and struggling. She said there’s no doubt that the system needs to do better in helping students persist and complete college, but she added that the system could benefit from a public marketing campaign.

Hawkins also suggested a marketing campaign and said the strategies employed by for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix, which has had several national advertising campaigns, could be good models for the community college system.

“One thing those colleges are definitely successful with is their marketing,” Hawkins said. “I’d like to see a chancellor try to play to our strengths and reinvent our brand and try to do something different.”

Changing the public narratives around California’s community colleges could go a long way, Rios-Aguilar said, in helping solve the system’s enrollment challenges.

“I think we need to make clear about what the value proposition is for every Californian about going to college and starting in a community college,” she said. “We need to remind families, adults and people who are thinking about college or a different career that there’s a spot for them, a place for them in a community college.”

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