Sonya Christian, the chancellor of the Kern Community College District, has been selected as the next chancellor of California’s system of 116 community colleges.
Christian will be the first woman and first person of South Asian descent to lead what is the nation’s largest system of higher education, serving 1.8 million students.
When she starts in the role on June 1, she will take over a college system that suffered dramatic enrollment declines during the pandemic, losing about 300,000 students. In addition to working to recover those enrollments, she’ll also be tasked with helping the colleges meet ambitious goals set by Gov. Gavin Newsom to increase the number of students who earn degrees, certificates and credentials and who transfer to the state’s four-year universities.
Calling it a “uniquely challenging time for public education, primarily for community colleges,” Christian said during public remarks Thursday that she has a “sense of urgency and moral obligation” as she enters the role of chancellor.
“Faced with these great challenges and more, my sense of urgency is also one of eager anticipation because I believe our greatest challenges enable us to do our greatest work, triggering our creativity and letting our collective brilliance shine,” Christian added. “The time is now that we are called to design the most vibrant, resilient and effective learning environment ever. And we are called to do this work with equity at scale, not eventually, but right now.”
Christian has served as Kern’s chancellor since July 2021. Before that, she was president of Bakersfield College, the largest of the Kern district’s three colleges. She got her start in the California Community Colleges in 1991, when she joined Bakersfield’s mathematics faculty.
She later became the college’s dean of science, engineering, allied health and mathematics before leaving for Lane Community College in Oregon, where she was a vice president. She returned to Bakersfield in 2013 to be the college’s president.
As chancellor of the community college system, Christian will earn a base salary of $411,252. Her contract is for four years, and the board voted Thursday to formally approve it.
Christian was selected following a nationwide search that resulted in four finalists. The college system’s board of governors interviewed those finalists on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27.
Christian’s selection as chancellor satisfies the hope of many of the system’s stakeholders who wanted the next chancellor to be someone with experience leading one of the state’s 73 local districts. With about 36,000 students, Kern enrolled the sixth most students of those districts last fall.
The seven-month search for a new chancellor was spurred by the departure of Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who stepped down as the system’s chancellor last year and now heads the College Futures Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping more of California’s underrepresented students earn college degrees.
In some ways, Christian may serve as a continuation of Oakley’s regime. She said Thursday that she plans to continue implementing his signature initiative, the Vision for Success, which lays out specific goals for closing equity gaps in student achievement and increasing student completion and transfer rates.
“Make no mistake, this board remains committed to the Vision for Success,” Amy Costa, president of the board, said Thursday. “That is evidenced by our choice in Dr. Christian.”
Christian is already recognized as one of the leaders of the state’s guided pathways movement, one of the key elements of the Vision for Success. The guided pathways model is meant to help students map out the specific course sequences they need to complete degree programs. As president at Bakersfield, Christian implemented a guided pathways initiative in 2014. Since then, the number of students completing community college or transferring has increased by 63%, according to state data.
Christian added that in addition to implementing the Vision for Success, she plans to “expand the canopy of community college learners” by “focusing on communities that have remained in generational poverty” and accelerating their socio-economic mobility. She said the colleges will lead the way in preparing workers for jobs in health care, climate action, education and early education.
If her time in the Kern district is any indication, Christian could also be the right person to help the college system recover its enrollment, which appears to finally have leveled off but still remains far below pre-pandemic levels.
During Christian’s tenure as Kern’s chancellor, the district has fared much better than most with its enrollment. Although enrollment across the state is down by 18% since before the pandemic, enrollment in fall 2022 at Kern had recovered to pre-pandemic levels and was up 9.5% compared with fall 2021. At Bakersfield College, enrollment is actually slightly higher now than it was before the pandemic.
Michele Siqueiros, president of the college access group Campaign for College Opportunity, said in an interview Thursday that she doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that enrollment at Bakersfield has held steady.
Siqueiros pointed to Christian’s work around guided pathways as well as her advocacy for remedial education reforms. Christian was an early supporter of Assembly Bill 705, the landmark 2017 legislation that made it much more difficult for colleges to place students in remedial math and English classes and instead encouraged colleges to enroll students directly in classes that can be used for transfer to California State University and the University of California. As of fall 2022, Bakersfield wasn’t planning to enroll any students in pre-transfer level math or English courses.
“When you have strong pathways, when you have strong supports, when students know they’re not going to waste time in remedial courses that don’t count for anything, you become very attractive,” Siqueiros said.
Christian has served on the Campaign’s board of directors since 2017.
The selection of Christian as chancellor was also praised by Newsom, who said in a statement Thursday that she is among the nation’s “most dynamic college leaders” with a “demonstrated record of collaboration and results” at Kern.
“She understands what is needed to deliver on record levels of higher education investment to make real improvements to the lived reality of our students. I look forward to continuing to partner with Dr. Christian to ensure our community colleges are engines of equity and opportunity,” Newsom added.
Newsom has high expectations of the community college system that Christian will now be tasked with fulfilling.
Last year, the governor unveiled a five-year road map between his administration and the community college system, outlining his expectations for the system. The goals closely mirror the goals included in the Vision for Success. They include increasing the number of students who earn degrees and certificates for in-demand careers by 20% by 2026 and increasing the number of students who transfer to CSU and UC by as much as 35%.
Newsom’s road map also calls on the colleges to raise graduation rates for underrepresented and low-income students to match the system’s average graduation rate by 2026.
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