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California's New Community College Chief

May 12, 2008

The California Community College system selected its leader last week: State Senator Jack Scott, a two-time community college president (at Pasadena City and Cypress Colleges) and lawmaker since 1997. In recent years, Scott, who chairs the Senate Committee on Education as well as the subcommittee in charge of the education budget, has been behind successful legislation to update and equalize the community college financing structure, create additional nursing school slots, and ease the transfer process.

"I feel like my past has prepared me for this, and so I am anxious to get involved and make the contribution that I can make," Senator Scott said.

Senator Scott takes over as system chancellor January 1 after completing his term in Sacramento. He comes to a 109-college system facing challenges on multiple fronts. Funding-wise, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently estimated that the state's budget deficit has climbed to $20 billion, as the San Jose Mercury News reports, and the governor has proposed $525 million in community college cuts. A ballot initiative that would have committed a certain proportion of the education budget to community colleges, ensuring a more certain stream of revenue, recently failed amid opposition from the university and K-12 systems and backlash to the state's tradition of ballot-box budgeting.

While the California Community College system is widely praised for its low barriers to entry (quantified in its $20-per-credit tuition rates), it has also been under pressure to increase degree completion and transfer rates to four-year institutions.

In addition, the Accrediting Commission of Western Association of Schools and Colleges -- for which Scott once served as chair -- placed nine of the California community colleges on warning or probation at its January meeting. Six others were continued on either status.

Senator Scott, a Democrat who holds a Ph.D. in American history from Claremont Graduate University, took time for a phone interview with Inside Higher Ed Friday. Below are selections from the conversation.

Q. Broadly speaking, what's on your agenda?

A. One thing obviously is to increase the funding. Community colleges in California aren’t very well funded in the sense that there are 2.6 million students that in a year’s time attend a community college, so you can see the gigantic task that’s there....

I would like us to work not only on access, but success for students, to see if they’re able to achieve their goals, whether that happens to be transferring to a university or whatever they hope.

Q. On funding, voters recently rejected a proposal on community college budgets. What do you see as the solution for increasing funding?

A. I hope that the revenues for the state improve. Like many states we’re in a downturn right now. And then, secondly, we need to be effective in getting the message out to the people in California and to the legislators to make sure that they understand just how important the work of the community colleges is and just how effective it is in responding to the needs of communities.

Q. You mention the revenue forecast in California. California’s $20 billion shortfall could certainly complicate any ambitious plans one might have as chancellor. You're in a unique position here because you're chair of the subcommittee that sets the education budget. What can community colleges expect in terms of cuts this year?

A. Right now the governors’ budget has cut community colleges. There will be no COLA, that is, cost of living [adjustment] increase. One of the things that’s being discussed at the current time is whether in California we should raise revenues as well as make cuts. Personally I would like to see that happen...

I think it would be kind of devastating to education in general to see the kinds of cuts that would be demanded without any increase in revenue.

Q. You're still a legislator for another six months until you take over the system. I'm curious: Does your new position as chancellor starting next January affect your priorities as lawmaker? And to ask the multi-million dollar question, your priorities as someone who's involved in the budget-writing process? How do you plan to address any actual or perceived conflicts of interest?

A: I would not vote on anything that directly affected the chancellor’s office, but I’ve been a fighter for increased funding for all segments of higher education and education in general, K-12 as well. And I won’t change in that regard....

I wouldn’t want anybody to think that simply because of my future I’ll simply change my emphasis in any way. I’ll simply be somebody who fights strongly for education, but it won’t be only for the community colleges.

Q: I'm intrigued that you formerly chaired WASC. In January, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges placed nine California community colleges on warning or probation....

Are there any academic or financial problems that you see that are somewhat systemic, that need to be confronted?

A: I haven’t read those reports. I served on the commission of course frankly in a past time. The last time I was on the commission as I recall was probably in the early 90s, so it’s been 15 years since I’ve been directly connected with the accrediting commissions.

One of the problems that California community colleges frankly have is a lack of funding. There needs to be increased funding and that does mean that those community colleges, if they’re in economic trouble, perhaps they need to be managed more effectively, vis-a-vis the budget. If it’s academic trouble they have, that may be that there has been a movement nationwide to more outcomes-based accreditation....

I frankly haven’t read those reports. I’ve been immersed in legislative actions ever since January when we went into session. I chair two important committees and frankly I deal with a huge number of issues that aren’t related to community colleges, so I don’t know the individual situations within the certain community colleges.

Q: When I asked you about your priorities earlier, you mentioned funding.... I realize this isn't what you've been as immersed in in the legislature, but academically speaking, is there any particular priority you have?

I would like for us to give a lot of emphasis to making sure that people succeed. I think in California we have sort of led the nation in terms of access. The cost is not expensive; we just received a huge $70 million gift from a foundation, the largest gift in the history of community colleges, to help students with textbooks and things of that nature. I think we’re remarkably far along in terms of access....

What I suggest is also placing a lot of emphasis on success, making sure that our programs are there to serve students so that whatever their goals might be....we have the support systems in place.

Q: California community colleges enjoy a lot of local control, strong local boards, sometimes to the detriment, as some have argued, to system-wide coordination. How do you envision the relationship between local and state control evolving in your tenure as chancellor?

One of the strengths of California community colleges is that they are local, that they do respond to the needs of the community and that there is a certain autonomy. Naturally when there needs to be coordination, sometimes it is not always easy to do that but I think we can work toward that....

I think you can maintain a certain coordination at the system level and still have a great deal of local autonomy. I think that’s one of the geniuses of the community colleges.

 

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