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California Community Colleges chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley will take a temporary position as a special adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, according to an announcement from system leaders Monday.
Oakley will begin his role at the Biden administration on July 26 and will return as chancellor in late fall. Deputy Chancellor Daisy Gonzales will serve as acting chancellor in his absence.
Pamela Haynes, president of the system’s Board of Governors, called the move a “win for California and the nation.”
“Answering this call to service is a recognition of work our system is leading,” she said in the announcement.
Oakley became chancellor of the California Community Colleges, which enroll 2.1 million students across 116 campuses, in 2016. He also serves on the University of California system Board of Regents and was previously superintendent and president of Long Beach City College.
He said he plans to help push forward President Biden's "very aggressive and comprehensive agenda" for higher education policy, including the administration's efforts to make two years of community college tuition-free nationwide, increase the federal Pell Grant, put funding toward increasing student persistence and graduation rates, and support colleges and universities that serve low-income students, students of color and first-generation students.
"What I'd like to do is speak to individuals in all 50 states … and really put a focus on how these proposals together address the challenges that most working-class Americans face particularly in this post-pandemic economy," he said in an interview. "That's going to be my priority, speaking to everyday Americans on why this is important, why this is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is a middle-America issue. This is a working-class American issue. That's my hope and that's the message I will be focused on."
The California Community Colleges system, like many community colleges across the country, experienced staggering enrollment declines during the pandemic. Enrollment fell 12 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020, a loss of 186,688 students.
"This past year has certainly been a challenge, and I think that is why it is important to put a focus on the recovery for the kinds of communities that California community colleges serve and community colleges across the country serve," Oakley said. "It is a sensitive time in California and throughout the nation. And I think this is a critical time also to make sure the president's agenda gets passed and implemented as soon as possible to help more Americans recover from the pandemic."
He said the state community college system will have a smooth transition of leadership during his temporary leave and will not "skip a beat" with Gonzales at the helm.
Higher education leaders celebrated Oakley’s selection for the role.
Michele Siqueiros, president of the California-based Campaign for College Opportunity, said in a statement that Oakley has had an "indelible impact on our community colleges through his support for student success and dedication to eliminating racial equity gaps." She was also enthusiastic about Gonzales serving as acting chancellor, the first Latina to hold the position in the California Community Colleges system.
“Her appointment as acting chancellor of the nation’s largest community college system is monumental for students and good for California,” Siqueiros said in a statement. “She is a tireless advocate for improving student outcomes and closing racial inequities that persist in higher education.”
Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, said he was initially surprised by Oakley’s decision to join Biden’s team, because Oakley is such a “fixture” in the California Community Colleges system. Nonetheless, he was “extraordinarily pleased.”
“Eloy is such a passionate person about student success and completion,” Bumphus said. “And he has the ability to work very well with others. He has such intellect and experience. He’s a natural leader. People tend to want to follow him.”
Bumphus also said that Oakley has had a consistent focus on the needs of low-income students, which seems well aligned with the higher education priorities of the Biden administration.
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said Oakley's selection is another sign that Biden is committed to community colleges and their mission.
"The Biden administration has since the beginning signaled its support for community colleges and has signaled its understanding of the importance of community colleges, and I think Eloy's appointment reinforces that," he said.
Mitchell added that he was "phenomenally excited," both for Oakley and for Cardona, to hear the news.
“They have with one appointment really brought into the department someone who is both a visionary and a really keen-eyed implementer,” he said. “I think Eloy will help immediately as the department and the secretary work to put the finishing touches on the Biden education plan.”
Mitchell described Oakley as “an important leader in understanding, building and promoting community college” but also someone able to build partnerships between two-year and four-year institutions as a member of the University of California Board of Regents.
“In the higher education world, it’s often divided into silos between community colleges and state colleges and independent institutions,” he said. “Eloy has sort of personally broken down those silos and those barriers. That kind of translation between the two-year system and the four-year system, he has had a remarkable impact.”
As an example of Oakley's leadership in bridging the two sectors, he pointed out that Oakley established the Long Beach Promise program, which gives students one year of free tuition at Long Beach City College and preferred admission status to California State University after they transfer.
Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, an association for community college leaders in the state, said Oakley’s time at the helm of the system will leave him well equipped to handle higher education policy at a federal level, given his work with state legislators and the diversity of California’s students and community colleges. He pointed out that the system encompasses both rural colleges and colleges in major cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“I think the incredible diversity of students that we have is representative of a lot of states and the community college mission,” he said.
For his part, Oakley said his time as chancellor in a state like California has given him valuable experience and prepared him for his new advisory role.
"California is a big and complicated state," he said. "We have urban communities, rural communities, communities of color, white middle-class communities. So, we have the spectrum of communities and backgrounds and needs in California that I think will help me understand the various challenges that people across the country face."
Mitchell said California can be a bellwether for the rest of the country in terms of economic and demographic shifts, as a "majority-minority state" and "a state in which economic inequality is growing rather than shrinking." He said Oakley comes to the position with "a little bit of knowledge" about what it means to lead amid those trends.
"We Californians often talk about California as the future of the country," he said. "Eloy has seen the future, and it is us."
Galizio believes Oakley will continue to be “absolutely committed to diversity, equity and inclusion” in the new role at the department. He highlighted the California Community Colleges system’s strategic plan for the chancellor’s office, as an example of Oakley's priorities, and said that “equity pervades the entire policy, budget and advocacy structure.” Goals outlined in the Vision for Success Plan include increasing degree attainment through guided pathways, increasing the student transfer rate to four-year institutions and working with state legislators to expand financial aid to cover students' nontuition expenses.
“He is a consistent voice for underserved students and communities, those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic,” Galizio said. “He’s changed the entire discussion at California Community Colleges and has elevated diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of issues of concern at California Community Colleges, and I imagine he’ll continue to do that at the federal level, too.”