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California Community Colleges chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley is stepping down to take on a new role as head of the College Futures Foundation, a private grant-making organization focused on boosting college completion among low-income and minority students in California.

Oakley announced Thursday that he will step down in August after leading the system for nearly six years. His tenure also included a five-month stint as a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona last year.

“Serving as chancellor of the community college system that gave me the opportunity to succeed in higher education has been the most rewarding experience of my life,” Oakley said in a press release. “I am so proud of what the Chancellor’s Office team has accomplished and of the amazing students that we serve.”

The California Community College system is the largest in the nation, with 116 colleges and more than 2.1 million students. The sprawling system encompasses rural and urban institutions and is regarded as something of a bellwether among community college leaders nationwide. Oakley, who previously served as superintendent and president of the Long Beach Community College District, got the attention of system leaders after instituting the Long Beach College Promise, a one-year free college program with a transfer pathway to the city’s Cal State campus, long before these programs swept the country.

Oakley is considered a thought leader on college affordability and equity and is known for raising the profile of the system by working with state lawmakers to craft higher ed policy. His tenure spanned some difficult times for community colleges, including during the presidency of Donald Trump, who sometimes dismissed their value, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent community college enrollments spiraling and disproportionately hurt Black and Latino and low-income students particularly, who are a large portion of community college student populations.

“Chancellor Oakley has been an incredible leader and champion for higher education, setting California’s community colleges on a course for transformational change,” California governor Gavin Newsom said in a press release. “As we execute on the vision for a more equitable, affordable, and student-centered system of higher education, I look forward to continuing to work with Chancellor Oakley in his new role, along with the strong leadership in the Chancellor’s Office and at campuses throughout the state.”

Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, said Oakley used his position to help set a higher education policy agenda for the state that emphasized closing equity gaps.

“He absolutely shifted the state-wide discussion, deliberation and focus to equity,” he said. “Without question, he significantly changed the discussion, the conversation, the focus that we need to do better by our students of color, underserved students and low-income students and we need to take action at the state-wide legislative and local level to better serve students of color.”

Galizio hopes campus leaders, “people who actually have to implement legislation and education code, people who work on the campuses with the students and the communities” will be “intimately involved” in the search and hiring process for the next chancellor.

The outgoing chancellor said the timing felt right for his departure.

“I feel like we’ve accomplished so much,” Oakley said in an interview. “I just feel that this is a good time for me to step away from that role and give one of our newer voices in the system the chance to lead it from here.”

The Board of Governors plans to meet in July to appoint an interim chancellor and begin the search process for Oakley’s replacement.

He leaves “big shoes to fill,” said Pamela Haynes, president of the system’s Board of Governors and a member of the Los Rios Community College District Board of Trustees.

“This is a big job,” she said. “We found the right person in Eloy. We need to find the right person to move the agenda even further.”

Colleagues have described Oakley as having a steely focus on student success outcomes, which improved across student groups during his tenure. The number of students graduating with credentials increased by 32 percent since the 2015–16 academic year, when he started his role. Also, the number of students earning associate degrees for transfer—associate degrees with a guaranteed pathway to the California State University system—more than doubled.

He sees his new role as building on his current mission at the system by allowing him to work with both community college and four-year university systems in the state.

“I can continue to focus time and attention on California and the needs of our most underrepresented students in California,” he said. “It very much aligns with what I love to do and what I want to do.”

Among his proudest accomplishments as chancellor was his Vision for Success, a strategic plan to close equity gaps and increase transfer and graduation rates, adopted by the system in 2017.

Haynes said she reads and rereads the plan to guide her work.

“It’s underlined, writing in the margins, it’s highlighted,” she said. “Its goals and its commitments have been personally, as a trustee and as a Board of Governors member, my North Star. It focuses in on students, meeting them where they are, designing with them in mind, having high expectations but also high support,” and it ensures student voices are “embedded” in systemwide policy.

She also commended Oakley for introducing a student-centered funding formula in 2018, which is scheduled to go into full effect in 2024. The new formula bases state funding on various student success metrics, including enrollment, transfer and completion rates.

At a policy level, Oakley takes pride in a lawsuit the system filed against former education secretary Betsy DeVos in 2020 for excluding undocumented students from receiving emergency COVID-19 relief grants.

His tenure was also marked by significant reforms to remedial education with the passage of Assembly Bill 705, a 2017 state law that did away with placement tests and mandatory remedial math and English courses at California Community Colleges. Some colleges have reportedly lagged in implementing the reforms. But over four years, the one-year completion rate in transferable credit-bearing math courses increased 26 percent to 50 percent and from 49 percent to 67 percent in credit-bearing English courses.

“To me, it’s a very personal highlight of my time here, and I feel that we crossed the bridge and there is no going back to the kinds of practices we’ve had in the past,” he said. “I feel very good about the direction we’re going from here.”

The Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, which questioned some of the reforms, issued a statement wishing Oakley luck in his new endeavors.

“While we have not always agreed with the Chancellor on certain policy matters, his legacy of bringing equity to the forefront of every community college policy discussion should be celebrated and continued,” the association said in a press release. “We wish him all the best in his new position at the College Futures Foundation.”

Oakley recognizes that his departure comes at a moment of transition, and perhaps anxiety, for California Community College leaders, as the pandemic continues and colleges face ongoing enrollment declines, much like community colleges across the country. The student-centered funding formula, which met with some hand-wringing and doubts among campus leaders, is also poised to take effect soon.

“I find that administrators and board members are always worried about transition, but that’s the one constant that we have in higher education,” he said. “But I also think there’s a lot of excitement about those transitions. Over the last six years, there’s been a lot of uncertainty throughout the country, throughout the world for that matter, and throughout those six years, we’ve made huge gains in the way that we think about students, the way we serve students, the way we adapted to a very challenging environment.”

Oakley pointed out that colleges in the system made important and lasting changes during the pandemic. For example, they built up their online offerings, which benefited working adult learners who need flexible course options. He also believes the system is in steady hands with the Board of Governors and his executive team and noted that he’s leaving at a time when California Community Colleges have “the largest budget the system has ever seen.”

Although he’s looking forward to his new role, he said he’ll miss aspects of his work in the system, particularly engaging with student leaders.

“They just never fail to amaze me,” he said. “Our student leaders come from some of the most challenging backgrounds you can think of, and they’ve overcome more obstacles in one year than most people overcome in an entire lifetime. And yet they still engage in leadership and commit themselves to improving their lives, the lives of their peers. That’s what I’ll miss the most is interacting with the student leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with over the last many, many years.”

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