New College Head Named at Rio Hondo : Trustee Says Incoming President Is 'Peacemaker'

Times Staff Writer

The Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees has chosen a University of New Mexico administrator to replace outgoing president Herbert M. Sussman, who has been at the center of a yearlong political struggle that has often split the board along racial lines.

Alex Sanchez, a vice president at the university in Albuquerque, will take the 23-year-old community college's top post in August, college spokeswoman Pamela Jo Cox said. Sanchez was chosen as the college's fifth president from 58 applicants. Four finalists were under consideration for the $91,800-a-year position.

In interviews last week, trustees said that they hoped the appointment of Sanchez, 54, the community college's first Latino top administrator, would help end the public debates among trustees over the direction the college should be taking.

"I saw a peacemaker, a healer," trustee Marilee Morgan said, "someone with a great deal of community outreach, a lot of integrity and sincerity."

The board's three Latino trustees have often sparred with the two Anglo trustees, charging that the college has not done enough to hire minority staff members and work with promising college students in the heavily Latino communities that surround the north Whittier campus.

Students 53% Latino

Rio Hondo College, with a student population of about 25,000, serves the cities of Whittier, Santa Fe Springs, South El Monte, El Monte and Pico Rivera and parts of Norwalk, La Mirada, Downey, La Puente and the City of Industry, Cox said. About 53% of students are Latino, according to college records.

"I saw that Dr. Sanchez's credentials were outstanding," board President Hilda Solis said. "After meeting with him, I felt like the chemistry was good."

Sanchez, Solis said, appeared willing to meet with community leaders to develop programs to draw young Latinos into college. About 6% of Latinos who attend a community college in the state transfer to a four-year university, according to college records.

Sanchez's appointment ends a controversial search process that started last year, after Latino trustees Solis, Bill E. Hernandez and Ralph S. Pacheco complained of "philosophical differences" with Sussman, who was hired in 1982. The three in October voted not to extend Sussman's contract, which expired Friday.

Solis has said that Sussman, 65, has not had the interests of the community in mind. "We've had very poor relations with the president," Solis said. "We were constantly at battle with Mr. Sussman over issues of community involvement."

"He has a brash personality," Pacheco said last week. "In terms of management style, Mr. Sussman didn't meet the expectations of the majority of the board. He could be capricious and arbitrary."

Two Supported Sussman

But Anglo Trustees Morgan and Isabelle B. Gonthier, both longtime board members who hired Sussman from the San Francisco Community College District, have supported Sussman's performance.

"Herb is a great president," Gonthier said. "He has done some great things for Rio Hondo College. Those good things will continue on for years to come. I'll miss his leadership style."

Morgan agreed with her longtime colleague. "Herb has had a great deal of vision," Morgan said, noting that previous boards had no problems with Sussman. "We did not have that type of dynamic before."

Hernandez was elected to the board in 1983, Solis in 1985 and Pacheco in 1987. Solis and Gonthier are up for reelection in November, and Morgan will be retiring from the board after 14 years.

Sussman, who has been a college administrator in California, Pennsylvania and New York for the past 25 years, will remain at Rio Hondo College as a full-time instructor, teaching classes in human anatomy, he said.

"There are no sour grapes here," Sussman said in a telephone interview after the announcement that Sanchez will replace him. "In fact, I'm happy." Sussman said he had made a decision to step down as president--effective when his contract expired Friday--before the board majority decided it could not work effectively with him.

The board had initially voted 3 to 2 in July, 1988, to buy out Sussman's contract and replace him a year before his scheduled retirement. The buyout would have cost the district more than $100,000.

Agreement Not Reached

But after three months of negotiations, attorneys for Sussman and the district could not work out an acceptable agreement, school officials said. The board later decided to allow Sussman to remain until his contract expired.

"We handed him a 14-karat handshake," Pacheco said. "But he wanted an 18-karat handshake. The negotiations never panned out."

The debate over Sussman came as trustees were wrestling with other issues, such as affirmative action, student recruitment, off-campus education, and the decision to hire a Latino law firm to represent the college. In each issue, the three Latino board members and the Anglo trustees disagreed.

Although trustees have expressed hope that the acrimony has subsided, the political struggle among board members may be far from over, some school officials said privately. For instance, the trustees were split 3 to 2 on the decision to hire Sanchez, even though most staff members described the New Mexico native as the best person to serve the heavily Latino communities surrounding the two-year college. But this time, the dissenters were Pacheco and Hernandez.

Pacheco and Hernandez favored Los Angeles Community College District administrator Frank Alderete, who grew up in Southern California and knows the Latino community.

Also among the finalists were Donald Jenkins, assistant president of Rio Hondo College, and Raul Cordoza, an administrator at East Los Angeles Community College.

Search Teams' Advice

Solis, Morgan and Gonthier, relying on the almost unanimous advice of the presidential search teams, voted to ratify Sanchez's contract.

Sanchez, an ex-U.S. Air Force officer, holds a bachelor of science degree and a master of arts degree from the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. He is an expert in media relations, according to a biography issued by the college press office.

He has worked in the University of New Mexico system since 1979.

Sanchez said that he hoped that his efforts to work with the community will allay fears that the Latino communities will not be overlooked. His wife, Amey, will be working closely with various community leaders, he said.

Sanchez said he plans, among other things, to upgrade the college's bilingual education program. But he added: "We are going to have to take a comprehensive look at everything."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday July 6, 1989 Home Edition Long Beach Part 9 Page 3 Column 6 Zones Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction Walter Garcia was the first Latino president at Rio Hondo College near Whittier, serving from 1967 to 1977. An article July 2 incorrectly identified incoming President Alex Sanchez as the two-year college's first Latino president.
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