Community Colleges Chief to Step Down


Citing the past year as the toughest of his eight-year tenure, David Mertes, chancellor of the 106-campus California Community Colleges, announced Thursday that he will resign in June.

Mertes said that recent leadership battles and the rapid turnover of legislators in Sacramento produced “a considerable amount of internal chaos in the Legislature,” which made his job--the least powerful of the state’s three higher education system chiefs--more difficult.

But Mertes, who is 65, said his troubles dealing with Sacramento were not a major factor in his decision to step down. In a two-page letter to the system’s Board of Governors, he said he is leaving to pursue other “personal and professional interests.”

Board President Joe Dolphin said in a prepared statement that Mertes has provided “stellar leadership” and has brought stability and focus to the community colleges.


The board will begin a nationwide search for his replacement early next year.

Mertes will leave as the colleges grapple with ways to absorb explosive enrollment growth--the campuses now enroll about 1.4 million students--without the prospect of commensurate increases in funding.

“Financially, it has been a really difficult time for the community colleges,” said Patrick Callan, executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center. “The person in that job is likely to be really caught in that squeeze.”

Callan said Mertes, who headed two community college districts in California before taking the statewide post, is highly regarded in national education circles, particularly for his commitment to bringing innovative ideas to institutions not often associated with cutting-edge technologies.

Mertes believes that the colleges must embrace technology as a cost-effective way to serve their burgeoning and diverse constituency, which ranges from students planning to transfer to four-year colleges to professionals seeking training in new careers.

His push for technology received a mixed response, with some criticism from faculty groups concerned that it would be too costly and reduce personal contacts between students and instructors.

A Sacramento observer of higher education said Mertes also had to contend with a governing board divided over its proper role, with some members desiring more involvement in lobbying Sacramento and others preferring to concentrate on setting policy.

Two years into his job, Mertes complained that he and his central office staff lacked the authority they needed to run the system well. The community college system does not have the independence enjoyed by the California State University and University of California, and each college district is fairly autonomous, leaving the chancellor’s office with little say over curriculum and spending.