New College Chief Faces Tough Test
Ask instructor Donald Misumi what challenges will confront the new chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, and his response is typical: He laughs. “Got an hour?” he asks.
The district’s reputation for excessive bureaucracy and under-funding has achieved almost mythic status, and despite signs of improvement, cynicism runs deep.
Even the most optimistic of district leaders say that Marshall Drummond, the new chancellor, is taking on one of the toughest jobs in higher education.
“Maybe the job is impossible,” said outgoing interim chancellor James Heinselman, midway through a discussion of district management. “Maybe it is. Maybe the district is too large to be functional.”
Drummond, 57, the tall, rangy former president of a college in Washington state, will start his new job June 15 as Heinselman retires.
To Drummond will fall the task of lending a long-term vision to a district that has seldom had the luxury of looking even beyond the next semester.
Along the way he will have to contend with the district’s overstrained budgets, conflicted power structure, and the problems born of a history of unrealistic financial planning and a lack of investment in programs and infrastructure.
“It’s never going to be easier in Los Angeles” than in other districts, said Gerald Hayward, director of Policy Analysis for California Education. “But that doesn’t excuse them. They just have to work harder.”
The Los Angeles Community College District has nine colleges and about 100,000 students, 80% of whom are minority. Forty percent of the district’s students live below poverty level; 40% don’t speak English as a first language.
“The success of these places is critical,” said Patrick Callan of the National Center for Public Policy and Education. “What’s more important than whether the kinds of people community colleges serve are successful?”
Drummond is riding a wave of high hopes. His earliest years in education were in the Los Rios district of the California community colleges in Sacramento, but he has spent most of the last two decades working out of state, most recently as president of Eastern Washington University.
He returns to California with a vision of the colleges dating to their purported golden age--back when California education led the country, and utopian ideas of universal access to college propelled the expansion of what was considered a model system.
“The California community colleges had a grand vision in the 1960s,” Drummond said. “But after Proposition 13 [which slashed property tax revenues], everyone froze. It became about how to hold on to what we’ve got. . . . Well, we need to get beyond that.”
He will find the Los Angeles district one year into a program of reforms aimed at giving campuses more control over budgeting and programs. Rather than transferring funds from the healthier campuses to the struggling ones, college presidents now must operate them more like autonomous schools, reliant only on their own revenues from the state.
Already, the reforms are credited with reversing a districtwide deficit. The district is projected to end the year $16 million in the black.
But tight budgets are likely to remain part of the landscape for a long time. Big jumps in state funding are unlikely, and the financial strains in the Los Angeles district won’t disappear overnight.
“If you stand back . . . and look at the job in its entirety, it seems overwhelming,” Drummond said. “But if you look at it in pieces, it’s not so overwhelming. . . . You’ve got to pick one thing and say, ‘We will make the most progress with this right now, and it’s within our means. And they are limited means.’ ”
Even if the colleges were to get more state money, that wouldn’t solve their problems, said William Pickens, director of California Citizens Commission on Higher Education, who likens this scenario to “turning up water in a hose full of holes.”
The tangled framework of power that governs the state’s community college districts--and is especially complex in Los Angeles--is part of the problem, he said.
The state’s mandated system of “shared governance” requires myriad committees of faculty members, administrators and other constituents to mull questions of policy. It results in many meetings--and many complaints about the glacial pace of decisions. Pickens describes it as a strange, evolving blend of the K-12 school bureaucracy--out of which the college system developed--and faculty-run universities.
A Complicated Management Structure
Although leaders of some of the state’s most prosperous districts praise shared decision-making, Pickens said the system can create power without responsibility.
Faculty members evaluate their own but don’t assume the burden of disciplining them. They have a hand in budgeting but don’t take responsibility for meeting deadlines, he said.
Drummond is already plotting his course. “The challenge is not to be threatened by shared governance,” he said. “It’s to make sure it comes to decision.’
Further complicating the task of leading the district is the prominence of the American Federation of Teachers Faculty Guild, which the union says represents 4,000 teachers in the Los Angeles district.
The AFT, together with other employee unions, occupies a place in community college management that is almost unheard of in other governmental agencies.
At times, union leaders seem to operate almost as adjunct administrators. Seats for union representatives are reserved on various committees governing campus policy matters. The guild president works full time on union business on a salary paid by taxpayers.
Unions are the largest contributors to trustee campaigns. Union leaders sit at a special table up front at trustees’ meetings, just to the right of the college presidents. Their voices are often among the few trustees hear, since public attendance is scanty.
During budget discussions, union leaders give the district’s financial officers competition. They make formal budget presentations to the board on the heels of the district’s professional staff, often offering conflicting information.
Out of Date Technology
Union leaders say their visible role in policymaking has helped the district. They point, for example, to a recent contract provision creating office hours for part-time faculty, a change they say will help students.
But Pickens said the “strong dominance” of the unions in district leadership is problematic, and will make Drummond’s job more difficult.
The sheer size of the Los Angeles district offers its own kind of challenge. Faculty and campus employees tend to see the central office as a wasteful black hole of funds. Central office employees, in turn, point to alleged waste on campuses.
Districtwide, there is a pervasive opinion that it’s hard to get things done. Out-of-date technology hampers financial management and makes a hassle of such small matters as an employee calling payroll to ask about an illness balance.
Presidents complain that overlapping Civil Service and contract protections slow discipline procedures, and that job classifications are so narrowly defined that it is hard to shift employees around. Faculty say they can’t get computers, or frogs to dissect in biology labs.
Students face frustrations in getting classes, counseling and computer time. Many students are so financially strapped that buying books is a considerable difficulty, and instructors take it as a given that they must assign cheap ones. Other college districts offer substantial help to students through scholarships from local foundations, but in Los Angeles, campus foundations have lagged far behind those of neighboring districts.
The district also struggles with high costs for aging facilities, meager equipment budgets, and disproportionately high costs due to the district’s high proportion of full-time faculty relative to other districts.
The infrastructure is so neglected that small bumps in funding won’t be enough, Drummond acknowledged. “The colleges are in catch-up mode,” he said. “Something has to be done, something major.”
Planning for Decentralization
Planned reforms should address many of those issues by allowing leaders on each campus to respond more directly to their communities’ needs, said Beth Garfield, trustee president.
But forcing financial autonomy on the campuses through the decentralization may create new problems, Heinselman said. What happens if one campus can afford to give raises and another can’t, he asked, adding: “I see tensions developing among the presidents already.”
Even in the best case, there remain questions of how to shift the attention of district leadership from short-term matters, often dominated by personnel issues, to long-range ones, said Hayward.
Pickens said the district should be planning for the next 20 years--using analyses of economic and demographic trends to predict job demands and educational needs.
Drummond agreed. “You should have a good crystal ball,” he said. He promised to start small with a statement of simple goals for the next year by mid-July.
He plans also to seek outside funds, focus on improving student outcomes, and to build relationships and trust in what he called the district’s “republic.” But, he added, after a moment’s reflection, “I’m not big on people spending all their time in meetings.”
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Community College District at a Glance
The Los Angeles Community College District is the largest district in the state and thought to be, along with Miami’s, one of the two largest in the country. The institutions are headed by presidents who answer to a districtwide Board of Trustees. The trustees also appoint a districtwide chancellor. Most revenues are apportioned by the state based on enrollment.
East Los Angeles
West Los Angeles
General Fund Budget ('98-'99): $308 million
* This is 8% of all California community college students.
* This is 6% of the public undergraduate enrollment in California.
Minorities: 80% of students are minority.
* The 17,000 black students are more than three times the number of blacks in the University of California system.
* The district’s 44,000 Latino students make up 12% of all Latino undergraduates in the state.
* 40% of the district’s students are nonnative English speakers.
* 40% are from homes below the poverty level.
* 25% are from homes in which parents received only elementary school education.
* 14% of students did not graduate from high school. (Some may hold equivalency certificates.)
Source: Los Angeles Community College District