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New California community colleges head is taking things slow

In assuming the reins of California’s community colleges system, Brice W. Harris takes over at a pivotal time of long-range budget uncertainty, fluctuating goals and ever-intensifying pressure to educate a sizable portion of the state’s workforce.

Harris became chancellor of the nation’s largest two-year system Nov. 6 when voters approved Proposition 30, the tax hike measure that avoided a $338-million cut to the colleges. Instead, the system will receive about $210 million more in state funding and is poised to serve 20,000 additional students this spring.

Even with the measure’s success, however, the pressure on California’s 112 community colleges has barely lifted. Funding has been cut by $809 million, classes have been slashed by nearly a quarter and enrollment has dropped by 500,000 students in recent years. Most students need remedial classes and don’t transfer to four-year schools or graduate with associate’s degrees.

Full coverage: California community colleges

Harris’ role is part lobbyist, part fundraiser and part cheerleader. He can suggest systemwide policies to the 72 locally elected district boards that run the campuses. He can lobby the Legislature and governor’s office on behalf of the system’s 2.4 million students.

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And he said he will lead a broad public discussion about the direction of community colleges, including the state’s commitment to its Master Plan for Higher Education, advocating open access and quality, and an embrace of new technology, especially online education.

Harris said educators need to advise policymakers on what is in the colleges’ best interests rather than allow legislators to make those decisions. But he has not developed a detailed agenda for his first year.

“I think there’s a real risk in charting a specific vision too soon,” Harris, 64, said in a recent interview. “A lot of people who are going to accomplish that need to be consulted. We need to talk to faculty, staff and the Board of Governors about what they want to see.”

Harris has been widely praised for his energy, efficient and collaborative management style and for gaining the respect of faculty and students over 16 years at the Los Rios Community College District near Sacramento.

But he faces immense hurdles, education experts said.

“Frankly, he was in a much more authoritative and stronger position to effect change in the Los Rios district than he will have as systemwide chancellor,” said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento. “The community college system is a weak system where a tremendous amount of autonomy is granted to individual districts.”

Still, his predecessor, Jack Scott, succeeded in steering the schools toward a stronger focus on job training and helping students transfer. To that end, Scott set into place — with the help of the Legislature and the governor — new policies that deemphasize programs for adults seeking recreational activities such as art, language and theater classes.

Boilard, formerly director of higher education for the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, said Harris will immediately have to decide how far to follow that path, which is not universally accepted by faculty or the wider communities the colleges serve.

“I know he’s going to have some push-back from others in the system that would rather the cuts fall elsewhere,” Boilard said. “Let’s just assume that everything community colleges do has some value. The question is: what has less value?”

Another issue the chancellor will have to address is the low rate of student completion and large achievement gaps hindering low-income and minority students, educators and others said.

Harris should pursue measures to make colleges more transparent about how their students are performing, including campus-based score cards, said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy group in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

The new chancellor also will have to deal with requirements easing the transfer process. Legislation in 2010 required community colleges to offer associate’s degrees that would guarantee a student admission to California State University as a junior. But a new report by Siqueiros’ group has found efforts at some colleges have fallen short.

“One big critique of California is that it doesn’t have a coordinating body for higher education,” Siqueiros said. “It becomes even more important for Harris and the other two higher-education leaders [at UC and Cal State] to work together and for the Legislature to expect better coordination between the systems.”

Although he has not developed detailed strategies, Harris is a strong supporter of measures recommended by a systemwide task force of which he was a member. Many of the steps, such as mandatory education planning, enrollment prioritization and tracking students’ academic progress online, were initiated by Harris at Los Rios and have improved success rates there.

But Harris said it is counterproductive to try to control education from the central office and that local colleges must be left to decide the best approach to teaching and learning.

His familiarity with the system was key to his appointment, said Scott Himelstein, immediate past president of the community colleges Board of Governors and chairman of the selection committee.

Himelstein said Harris has “a very keen understanding” that people should be left to do their jobs and that he’s not a micromanager.

“We also thought he had a better chance than other candidates of using his platform as a bully pulpit, which is so key. And being in Sacramento for the length of time he has, he has great familiarity with the governor’s office and Legislature.”

At Los Rios, Harris proved to be a good listener and a consensus builder, said Dean Murakami, a professor of psychology at American River College and president of the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers.

“He was able to build goodwill and trust with constituency groups whether faculty or staff; so when it was time to make difficult decisions, especially with all the budget cuts, his leadership and transparency have been extremely important,” Murakami said.

While there, Harris opened the Folsom Lake school as well as several satellite campus centers, including the state’s first community college on a UC campus, at Davis. His association with local civic and business groups led to expanded nursing, computer skills and green technology programs to meet the needs of local businesses.

A former theater and communications major, Harris also has firsthand experience in politics. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Kansas City, Mo., in a bruising campaign in 1991. At the time, Harris was vice chancellor of a local community college system.

Before Los Rios, Harris was president of Fresno City College.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who has known Harris for nearly 15 years, described him as the “proverbial straight shooter.”

“Working with the Legislature will be one of his strengths,” Steinberg said. “He reads people and situations very well.”

Harris takes every opportunity to extol the importance of community colleges in educating students who may have few other chances. Hanging in his new Sacramento office is a series of photos of students “so that I never lose sight of who I’m working for.”

carla.rivera@latimes.com


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