3 top California educators’ departures a sobering development

Three of California’s highest-ranking, most influential educators announced within the span of a few weeks that they would be leaving their posts, creating a vacuum in the state’s higher education system at a time of unprecedented challenges.

The impending departures of Charles B. Reed and Jack Scott, chancellors of California State University and the California Community Colleges, as well as UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, have invited intense scrutiny and questions about whether the three institutions can entice visionary leaders willing to contend with a litany of issues:

Steep cuts in state support. Navigating California’s byzantine political landscape and vast array of ethnic and cultural constituencies. Keeping campus gates open for the hundreds of thousands of college graduates who will be needed to fill the state’s workforce.

The stakes for California and the nation are high, said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who chairs the state Senate Committee on Education.

“We have the finest system in the world, no matter what its shortcomings,” Lowenthal said. “We’ve had an affordable higher education system that has spurred the U.S. economy. For years California has led the way, and we need more than ever to have the best of the best as leadership. But it’s a tough job.”

And some say it will not be as easy to find leaders as in the past. At a time of uncertainty and dwindling resources, “an intelligent person would think carefully about taking such a position,” said Michael Tanner, chief academic officer and vice president of the Assn. of Public and Land-grant Universities.

California’s community colleges, with 2.6 million students, and Cal State, with 420,000, are the two largest public higher education systems in the country. Although the costs of attendance are lower than at similar institutions, tuition and fees are rising rapidly.

And although UC Berkeley is perhaps the nation’s most prestigious public university, its costs too have jumped and it is increasingly looking to out-of-state students to foot the bill with nonresident tuition.

Likely to give pause to any candidate is California’s shaky financial picture, with a projected budget deficit that has swelled to nearly $16 billion. Since 2008-09, funding for the state’s 112 community colleges has been cut by $809 million, or 12%. Campuses have slashed course offerings, resulting in a decline of 300,000 students at a time of increased demand.

Funding for Cal State’s 23 campuses and the 10-campus University of California is about $1 billion lower than in 2008-09. This fiscal year alone, both systems took a $750-million hit.

Additional cuts to all three systems loom if a tax initiative proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown for the November ballot fails to gain voter approval.

Having to do more with less will be a reality for any new leader.

“They are going to have to provide the leadership to avoid more cuts, which are becoming draconian,” said Patrick Callan, president of the San-Jose based Higher Education Policy Institute. “The question will be how to innovate, to protect academic quality and serve more students with the resources available.”

Still, he and others said California universities and colleges can attract creative and energetic people to replace those leaving.

Scott, 78, who took over as head of the community college system in 2009, is scheduled to retire in September. A former president of Pasadena City College who also served in the Legislature for 12 years, he brought a unique set of credentials to the job and is viewed as an equal by the UC and Cal State system chiefs — stature that may be hard for a new leader to maintain, said education experts.

Reed, 70, Cal State head since 1998, will stay until a successor is named in the fall. A former chancellor of Florida’s state university system, Reed was a potent lobbyist in Sacramento.

Birgeneau, 70, who became UC Berkeley’s ninth chancellor in 2004, will leave his post Dec. 31. The Canadian-born physicist was formerly president of the University of Toronto and at Cal has forged a reputation as a formidable fundraiser, to date raising $2.4 billion toward a $3-billion goal in the largest fundraising campaign in the school’s history.

Each institution poses unique challenges. Scott has initiated a broad set of reforms to improve student success, but many of the reforms require legislation that will need the chancellor’s continued involvement. In addition, although the chancellor is the face of the community college system, much of the nuts and bolts decision-making resides with 72 community districts and locally elected trustees.

“Some of the challenge in finding a new leader comes from the fact that we really are a shared governance system,” said Scott Himelstein, president of the community colleges Board of Governors and head of the search committee. “The chancellors of UC and CSU have a lot more authority. But … the community college chancellor does have the bully pulpit.”

Under Reed’s leadership, Cal State has also launched programs to improve graduation rates and college readiness through early assessment of high school students. Reed and Scott worked together to make it easier for community college students who obtain an associate’s degree to transfer to Cal State campuses.

But Reed has had an often fractious relationship with his campus constituents, sometimes failing to “unify faculty and students to support some of his policies,” Lowenthal said.

Cal State also became a center of public outcry over executive compensation, awarding pay hikes to campus presidents while raising tuition and limiting enrollment. The governor even entered the fray, questioning the wisdom of seeking high-priced outsiders rather than hiring from within. That issue is also likely to be a factor in the search for a new chancellor.

“There is not a policy preference for someone from inside,” said A. Robert Linscheid, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “I don’t know for sure if campus presidents or provosts will apply for the chancellor’s job, but they would obviously have an understanding of what our situation is. But we’re not going to turn any candidates away with what we could call A-grade qualities.”

Among the issues facing the next chancellor at UC Berkeley will be: how should the home of the Free Speech movement react to recent reports that criticized UC police and administrators for the rough treatment of student protesters last fall; how much emphasis should the school put on attracting out-of-state undergraduates; and will the university be able to afford Birgeneau’s plan to extend financial aid to thousands of middle-class students from households earning $80,000 to $140,000 a year.

Birgeneau earns an annual salary of $436,800. Reed earns $421,500 plus an annual $30,000 supplement from the CSU Foundation. Although he has not had a pay raise in several years, his compensation has been criticized by some students and faculty as excessive at this time. Scott earns $198,500 — less than many college presidents, let alone chancellors of a major education system.

That may pose an obstacle for some candidates, said Himelstein.

“I think the governor and Legislature are very clear in not wanting to consider any raises in executive compensation, and we have to respect that and live with that,” he said. “So we’re looking for someone who is mission-driven. Someone at a place in their career where salary is not as important.”

Shepherding the three institutions “is a challenge some would welcome,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. “Some candidates will emerge who see an opportunity to take a situation in near crisis to a better place.”

Source: http://www.latimes.com

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