California has a tall order to find next community college chancellor

Brice Harris is retiring as chancellor of the California Community College system.
Brice Harris is retiring as chancellor of the California Community College system.

Starting Friday, the California Community College Board of Governors will begin homing in on and ultimately hiring a new community college chancellor, one of the most important jobs in state government.

For millions of Californians, particularly students who come from low-income families, the community college system is a stepping stone into the middle class.

We don’t presume to offer names of potential appointees. A search firm will present the board with qualified applicants. But the job is no sinecure. Whoever takes it must care deeply about the mission, and be a skilled administrator capable of directly overseeing a staff of 170 and a highly complex system of 72 independent community college districts.

The chancellor also must be collaborative, and able to persuade leaders of the individual district boards and 113 community colleges to find efficiencies, while focusing on accountability and student success.

Californians would be well-served if the board could impose on outgoing Chancellor Brice Harris to stick around. But Harris is nearly 68 years old. Having served as chancellor since 2012, and for 16 years before that as leader of the Los Rios Community College District, he has earned the right to step back.

One issue the Board of Governors must confront is pay. Harris’ salary is $213,000. That’s a lot compared with what most Californians earn. But many individual community colleges pay their chancellors more than $213,000, and leaders of individual University of California campuses earn far more.

Harris accepted the job after retiring from Los Rios, and he served the state well. If the ideal candidate happens to be younger, however, Gov. Jerry Brown might need to consider special dispensation to provide some extra pay.

Enrollment at the $8.3 billion community college system is roughly 2.1 million, by far the largest public college system in the nation. That’s down from the 2.7 million students before the recession.

The new chancellor could dwell on restoring classes that were lost to cutbacks. But whoever replaces Harris should maintain a focus on improving outcomes. Far too many community college students spend far too many years earning supposedly two-year associate degrees.

Under Harris, nearly 74,000 community college students transferred to California State University and UC campuses last year, a high point. His replacement should build on that success.

For many, two-year degrees suffice. Community colleges produce firefighters, air-traffic controllers, nurses, cops, welders, programmers, mechanics and many other workers who keep society functioning.

Still, job training is only one demand among many. Most students arrive needing remedial courses in English and math. Some return for a class or two to gain new skills, so they can excel in their professions.

In this state known for its second chances, community colleges also offer a do-over to people who floundered in high school, or veered into criminality. Under Harris, community colleges have worked to provide access to inmates, understanding that they ultimately will be released, and that we’ll all be better served if they learn skills needed to get and keep jobs.

California’s community colleges are fundamental to this state’s promise. They provide first chances to people in search of better lives, and they provide breaks for people seeking a second shot. Brice Harris understood that. The next chancellor must as well.