LONG BEACH — Three weeks after accepting a new four-year contract and two days after publicly lambasting state attempts to affect community college policies, John T. McCuen has announced his resignation as president of Long Beach City College to become director of a small, private technical college near Sacramento.
"It was a complete surprise," said Donald Scott, president of the Long Beach City College Board of Trustees, to which McCuen made his unexpected announcement Tuesday. "He is a very effective superintendent, and it is a distinct loss to the college."
In an interview, McCuen, 55, said he decided to end his six years as head of the city college and superintendent of the Long Beach Community College District after being approached two weeks ago by representatives of Heald Institute of Technology in Rancho Cordova.
Since 1984, the president said, he has been commuting weekly between Long Beach and Sacramento, where his wife is a dean at American River College. "We tried for three years to figure out a way for one of us to join the other," McCuen said of his commuter marriage. "I knew I couldn't keep this (commuting) up for another three or four years, but I wasn't just going to bail out" before he had another job.
While denying any direct correlation between his decision to resign and his critical views of the state, McCuen said that those views had "made it less difficult" to leave public education for the first time in a career spanning 27 years.
In an article published Sunday in the Los Angeles Times' Opinion section, the college president criticized what he termed "current efforts to 'reform' our community colleges (which) don't square with the needs that I see every day at work."
Singled out for special criticism in the article were recent state reports recommending standardized testing for all incoming community college students and an increased emphasis on preparing students for transfer to four-year colleges or entry into the work force.
"This is what we in the trenches have become accustomed to in recent years," McCuen wrote. "It seems that the complex problems facing California are so overwhelming that politicians who are more concerned about the next election than working for the long-term common good will never provide us with anything but Band-Aids. These reform proposals provide few tools, money or practical action plans . . . lack congruence and horse sense, and do not mesh with . . . real needs."
At the root of the problem, McCuen's article went on to say, is legislation approved nearly a decade ago that made community colleges more beholden to the state for financial support.
"Few Californians realize what they really did when they voted for Proposition 13 in 1978," he wrote. "They really voted for state control of their local institutions. Before it is too late, we need some leaders with the vision and will to find mechanisms for returning local control to the people."
Although frequently outspoken, McCuen has generally been considered a popular and effective leader by Long Beach City College colleagues. Since assuming his position in 1981, they say, he has overseen:
Sale, after 10 years of negotiations, of several acres of land to McDonnell Douglas Corp. for $5 million. Much of the money is earmarked for renovation of the nearby Veterans Memorial Stadium, which was recently acquired by the college from the city.
Development of the Long Beach City College Foundation from a relatively obscure entity to what Scott calls a "major source of community support and funding" for the college.
Planning of the $3-million renovation of the college's Pacific Coast Campus on Pacific Coast Highway.
In addition, colleagues say, McCuen has brought about a re-examination of grading procedures with an eye toward higher academic standards, initiated programs to aid students whose academic performance is under par and improved methods by which incoming high school students can be successfully integrated into college life.
"It's been a time of really fine progress for the college," said Richard Jones, dean of external relations. "He's a good president and it's been a super experience working with him."
Before coming to Long Beach City College, McCuen spent eight years as vice chancellor of educational services for the Los Angeles Community College District. Before that he was president of Glendale College.
While refusing to divulge exactly how much he will earn at his new job, McCuen said it will be "slightly less" than the $85,000 annual salary approved for him by Long Beach City College trustees on June 26. Heald Institute has 175 students; LBCC has 24,000 students.
Board members said they will meet Friday to begin planning their search for a replacement for McCuen, whose resignation is effective Aug. 28.
"We're losing a fine superintendent," Scott said. "We hope we can replace him with someone equally as good."
Staff writer Daryl Kelley contributed to this story.