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Trapped in History

October 05, 1987

Leslie Koltai, forced into early retirement as the chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, is a victim of the system that he helped to build. In the 15 years during which he headed the state's largest college district, Koltai presided over enormous physical growth of the campuses and almost exponential expansion of the colleges' role in educating immigrants and the impoverished. But he was also among those who resisted changes in the governing structure that would put the colleges on a firmer footing in facing future problems.

Koltai has been forced out by a board that is not likely to replace him with the independent-minded administrator so needed now. Nonetheless, his departure--coupled with that of Joshua Smith as the chancellor of the statewide system--offers Californians who care about higher education the chance to look at where the community colleges are going and how they should get there.

Koltai was a man in the middle in the fight over charging fees to attend community colleges. Fees were imposed at about the same time that the local district changed its calendar; potential students were confused about the beginning of classes and confounded by inability to pay for them, so they dropped out. When they didn't enroll, the district's budget shrank because of the archaic system of financing community colleges on a per-pupil basis. When the budget shrank, professors faced possible layoffs, and three board members--and ultimately Koltai--paid the political price.

The University of California and the California State University systems also receive their money based on enrollment, but they have a budget process in which they justify their needs on a program-by-program basis. The community colleges don't. They just roll forward what they got before--basically saying, as one Sacramento observer put it, "We want this because we want it." Neither the Legislature nor the governor buys that rationale, and neither should. Koltai wanted the system changed, but neither he nor many other community colleges administrators were willing to give up enough control over their turf so that Sacramento might deal as generously with them as with other campuses.

The question of how a higher-education system should be governed doesn't rank with the World Series in potential drama, but governance is the key to it all. It helps determine how much money the campuses receive, and therefore how many teachers--union members included--schools can hire and whether a nursing student can get into a class that is required for graduation.

The California Commission for the Review of the Master Plan for Higher Education recommended that the chancellor's office be strengthened, even to the extent of having veto power over the chief executives of local districts. That recommendation doubtless was dead on arrival in the state Legislature. But other changes that would ensure some uniformity of policies and procedures from campus to campus while allowing local flexibility must be endorsed by local boards and chancellors before they will ever clear the Legislature.

Until they are, Sacramento will be rightly reluctant to give the colleges the money that they do need to handle their changing enrollments. And until that changes, people like Leslie Koltai will be trapped in the history that they helped to write.

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