LONG BEACH — Relaxing in an office engulfed by flowers, Long Beach City College's first woman president emotionally contemplated the day.
It had begun at 7 a.m. with an appearance at the college commencement ceremony, where she had been applauded by the faculty. Next had come a luncheon filled with accolades and hugs. And finally, Beverly O'Neill had returned to her office to find it packed with congratulatory bouquets from admirers throughout the city.
"I'm overwhelmed," a misty-eyed O'Neill, 57, said last Wednesday. "I can't believe this. It's incredible."
More incredible, say members of the campus community, is that after years of leadership by "outsiders," the college will finally have one of its own in the president's office.
"She has magnificent relationships in the community," said Mary Weir, an instructor in child development and president of the Academic Senate. "She is very well liked and very well known."
Said Trudy Polsky, a member of the college Board of Trustees, which last week named O'Neill president: "I'm looking forward to a move on campus for renewed unity."
Unity, in fact, has not always been an overriding characteristic of the 24,000-student campus. Back in the old days when the college was still part of the Long Beach Unified School District, it prided itself on an atmosphere of intimacy and individual attention equaled at few other campuses. But shortly after the two institutions severed their ties came the passage of Proposition 13. And in the last 10 years, LBCC has been beset by the same problems facing community colleges everywhere.
Enrollment and income have declined, costs have increased, state funding has become more and more scarce, faculty morale is low, and major questions remain about how to serve a community that is undergoing dramatic demographic changes.
During the same period, the Long Beach campus has had presidents who were brought in from outside rather than promoted from within. Frank Pearce, who came from Rio Hondo College in 1973, was asked to resign for undisclosed reasons in 1981. His successor, John T. McCuen, left suddenly last year to lead a small private college near Sacramento.
According to Weir, both were outsiders who never really became part of the campus community. "They didn't spend much time listening to the faculty," she said. "Neither one of them really understood where we were coming from."
McCuen, while respected by many, left amid accusations that he had spent too much time off campus and was generally aloof and inaccessible. "I think there were sentiments that we struck out on outsiders," Weir said, "so let's try an insider."
O'Neill is certainly that.
A graduate of Long Beach Poly High School, she attended LBCC as a student in the late 1940s before receiving a master's degree from Cal State Long Beach and a doctorate in education from USC. In 1962 she returned to LBCC as women's adviser and instructor in music. She spent the next 26 years working her way up to vice president for student services, a position she has held since 1977.
"I've been part of this college in some way or another for two-thirds of its life," said O'Neill, who is married to a USC professor and has a daughter who writes for television. "I believe in it. People know that I have a commitment."
Although she is somewhat vague about the immediate goals of her presidency, which begins July 1, they include improving faculty and staff morale, paying close attention to academic quality, keeping a tight rein on the budget, improving average daily attendance through community outreach, tailoring programs to meet community needs and increasing minority enrollment. She says Latinos, especially, are under-represented on the campus.
"I plan to do a lot of listening," said O'Neill, who will be paid $87,500 a year. "I plan to spend a lot of time being visible, walking around on campus."
That's consistent with what she characterizes as her grass-roots management style. "I believe in working through people," she said. "Decisions should be made at the lowest level. I know good people, and I know good ideas, and I know how to get out of the way when they get together."
Underlying everything, she said, is a firm belief in the college's mission.
"Community college education is the most exciting venture for higher education in the country," O'Neill said. "It takes people from where they are and gives them direction. It changes lives every day."