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Community College Chief Making Waves

The former chancellor of L.A.'s system is trying to raise the profile of the state's 2-year campuses.

August 23, 2004|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Mark Drummond, chancellor of California's vast network of community colleges for the last eight months, recalls with obvious resentment the morning in May when he first heard of a proposal that would turn his office into an arm of the state education secretary.

It was over a granola breakfast with a California Performance Review analyst. The meeting was not pleasant. "I was just briefed; I wasn't really consulted.... There's a difference," Drummond said in an interview.

In a statement just hours after a report was released this month proposing reform throughout state government, Drummond said several of its education ideas warranted careful analysis. "However," he stressed, "the one major recommendation to eliminate the Board of Governors and to place my office under a deputy in the Office of the Secretary for Education does not, in my opinion, deserve any further consideration."

Blunt talk is characteristic of the 62-year-old Drummond, former chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District. Since arriving in Sacramento in January to lead the state's two-year college system, Drummond has sought to raise the profile of the colleges and of his office. But the increased visibility comes at a time when the very existence of the chancellor's post is in question.

If the Legislature implements the recommendations, Drummond's office would be folded into the operations of a new deputy education secretary. The 17-member Board of Governors, which meets six times a year to determine statewide policies for the community colleges, would be disbanded. In all, the report said the proposals on the colleges would save the state about $3 million a year. Drummond and community college leaders throughout California have criticized the plan, saying it would deprive the public of a window into the colleges' affairs.

Upon taking his post, the chancellor commissioned his own study on reforming his office, and its recent recommendations include tightening budget reviews, raising more private funds and hiring a Washington lobbyist. "We're not like they used to call us in the '50s: high schools with ashtrays," Drummond said. "This sort of realignment to me has a lot more to do with politics than it does with quality of instruction."

The state's community college system, Drummond often notes, is considered the largest in the world. It serves nearly 3-million students annually at 109 campuses in 72 districts, and it operates with a budget of nearly $5 billion. Drummond and others reject the notion that a system as large as theirs needs no separate governing body while the relatively smaller University of California and California State University systems are not targeted to lose their regents' and trustees' boards. "It just doesn't make sense to take one segment of higher education, which is among the most responsive to the employer community, and merge it into this huge K-12 bureaucracy," said Peter Landsberger, chancellor of the L.A. Community College District.

But Kitty Williamson, a manager in the state Department of Personnel Administration who worked on the education team of the California Performance Review, said the report was put together in full awareness of the community colleges' importance to the state economy, with their locally designed vocational and certificate programs. The community colleges, Williamson and other state officials noted, got a 7% budget increase this year.

"We decided to leave separate local governance alone because it's very important to keep that at the local level," she said. In working through the report, Williamson added, "the personalities of the current incumbents was not an issue for us."

In their efforts to streamline state government, the report's authors believe it doesn't make sense to keep "a board-upon-boards situation," Williamson said, especially since the Board of Governors does not have the same autonomy as, say, the UC Board of Regents. The board, for instance, does not have authority to change community college fees, which is a legislative duty.

Patrick Callan, president of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said some of the opposition to the review's proposals stemmed from community college leaders often feeling "we don't get no respect." Still, some change is overdue, he said. "They really are in a bureaucratic straitjacket: The money comes from the state, the control is at the local boards, the Legislature makes the rules." Callan said he would support any proposal that would make the colleges better serve students, but he fears the review's plan might politicize the college system. "There's a long tradition in this country of colleges and universities having at least one degree of insularity from the state," he said.

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