Brice Harris responds to a question at a Sacramento news conference where… (Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo )
Longtime educator Brice W. Harris was named Thursday as the new chancellor of the nation's largest community college system, assuming the helm at a crucial period of funding cuts, enrollment declines and shifting priorities.
He will become the 15th chancellor of the 112-college system, replacing Jack Scott, an educator and former legislator who retired earlier this month. The community colleges' Board of Governors announced Harris' selection at a news conference in Sacramento.
Harris, who previously led the Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento, acknowledged the tremendous stresses in the system, which has seen enrollment drop by 485,000 students since the fall of 2008 and state funding cuts of $809 million. During that period, classes were slashed 24%.
The 2.4-million student system could be hit with an additional $338-million cut in funding if voters reject Proposition 30, a tax increase measure on the November ballot supported by Gov. Jerry Brown. An additional 100,000 students could be denied access to classes, Harris said after the announcement.
But he said recent moves by college leaders and the Legislature to improve student access and performance were cause for optimism.
"I'm bullish on California community colleges and believe the best days are ahead of us," said Harris, 64.
In a later interview, he said it was premature to discuss specific strategies but that he would continue initiatives begun under Scott to impel students to identify educational goals and improve transfer and graduation rates. He said he also would use the chancellor's office as a bully pulpit to help lawmakers understand that disinvesting in higher education hurts the state.
"Unfortunately, we've seen nearly a half-million students denied access and if you think about a state the size of California, having the inability of that many people to access education and prepare for a better life, to find a job and pay taxes, it's a crisis in the making," Harris said. "Unless we're able to keep the doors of campuses wide open and do a better job, California stands to have an entire generation of people standing on the sidelines."
Harris retired last month after serving for nearly 16 years as head of the Los Rios district, which enrolls more than 85,000 students at American River, Cosumnes, Folsom Lake and Sacramento City colleges. He developed a reputation as an accomplished leader who forged ties with faculty, students and community members.
During his tenure, he oversaw two local bond measures that helped to fund improvements at major campus facilities and he presided over the opening of the Folsom Lake campus. The district grew by 70% over the last decade, although enrollment has declined since its high mark of 93,000 in 2009.
Harris was also a member of a statewide task force that made recommendations to establish systemwide enrollment priorities, ensure that students receive orientation and academic assessments and require those whose fees are waived because of economic need to maintain satisfactory academic progress. Legislation enacting many of those measures was signed into law Thursday by Brown.
College leaders said Harris' familiarity with the system bodes well.
"From his experience on the task force and seeing how he works with others, his appreciation of others' perspectives, really made him stand out in my mind as someone who would be a good chancellor," said Michelle Pilati, a psychology professor at Rio Hondo College in Whittier who is president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. "His experience in the system straight from working in the field to the chancellor's office and navigating in these trying times means he has a clear perspective of what colleges are going through."
Shaine Johnson, who served as student trustee in the Los Rios district last year, called Harris an energetic and pragmatic leader who was able to balance competing demands of students, faculty and staff during tough times.
"He's a listener and I felt he was sincere and genuinely interested in our concerns," said Johnson, 23, an economics and public policy major at Sacramento City College. "Los Rios earned a reputation for being one of the best fiscally managed districts at one of the toughest times to manage a district. I felt he always put students first."
Scott, who headed the system for three years, said he encouraged Harris to apply for the position.
"He has all of the financial skills and all of the great leadership skills," Scott said. "He loves community colleges and articulates the needs of the system in a unique way."
Scott Himelstein, president of the Board of Governors, called Harris "the right person at the right time."
Harris received a bachelor's in communication from Southwestern Oklahoma State University, a master's in communication from the University of Arkansas and a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University.
He will receive an annual salary of $198,500, the same as Scott, plus benefits. He begins his duties Nov. 6, taking over from Erik Skinner, who has served as interim chancellor.