And where some other higher-education leaders, particularly at the baccalaureate level, have been reluctant to characterize their work in economic terms, Oakley is intent on spreading the message that community colleges are a crucial driver of the state’s economic growth. “California is not going to prosper like it once did unless we have more people participating in and getting a credential from higher-ed institutions,” he said.
Oakley, who will actually take a slight pay cut with the new role, is particularly optimistic about the prospect of getting not only more Californians, but also a more diverse array of Californians, into postsecondary schools, and it was a driving reason for accepting the position. While about 43 percent of the state’s community-college students are Latino, and they make up approximately 39 percent of the state’s residents, degree completion is low. Only around 16 percent of Latinos over 25 in California have an associate’s degree or higher, compared with about 38 percent of adults in the state. When I asked why he wanted the job, Oakley said, “This is a very interesting time for our state, for our colleges, and for our nation … I feel that our colleges are poised to really have a major impact on the future of California, and at no point in time in my career as a community-college educator have I felt that colleges are as important and as recognized as they are now.”
There are likely to be some challenges. Not everyone is thrilled with Oakley’s record at Long Beach. And he acknowledges that getting 113 college leaders to agree on how much the system should change in the coming years will be tricky, noting that the system has often responded to issues instead of anticipating them. The level of “engagement” will be “a point of discussion” among the colleges, he said, choosing his words carefully.
With that in mind, the chancellor-to-be plans to spend his first weeks in the role listening to community-college leaders, faculty, businesses, and economic-development organizations before he puts together a team to outline a new agenda. “The first priority, for me personally, is really to meet with and hear from the various constituent groups that not only make up the community-college system, but really rely on the California community-college system,” he said. “I want to take a moment to hear from everybody.”
That the system—which, at 2.1 million students, is the nation’s largest higher-education apparatus—touches so many facets of the state makes it an unwieldy behemoth to wrangle by nature. But that’s also why Oakley was tapped for the job in the first place. He has a history of forging the connections and links that he, and those who selected him for the job, see as crucial for success. He was one of the main developers of the nationally recognized Long Beach Promise, which guarantees local students a tuition-free year at the city college and preferred admission to California State University Long Beach. Oakley, who spends his limited spare time reading about politics and traveling (preferably “someplace with a beach and lots of sun”) with his partner, Terri, has also facilitated local partnerships with Goldman Sachs that helped small businesses launch and grow, in part by funding community-college students and graduates. California’s governor, Jerry Brown, appointed him to the University of California Board of Regents, and he has a solid working relationship with both the governor and Janet Napolitano, who heads the UC system.