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Officials Weigh in on End of Era

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

November 22 -- She was sometimes embraced by and sometimes at loggerheads with the community and City leaders, but there is general agreement that retiring Santa Monica College President Dr. Piedad Robertson was a strong leader during her decade as head of the local community college.

Since becoming president in 1995, Robertson -- who announced Wednesday that she would be leaving SMC on January 31 to take a position as president of a national education policy organization -- steered the college through earthquake repairs, a doubling in faculty, the acquisition of two new campus sites, a state budget crunch and the passage of two bond measures.

Residents and City officials have celebrated the college's continued academic excellence, but some have also lamented that its unchecked growth has brought more development, noise and traffic into neighborhoods.

"It's to her credit that she's a strong advocate," said Council member Michael Feinstein, who served eight years on the council during Robertson's tenure, four of them as mayor. "I both admire and am immensely frustrated by her at different times. People of great ability are often like that."

Asked to talk about the legacy she'll leave behind when she makes her move to the Education Commission of the States early next year, Robertson lists the concrete developments she engineered -- a solid management team, new faculty, the Emeritus college for continuing education, the new library and the new municipal pool.

Robertson's biggest fans say she contributed more than meets the eye, however. They call her a visionary, the spirit and muscle behind a successful expansion that has led to SMC's continued hold on the number one transfer rate to the University of Southern California and University of California campuses.

"For me, I just think she was a person who brought people together," said Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson, the pastor of St. Monica's Church, who helped Robertson, a member of his congregation, with SMC's most recent bond campaign. "She was a connector and reconciler. I think that was her gift."

"When I think of Piedad, what I think of is sweeping vision, and a vision that sees the college as a very significant resource for the whole community," said Dennis Zane, a former mayor who ran the campaign for Measure S, a bond approved by voters this month. "She strives to provide facilities and programs that fill very important vacuums in the community."

A 500-seat theater at the college's Madison Campus, which is to be built with money from Measure S, will be Robertson's "most personal legacy," Zane said.

The theater, a pet project of Robertson and SMC's performing arts department, is an example of the tension SMC's expansion has generated between the college, a State agency with the authority to build without the City's blessing, and neighbors and City officials, who objected to building a performance venue in a residential neighborhood.

The continuing tension surfaced when Councilman Ken Genser was asked in four different ways Wednesday how he felt about Robertson's retirement and legacy. Genser's answer was the same every time.

"I wish her the best in her new position, and I'm sure she'll do well," he repeated.

Other City Council members had warmer sentiments upon hearing of Robertson's retirement. Council member Bob Holbrook -- who called Robertson a strong, friendly and courteous leader with whom he had an excellent working relationship -- recalled how Robertson helped him graduate from SMC.

Holbrook, who recently retired as USC's pharmacisit, had transferred from the college to the university one credit short of an AA degree. When Robertson heard he was one credit short, she took action.

The college administration "looked at my college transcript, found something that would work, and they graduated me," Holbrook said.

"I thought that was really sweet," he said. "When I graduated, she announced that I was the longest AA in history, having taken slightly over 40 years to complete. And the graduates went wild."

Holbrook expressed strong support this summer when Robertson asked the council to take a "leap of faith" and join the college in placing a $100 million-plus bond measure on the November 2 ballot to buy land and renovate buildings.

Other council members, however, sharply dissented, saying Robertson was asking the City to gamble with millions of dollars in public funds.

One of those critics was mayor Richard Bloom, who, when asked about his interactions with Robertson, spoke in general terms about the sometimes tense relationships between college and city officials.

"I think it's fair to say that with all college administrators, at least the two that I've experienced (Robertson and her predecessor), there has always been some level of tension," Bloom said. "Which isn't to say that there are no positives, because I think there are a lot of positives that the college brings.

"When I talk about the college I always try to put out that on some level there is a balance," Bloom said. "We shouldn't always focus on the negatives."

Relations between the City and college have not always been tense under Robertson's tenure. Council member Feinstein recalled how Robertson cooked him a vegan meal shortly after he became Santa Monica's first Green Party mayor in 2000.

"She's a Cuban meat eater," Feinstein said of the Cuban-born Robertson.

Robertson said she has tried to reach out to City officials and the community while trying to do what's best for the students.

"When I first got here people said, 'The college is not cooperative with the community,'" Robertson said. "That was ten years ago. When I asked, 'What do you mean?' nobody could give me an answer.

"The college grows, and it grows because it's mandated to grow," she said. "The college serves all students. And because we do it, everyone wants to come to us."

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