College President Search Enters Home Stretch
By Ann K. Williams, Staff Writer
November 18 -- The three finalists who want to be Santa Monica College’s next president made their debut this week nearly a year after the dynamic and controversial Piedad Robertson stepped down from the position.
The College Board “couldn’t find people much less like each other,” one of the candidates, Dr. G. Jeremiah Ryan, pointed out, and their differences in style and philosophy were accentuated by the sometimes pointed questions they were asked.
Each of the finalists appeared on separate days and was grilled for two hours in the school’s gymnasium where they were evaluated by the hundreds of students, faculty, staff and others who wandered in and out during the interviews.
Meanwhile, faculty picketing for higher pay outside gave the newcomers
a glimpse of just one of the many challenges they will face should they
get the job.
First up Monday morning was Dr. Deborah Blue, a composed woman who carried herself gracefully and chose her words with care.
Blue is currently vice president of policy and research for the Accrediting Commission for Community & Junior Colleges (ACCJC) in Novato. The commission evaluates public and private institutions of higher education seeking accreditation in the Western Region, which encompasses California and the Pacific rim.
Before that, she was president of Laney College in Oakland, a community college with an enrollment of approximately 14,000.
Conciliation and consensus seemed to be the theme of Blue’s answers, as she returned again and again to the importance of listening and building sound relationships within and outside the college community.
She warmed to the topic of collegial governance, and grew animated as she punctuated her remarks with gestures.
“Everybody’s going to give a little something for the benefit of the whole,” Blue said, adding that she has a “authentic, deep and abiding commitment” to “collegial consultation.”
“It’s more than just words,” Blue said.
Similarly, she favors “talking about mutual interests” over “adversarial negotations.”
“Interest-based negotiations…maintain the integrity of your relationships,” Blue explained, adding that “adversarial negotiations…create a good deal of stress for everyone involved.”
“Essentially, it’s all about relationships,” Blue said, when confronting the touchy issue of friction between the College and the surrounding community.
“This one looks like a really huge one,” she said, when asked about parking. Still, she said she was “optimistic” problems between the College and its neighbors could be solved.
Sometimes, it takes “a new person to make a new effort,” someone with “no history” to get in the way of communications, Blue said.
She would meet with the mayor and the city manager to “hear their views” and find out “what are the city’s interests that aren’t being met.”
“I cannot tell you what the solutions would be, but I know that you would expect them very soon,” she added.
Listening carefully, mending relationships and “tap(ping) into the collective wisdom” were her favored strategies.
Enrollment increases, which bring state money to the college and are a sore point with some neighborhood groups who complain about college expansion, were a case in point.
“Initially I would look to the Board for its guidance and direction,” Blue said. Then she would “ask the whole college how can we be accountable.”
When asked what was the most constructive criticism she ever received, Blue quoted the saying “If it feels good, don’t say it.”
“When an administrator errs and has that one moment of satisfaction” when she tells her opponents off, she may have to pay for it for a long time, Blue said.
Blue, “a proud new grandmother,” said she and her husband could easily visualize “settling into Santa Monica for a long time.” She recently took a quick jaunt down to the beach to “renew my energy,” and could see it becoming a habit.
“This is a beautiful community,” she said, adding that she particularly liked the diversity, not only the ethnic diversity, but also the “diversity in thinking” she found here.
From the moment Dr. Chui L. Tsang took the microphone Tuesday morning and directed latecomers into the bleachers, it was clear that he was used to being in charge.
He paced the floor energetically – “I don’t do the talking-head role” – forcing the video operator to react quickly to keep Tsang in the camera’s sights.
Tsang is currently president of San Jose City College, an 84-year-old college with an enrollment of about 10,000 students serving more than 700,000 residents within its 303-square-mile boundaries. He has served in that position for eight years.
His Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University was evident in his
precise, concrete language and the care with which he defined his terms.
“He keeps his hands in his pockets but he puts his nose everywhere,” Tsang said, explaining that the president shouldn’t try to get involved in every day-to-day detail, but should know everything that was going on.
But it won’t work unless communication can flow freely to and from him,
Tsang said, communication that would reach through all levels of the college,
students on up, using all the media, including radio station KCWR, at
“We want to be a good neighbor,” Tsang said.
At San Jose City College, he oversaw designs for construction that took the neighbors’ privacy into consideration. Student traffic was rerouted to major roads, additional security directed traffic when needed, and the lights and speakers at college games were adjusted for the neighbors.
He allowed as how working with the City of Santa Monica might be a little harder.
“I keep hearing about this parking problem that you have,” Tsang said. “There’s no fixed way to solve” it he said.
The City and the College just have to “get in the room and talk this thing out” even if it involves “getting the ego a little bit bruised,” Tsang said.
He is a fan of alternative transportation, which he sees as pivotal to solving parking and traffic problems, and would like the College to be a “100% active partner in the City (sustainability) plan.”
A Hong Kong native, Tsang envisions Santa Monica College as a “global education” center, preparing students to take their skills to the “economic powerhouses of the whole earth.”
“There isn’t a better place to be in the United States at this time,” Tsang said, referring to Santa Monica's location at the “crossroads of the Pacific Rim.”
Tsang drew appreciative applause when he confessed “the most constructive criticism” he’d received.
“I’ve been criticized for moving too fast,” Tsang said. “I found myself alone out there.”
He’s learned to “make sure other people see my viewpoint,” and adapt to theirs so that “I can be successful for all the people, not just me.”
Like Blue, Tsang is attracted by the “diversity” of Santa Monica, which he calls “the quintessential California town” offering “the kind of life people aspire to around the world.” For himself, he’d take advantage of the local outdoor life by playing soccer – once or twice a week, he said.
Dr. G. Jeremiah Ryan was relaxed and laughed easily as he strutted his stuff for Wednesday’s audience.
Ryan is currently president of Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, which has an enrollment of 30,000 students and offers more than 70 associate degrees and certificates, as well as customized training programs and non-credit courses.
He keeps up his chops in the classroom by teaching political science, and said he hopes to continue teaching his favorite subject if he comes here.
“I like dealing with politicians,” Ryan said, adding that “in many ways I am a politician…I’m comfortable with people who wield power.”
He’s already made it a point to talk with local “community leaders,” Ryan said, and was pleased to find that the College has “a high positive profile” among business, school district, and even City leaders.
A well stocked rolodex is a central feature of his leadership style, he said. He has served on boards of the local Chamber of Commerce, hospitals and an array of nonprofit organizations – including Kids Voting New Jersey and Literacy Volunteers of America -- building up the connections that he uses to get things done.
If he gets the job, Ryan plans to spend his first 100 days meeting with “everyone at the school,” and with “the most important 100 people in the community.” He’d follow up by meeting with every department of the College monthly and the unions quarterly so that they wouldn’t see him for the first time at the negotiating table.
Aggressive fundraising is another arena where Ryan said he feels comfortable. “I don’t mind asking people for money.”
Nor would he be averse to privatizing some campus services like the cafeteria and the bookstore if it freed up money for “academic” needs, he said.
When asked about parking, he half-joked “This is the no-win question.”
“It’s going to take some very careful conversations with the City,” Ryan said, adding that creative scheduling – changing some classes to Fridays and Saturdays, for instance – might help.
Earlier, when asked about strained City/College relationships, he envisioned a “summit” meeting drawing together neighbors, the City and “people who are connected in any way with the board,” where he would encourage everyone to “put their cards on the table.”
He admitted to making the same mistake twice when he answered the “constructive criticism” question.
“I abandoned my usual principle” of doing a lot of research before acting, Ryan said. In one case, he pushed for a branch expansion but “I was so excited…I didn’t ask the customers whether or not they’d come.”
The audience chuckled when he also admitted to being a “poor proofreader,” with sometimes embarrassing results, as when he signed off on a letter to the community that thanked donors for “providing our students a place to love in,” (not live in).
Like the other two candidates, Ryan said he is drawn to Santa Monica by its diversity. He and his wife are “avid golfers,” he said, and he is a “voracious reader,” whose taste runs to American history and political classics written by the founding fathers.
After each presentation, Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, the President of the Faculty Senate and a member of the presidential search committee, gathered a thick sheaf of evaluations – many of them filled out by his political science students -- and hurried away to put the confidential forms in a sealed envelope.
Calling the search “incredibly professional,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said “everyone is committed to this process unfolding without a hitch.”
SMC student Maria Perez expressed the hope of many of her peers when
she said she was looking for presidential candidates who “actually show
that they care about the students and the faculty, and that they do what
they say they’re going to do – they’re not just saying it to get in.”
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