New leader’s goal: ‘how to make a great college better’
SANTA ROSA — The former deputy secretary for community colleges under the administration of President Barack Obama, Dr. Frank Chong, assumed the role of Santa Rosa Junior College president this January. A former president of Oakland’s Laney College, Dr. Chong oversaw a number of infrastructure and program improvements while forging a more robust relationship between the college and the business community.
Dr. Chong sat down with the North Bay Business Journal to share his insights and reflect on his first two months in Santa Rosa.
Business Journal: Please explain your role in the U.S. Department of Education. How has that experience influenced your approach to the president role at Santa Rosa Junior College?
Dr. Chong: I was appointed by the president to serve as the deputy assistant secretary for community colleges, and I began my tenure in January of 2010. I spent two very full years in the administration, and my charge and my portfolio was community colleges.
The president gets it. He understand the value of community colleges in terms of reaching an electorate that would support public education and the role that community colleges play is vital to getting us into a better economy and becoming a better country.
Arne Duncan (the U.S. secretary of education) would often say “We have to educate our way to a better economy.” Much of what we hear from our private partners and our industry partners is that we don’t have the kind of trained and skilled workforce that we need to compete.
I say that there are probably two or three things that I did while I was there that I am very proud of. One is that we were able to roll out $2 billion over the next four years for the Community College Career Training Act. It’s also known as the “Trade Adjustment Assistance Act” out of the department of labor. That provides competitive funding for community colleges to partner with other community colleges and private industry to develop programs that will train displaced workers, people or are unemployed or people that are underemployed, an opportunity to retrain and upgrade their training so that they can become competitive in the workforce.
Number two, we were able to maintain the Pell grant at $5,550. I came to realize that, in rural areas and poor areas, the Pell grant was the ticket, was the support that many of these families and young people — and not-so-young people — needed to go to college.
Third, I helped plan a set of regional community college summits throughout the country that gathered community colleges and industry partners together to talk about, “What can we do to move the needle forward?” in terms of college completion.
I’m trying to use the knowledge of the type of grant opportunities that I learned about when I was in D.C. and I’m trying to apply them here at Santa Rosa JC.
Business Journal: President Obama has advocated for creative partnerships between public colleges and private business. What are the major touch points between Santa Rosa Junior College and the business community?
Dr. Chong: The college has been here 95 years, so in many ways I’m learning that many of the industry partners and corporations and small businesses, whether it be in agriculture or the health care field or in IT, many of those employees or leaders or CEOs were trained here. Seventy-five percent of all Sonoma County high school graduates come to Santa Rosa Junior College. Typically, community colleges only get, at a high count, maybe 25 percent of those students.
Clearly, this college is unique and extraordinary in its ability to train people for the workforce so that they can stay in Sonoma County.
Our foundation is one of the most successful foundations, and we really need the foundation at this time because of the decrease of public funding from the state. Many of its members are alumni of the college who are giving back. They are not only writing checks, they are providing advice and knowledge to our career and technical education programs and our academic programs. They basically are our kind of check points and eyes and ears to make sure that the kind of course offering and the kind of equipment that we use is going to be transferable and relevant to their own industries.
Business Journal: Funding for public colleges is at a time of historic challenge. What revenue streams have you considered to help ease that financial burden?
Dr. Chong: The board has asked me to look at, and I’ve proposed the development of, a revenue enhancement plan that would address the alarming decrease in state support. I think in the last three years we’ve lost close to 20 percent of our budget.
I mentioned earlier about the federal grants. We’re looking at developing more economic development models such as the selling of our wines, our Culinary Institute restaurant program, and doing athletic camps and sports camps.
But these funding streams, including federal grants, are not really going to be able to replace the dollars that have been reduced from the state. We’re also looking at possible other avenues that will allow us to restore some of the cuts.
We have considered taking some of our for-credit classes, P.E. (physical education) for example, and converting those to fee-based classes. So we’re basically just changing the delivery model of how we deliver the educational product. Not everybody needs credit, or wants credit. Maybe they just want to take a class for lifelong education, and then we charge them a fee instead of offering them a credit — it would be a non-credit class.
They’d have to be self sufficient — we’d hire an instructor, and the business model is: how much to we pay that instructor and what fees can we generate from that class? Hopefully at the end of the day it will be profitable or, at least break even. But we couldn’t subsidize those classes.
Business Journal: Describe your relationship with Dr. Agrella, Santa Rosa Junior College’s former president?
Dr. Chong: It s a very good relationship. Dr Agrella has been very generous and gracious in transitioning me. We still meet regularly for lunch, and he’s always been a phone call away. … He’s a wonderful human being and he’s a great visionary leader.
Business Journal: One of the perks historically to attending the college has been the Doyle Scholarship. With its temporary suspension, what are your thoughts on the subject of the scholarship and the issue of college affordability in general?
Dr. Chong: I’ve met with the Doyle Trust members separately, and I’ve also met with students who are concerned about the suspension of the Doyle Scholarship. Most recently, I convened a meeting between students and the trust members to hopefully develop a partnership of mutual support. Their common interest is to restore the Doyle Scholarship.
I made a commitment to continue to facilitate a dialogue and an exchange of ideas. At the rate that the bank’s (Exchange Bank) fiscal condition has improved, I anticipate that the trust will be reinstated. I can’t tell you an exact date, but I would expect very soon, and we’re excited about that.
Their success is our success. Exchange Bank is a really community bank in the truest sense.
Business Journal: What are your goals for the college?
Dr. Chong: The way I framed it was, how do you make a great college better? The way you make it better, any organization better, is to challenge the people inside the organization and outside the organization to continue to improve the college. You can’t rest on your laurels.
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