Eloy Ortiz Oakley arrived on the Long Beach City College campus in 2002 — just in time to climb on for a ride that has reshaped the face of the community college in almost every way.
In December 2006, Oakley moved from being vice president of administrative services to become superintendent-president at LBCC. Exactly 10 years later, he will leave that office to become chancellor of the California Community Colleges system. He said he’ll be taking the lessons learned on the LBCC ride with him.
Perhaps the highest profile piece of luggage will be the success of the Long Beach College Promise.
LBCC sits in the middle of that program, guaranteeing a year of free tuition to qualified Long Beach Unified School District graduates, and tailoring curriculum to ensure students are qualified for admission to California State University, Long Beach.
State and national political leaders have adopted the program as their own, and Oakley has visited both Sacramento and Washington D.C. to explain how it works in Long Beach. Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat (and a teacher) from Long Beach already has introduced legislation to make it a statewide program, while President Barack Obama has endorsed the idea and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has made free community college a plank in her platform.
“I’m most proud of the way the community has come together around the college promise (during his Long Beach tenure),” Oakley said. “It has become so much more than we envisioned. And particularly because it has happened at a time when our demographics have changes so dramatically. We’ve put a high priority on serving the growing Latino population.”
While promoting and expanding the College Promise has brought national attention to LBCC, Oakley said it was critical to pay attention to the needs of the two campuses here.
Just before Oakley moved to Long Beach from Oxnard Community College, voters approved a $176 million bond issue to start rebuilding campuses that dated back to the mid-1930s. That money was quickly spent, and Oakley, now superintendent-president, convinced the trustees a much larger investment was needed.
A $440 million bond measure was approved by 73% of the electorate on Feb. 5, 2008 — just a few months before the national economic collapse and the beginning of the Great Recession. While the recession meant lower construction costs, it also changed the way the state looked at and supported all public education, including community colleges.
“We really needed to improve the speed students completed, getting certificates or degrees,” Oakley said of that time. “Our curriculum had fallen behind for the workforce needed. At the same time, we were dealing with the dynamics of the new economy, we were right at the beginning of the recession. It was a tough time.”
The state legislature slashed funding, and tuition had to be increased. A lot. Tuition was $13 a credit unit in 2007; it is $47 a credit today.
Even with the tuition increase, cuts had to be made. Oakley led a process to determine what classes were turning out the fewest certificate and degree students. Some traditional vocational classes such as diesel mechanics were among those cut by the trustees, causing an uproar.
Oakley and the trustees did not back away from their decision. It’s a matter of serving the students, Oakley said.
“We’re still not responding fast enough with our curriculum,” he said. “The economy moves crazy fast. We have to keep up with (training for) the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the past.”
That is a philosophy Oakley said he wants to take to the state level, with some tweaking depending on the type of the community college, from urban to rural. It also is a philosophy that should be a guiding factor in infrastructure improvements.
“We have to worry more about laying down the infrastructure so it can grow into whatever technology evolves into,” Oakley said. “That’s not just in IT, either. We’re talking basic buildings.”
Infrastructure and buildings is a primary reason why Oakley is staying at LBCC for the fall semester before transitioning to lead the state system. Long Beach voters approved a huge $850 million bond issue in June, and Oakley said he wanted to get that building program off to a good start.
“I want to leave the college in as good a shape as possible,” Oakley said. “Also, there’s been a major board change in the last couple of years (three of the five trustees are in their first term in office). I hope to get them settled in, too.”
Oakley takes over on Dec. 17 as California Community Colleges chancellor. The headquarters are in Sacramento, and Oakley likely will find an apartment there. But he said he’ll keep his home in Long Beach and his eighth-grade daughter will continue going to school here.
He said he also wants to open a chancellor’s office in Southern California, because “that’s where most of the people are.” And that will help keep the Long Beach connection, as well.
“I’ve worked elsewhere, and seen a lot of systems,” Oakley said. “And there’s something unique about Long Beach. We shouldn’t take that for granted. The system of public education here just isn’t found elsewhere.”
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.