PICO BLVD – It’s not an easy time to lead a college in California, but Dr. Chui Tsang says he’s still having fun.
It’s not the circumstances that thrill him.
The state has taken $800 million from community colleges since 2008, forcing Santa Monica College to cut 1,100 class sections since the 2008-09 school year.
Things will only get worse if voters refuse to pass Proposition 30, an increase to wealthy Californians’ income taxes and a quarter of one percent increase to the sales tax, which supporters say will make it possible to maintain current funding levels.
Very few community colleges in the Los Angeles area could afford to offer summer school, and the other two public higher education systems in California — the UC and CSU systems — have announced tuition increases in recent years.
SMC’s solutions to the state funding problems have come under fire, particularly a program called contract education that would have allowed students to take classes in the summer if they paid the full cost of the class rather than the state-subsidized fee of $46 per unit.
Why is Tsang hopeful? It’s his belief in SMC, its students, teachers and the community that supports it.
“This is a great college with a great future,” Tsang said. “The current crisis also brings out the best in the college. We know we are one of the best colleges in California. We know what we have here is quality, and we know what we have here is unique.”
The Daily Press met with Tsang last week to discuss the financial climate, the reactions to its contract education proposal and how SMC will prepare its students for the future job market.
Daily Press: How did you get into education? Did you think you would be a college president?
(Tsang started out with a teaching position at Stanford University, where he’d gotten his graduate degree. He left to lead a national research project, but became dissatisfied with the work.)
Chui Tsang: At that time, someone told me about this organization that was doing work in the community, offering job training, offering language skills and computer skills in the community in San Francisco. The target population was immigrants, refugees, the unemployed or under-employed people in San Francisco.
It was called Career Resources Development Center. I thought that was interesting, and I went and interviewed for that job. They were looking for a director for the organization of about 20 people. And of course at that time the most management experience I had was to manage three or four research assistants part time. I was hired, and so I worked in the community. It was a nonprofit community-based organization located in the Tenderloin of San Francisco for 10 years. It was great.
It was also there that I found my passion, I found that that is what I wanted to do and I was also … able to master the skills I would need to do a job like that.
So you asked how did I become college president? That was the best preparation I ever had to become president because I had to do basically all of the tasks that one has to do as president but in a much smaller organization.
DP: What was the part of the job you felt the least natural?
CT: The part about having to go to City Hall and pound the table sometimes and jostle for position to get money from the city and from the state government and also from Washington, D.C. I had to do a lot of that.
(Tsang went from there to a position as dean at San Francisco City College and later the position of president at San Jose City College, where he stayed nine years before moving on to Santa Monica College.)
DP: Why community college?
CT: I have an affinity for community college, I understand community college. I went to community college after I graduated from high school. It was at community college that I really woke up to what my interest in education was, really.
Community college, we all understand that it’s the open access. What is real open access? Open access is when we don’t care who they are; the background of students is not such a concern. We provide an opportunity to students.
We get the students who haven’t done quite well before. Some of them have done very well, and they come here because they know the place, but we have a lot of students who are just … searching for themselves, searching for a future, searching for the right path for themselves. And it is in community college that so often they find their future.
This is the remarkable part of it. Because I experienced it myself and I know how it works.
DP: What do you think is the future in terms of the job market? What do you prepare students for?
CT: This is a technology and … modern-day economy. It requires people who are educated to add value to any organization. They have to be well-skilled, well-trained and they need to be able to work with other people. They need to be able to solve problems. And they need to be able to adapt to new environments. Those are the things that all companies are looking for.
We have a natural asset because we are a very diverse community and we counted up, at the time of the last survey we had of students, we know that over 40 percent came from a home that spoke a language other than English. So this is a natural asset we have with our population and we are going to make use of it instead of looking at them as an “English learner.” These are students that have a natural advantage. They have a cross-cultural background, they have a bilingual background. When they adapt to mainstream society they have already mastered the skills of working across cultures. Instead of looking at these as educational deficits, we need to look at these as assets.
DP: Any specific industries that are hot right now?
CT: Let’s take a look at software animation. This is a really robust program. It is one of the best programs. We have probably the most robust program in California. We offer over 50 different courses. Those courses are so over-subscribed. And not that other places won’t offer it, but they probably won’t be able to offer it. Because we’re so lucky we’re here in Southern California. We can find the people to teach and we can teach the latest.
Other areas that we are working on, that we are pushing for, (are) science technology, engineering and math.
That is the foundation to many jobs in the future. This is the fundamental training that they get here. When they have the fundamentals they can go on to get a four-year degree or a graduate-level degree. Many of the jobs in this area require graduate degrees, but they all have to start somewhere.
One of the most important areas that we have to provide a good foundation is skills. Those are really important because that’s what we are. We provide lower-division education, and that we want our students when they leave here, they will go to the university for their third year or fourth year of college very well prepared. And we’ve been successful at that. Many of these great universities come here to recruit from Santa Monica.
We send hundreds to USC, hundreds to UCLA, hundreds to Berkeley every year. Even Columbia comes here. They know our students, they come here. They accept 20 to 30 students every year from SMC. We’re the school they accept the most transfers outside of New York City.
DP: What’s the status of the contract education proposal?
CT: There is a program called the self-funded program that we are still looking at, but we are not in a hurry to implement a program, so we continue to study it, talk to people, see if there’s a need for it. But right now, what we want to do is focus our attention on the November election.
Why is that so important? There’s a proposal there that would mean a world of difference for us in community college, for this college. The impact of the failing of that proposal would mean we would immediately have to reduce our offerings by 500 sections on top of everything else we’ve already lost.
(Tsang is referring to Proposition 30, a measure by Gov. Jerry Brown that would increase taxes on the wealthiest Californians and raise the sales tax by one-quarter of one percent. SMC has cut 1,100 sections since the 2008-09 school year.)
DP: Were you surprised by the reaction to the self-funded idea?
(Self-funded classes, called the “two-tier system” by its opponents, would have required students to pay the full cost of their tuition in the summer. Protests, which some said were instigated by outsiders rather than SMC students, resulted in a pepper-spraying incident that made national news.)
CT: Yes. Because this is a program that harms nobody but creates new opportunities for those who choose to make for themselves this opportunity at a time when the state’s offerings have been reduced by so much. We know there are a lot of students who are not able to continue their education because they don’t have the classes. Not just in this system, but in the UCs, CSUs and community college.
For example, this summer we are one of the few community colleges that’s offering a full summer program in the entire (Los Angeles) basin.
So we were able to offer a robust, fairly robust summer program of 600 sections. East Los Angeles College has 200 sections and is the second highest in the entire Los Angeles basin.
Now, we also deficit spent $8 million. We’re trying to maintain the services to meet the need, however, we don’t have an unlimited amount of money. We’re running out of money, and that’s the message we tell people. We can’t pay for it anymore.
DP: What is the status of the independent review of the pepper spray incident?
CT: It’s ongoing … We want them to work on it diligently and thoroughly, and to make sure that we get a report that will be useful to us. We will use it to improve everything in the college. How the college will need to operate, the policies we may need to implement that will be different than what we have right now, how we need to educate our students to behave in the public and make sure they understand what free speech is, and how to express them in a way that would not jeopardize themselves or harm other people.
All of these are questions that we want the group to review and make recommendations to.