THE END OF AN ERA

Los Rios Community College Chancellor Brice Harris to retire

Originally Published in the SacCity Express
 May 1, 2012

by Matthew M. Joye | Staff Writer

The Los Rios Community College District trustees held a special board meeting in February at Sacramento City College to discuss a topic most of the trustees would rather not have addressed—the process of replacing the current Los Rios District chancellor. The last time the district had to select a new chancellor was 1996, well before most of the current board members were elected.

Chancellor Brice Harris is the longest-serving chancellor in Los Rios District history, according to Associate Vice Chancellor Susie Williams.

After having served 16 years, Harris will retire Aug. 31. For many students, faculty and trustees in the district, Harris is the only chancellor they have known.

The most telling sign came at the start of the special meeting when the board became bogged down in the minute details of the process. Trustee Deborah Ortiz brought the members back together with a hypothetical aside.

“I’d like to hold onto Brice forever… but that’s not an option,” Ortiz said.”[Wait] could we? Can we have a majority vote on that?”

The other trustees offered unanimous “ayes” in support.

According to Harris, he had already agreed with the board to put off his retirement last year because the tough economy dictated the necessity for an experienced leader.

“[The fiscal crisis] wasn’t going to get better right away, and frankly, the kind of news we’re having to deliver is better taken from somebody who’s been around a long time.” Harris said.

Harris, a 63-year-old native of Watonga, Okla., wasn’t always a community college chancellor and can clearly recall the first time he stepped in front of a classroom in January 1972.

“I was 23 years old and teaching in an urban central-city community college where most of the students were older than I was,” said Harris. “A lot of those people [were thinking], ‘You can’t be teaching this class.’”

Harris said his early participation both in faculty senate and as a department chair gave him two reasons to pursue an administrative role. He felt he could have an impact, and he really enjoyed the job. Harris said that he is going to miss being surrounded by “professionals” who are “passionate” about education and entered into a career that allows them to “better themselves.”

“I’m the old guy now,” Harris joked but added, “I’ve had the great fortune every day of coming to work in a business where I’m energized by people… who are up and coming, and I will miss that.”

There is evidence that feeling will be mutual for some. City College Dean of Learning Resources Rhonda Rios Kravitz said she would miss Harris’ leadership going forward.

“I think for me it is stellar leadership, [the] ability to lead in very tough times, the ability to have a vision and a commitment to students, to staff and faculty that is truly awe-inspiring,” Kravitz said.

According to City College Informational Technology Dean Elaine Ader, Harris understood that colleges thrive when the chancellor and board respect the colleges’ right to decide how instruction will be offered on campuses and that the district office should support their success.

“[The new facilities around campus are] where you see the balance between his vision and how the colleges are able to flourish underneath that [vision],” Ader said.

Harris’ tenure has seen district enrollment swell by 75 percent—from 52,000 students his first year to more than 92,000 in 2010—but the district has been able to keep pace largely due to the passage of two bond measures that provided the financial support to fund expansion and creation of new facilities. After two bond campaigns failed, Harris and other district leaders did not give up and continued to push for a third bond measure.

“When we got our first bond measure… it was what I call a feat of leadership,” recalls Classified Senate President Sharon Terry. “[Harris and former City College President Robert Harris] had all of us out there stumping the streets and manning phone lines… the kind of leadership that had people working together.”

Since the passage of the bonds, the district has added new facilities such as the City College parking structure as well as Folsom Lake College, the West Sacramento campus, and the Davis Center—which opened this spring—where Harris was on hand to help cut the ribbon at the dedication ceremony.

According to Harris, his shovel technique owes some debt to his father, a World War II veteran and accountant at a grain elevator where Harris spent his summers and vacation time away from school shoveling grain, fertilizer and driving a tractor to help pay his way through college, all while sharpening his focus on academics.

Harris said his father taught him a powerful lesson that “a [good] work ethic was one way… to continue to progress, whatever your career was.”

But Harris admitted he didn’t envision his career ending quite like this. Harris said no one could foresee the financial crisis in 2008, and the resulting state cuts in funding to community colleges, which have led to fewer classes and more students shut out of college altogether. Enrollment in the district has fallen to 87,000, but projected demand tops 100,000, Harris said.

“We’re telling students you can’t get all the classes you need, and in some cases there’s no place at all for you,” Harris said. ”It hits at the very foundation of why these colleges exist… it’s certainly not the way I had hoped to spend the last two or three years in this post.”

Harris said he finds it curious when people start to abandon ship during difficult times. In fact, he believes that challenging situations are why he and many others were hired in the first place.

“[It’s] easy to be a leader when there’s lots of money—a lot harder when there’s not,” Harris explains.

Harris’ advice for all LRCCD students reflects the new financial crisis that affects the students and the district. He believes that students don’t have the luxury of not being proactive and assertive.

“Students need to be more goal-directed,” Harris said. “I think they need to plan early and carefully, and that’s the best advice I can give.”

For those wishing to take a moment and bid farewell to Chancellor Brice Harris, a reception honoring his 16 years of service will be held Tuesday, May 8, at noon in the Art Court Theatre at City College.

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