Retiring Santa Monica City College President Chui L. Tsang reflects on nearly 10 years of raising expectations, lowering barriers

Chiu L. Tsang is returning to Northern California after nearly a decade  as president of Santa Monica College Photo by Mia Duncans

Chiu L. Tsang is returning to Northern California after nearly a decade
as president of Santa Monica College
Photo by Mia Duncans

At the end of June, Santa Monica College President Dr. Chui L. Tsang will retire after nearly a decade at the college’s helm.

Recognized last year by the Carnegie Corporation of New York as one of America’s “Great Immigrants,” Tsang was born in China and came to the United States in 1971 to attend college in the San Francisco Bay Area. The 63-year-old holds a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University.

Tsang was president of San Jose City College when in 2005 he was selected to lead SMC. He and his wife are moving back to Northern California, where his three adult children still live.

When Tsang announced his plans to retire in February, he underscored the resilience of the college community:
from weathering the impacts of the recession to uniting in mourning in the wake of a 2013 shooting spree that ended on the campus and left five people dead.

He also highlighted the college’s current financial health, its reputation for “rigorous academic standards, innovative practices, and student-centered pedagogies” and distinguished faculty.

Santa Monica remains the top community college in California for transfers to
a four-year university and was recently approved to offer a bachelor’s degree in Interaction Design under a state pilot program, Tsang noted.

“I believe that Santa Monica College will continue to lead the way as the standard bearer for community college education and a model for the increasingly important role that community colleges must play in California’s system of public higher education,” he said.

Santa Monica College has about 33,000 students, 1,900 faculty members and staff, and last year operated on an annual budget of about $120 million.

College officials have launched a nationwide search to find Tsang’s replacement, a process that is expected to take the rest of this year. SMC Executive Vice President Jeffrey Shimizu will serve as interim president during the search process.

— Bonnie Eslinger

How are you preparing for your retirement?

I’m trying to prepare for the [leadership] transition, making sure that the responsibilities are passed on. And making sure that those who are on the receiving end of this are aware not just of the service level of the work involved, but some of the intricacies of it.

What are main qualities the college should be looking for in its next president?

I think maybe they should get someone totally different, unlike me [he laughs], but I’ll leave that for the board to decide. This is a very rewarding job [but] it’s a very complicated operation. Yet at the same time we have a very, very supportive community.  So for someone who can do well, they need to take advantage of the resources we have, the excellent faculty that we have and the great staff that’s been working here. And build on that legacy, build on the successes we’ve had in the past, build on the reputation that we’ve already developed among our partners and other higher education institutions and look for new opportunities.

How would you like to be remembered for your tenure at Santa Monica College?

Again, for the work that we’ve done. I’ve been closely working with colleagues, with a lot of very dedicated people, to make a difference for our students. And
we have been successful by and large, and that’s been very fulfilling.

Can you be more specific?

We have students who came here not knowing what they came here to get. But they’ve taken three buses to get here, because they heard from other people that this was a good place. And they came here and they found themselves and they found their bearings and then they went on to be what they can be. Over and over again, each one of them is a touching story with a lot more details.

We believe that everyone can learn. You hear people talk about that all the time, but we practice it. It is that belief — that genuine approach — that a lot of the students feel. It’s what the students tell me. That’s the satisfaction I get out of it.

What’s unique about Santa Monica College?

The opportunities that students get: They can study abroad, they can get an internship in Washington D.C., they can go on a field trip with faculty members in Belize. These are not common opportunities students can find in a lower-division community college. But we are freely accessible to anyone who wants an education. This is not an elite institution where only students who can pay a lot or are from well-qualified backgrounds can come. This is where any student, if they want to work hard, can access those opportunities.  That’s important.

What’s been your role in the success of the college? Are you a hands-on or hands-off administrator?

I think it’s both.  It’s hard to keep my hands off because you find all this interesting work that’s happening. I go to classrooms; I help lecture sometimes. I go to student clubs; I talk to students. I enjoy that part of it. But at the same time, I deal with the administration at the college. I have to deal with going to Sacramento to fight for more money. I have to deal with the politics at different levels that comes with the job of representing an institution of this size.

You mentioned going to Sacramento to fight for funding. What’s your pitch to state legislators?

The easy pitch is most kids want to come to our community college and we need to do a better job. We have to provide high-quality instruction and better care for our students so more of them can be successful. We cannot give each the kind of customized care one would get in the elite institutions, but we need to approach the level of care that would actually yield some results, and not just go through the motions.

This is a good place to invest our tax money in. Let me say that again: It’s an investment, not an expenditure. We get it back many fold.

What are your plans after June 30?

I’ll take some time off, relax and enjoy the things I’m not able to enjoy now, simple things.  I’ll have more time to slow down and do that.