Community colleges in California have a long and proud history of excellence. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, the father of current Gov. Jerry Brown, led the way to the creation of a university and community college system that was second to none nationally, attracted international students and allowed wealthy students as well as those from middle and lower income families to pursue a quality education.
While one can still obtain the latter at California schools, including community colleges, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to afford. The majority of higher education institutions, including Santa Monica College, are battling budget deficits, which led its Board of Trustees to pursue a controversial policy of charging students $180 for core classes during the summer session. Last month, the college’s Board of Trustees voted to cancel the winter session due to a lack of state funding.
SMC President Chui Tsang realizes the changes that are taking place at community colleges – including his own – as well as the challenges that they must overcome.
Tsang, who attended Contra Costa Community College in Northern California before graduating from UC-Berkley, has a history of running community colleges. The SMC president thinks his college can still offer students an excellent education, despite the financial hurdles at the state level.
In an interview with The Argonaut last month, Tsang discussed some of what he believes are the college’s strengths, the state of education of community colleges in California, the reason why the board decided to cancel the winter session, the June pepper spraying incident and the importance of Proposition 30. Prop 30 is a ballot initiative crafted by Gov. Brown that would impose higher income taxes on those earning in excess of $250,000 as well as raise the state sales tax from 7.25 to 7.5 percent and allocate 89 percent of the temporary tax revenues to K-12 schools and 11 percent to community colleges.
He also discussed some of the community college’s new programs geared toward students who are seeking to start new careers and that are linked to local industries, such as a one-year rigorous program for medical technicians. Another is a new initiative that will give students, through the school’s academy for entertainment and digital technology, opportunities to work in Santa Monica’s film and television post production industry.
What about Santa Monica College do you see as president that continues to attract students from all walks of life?
We have a very strong and rigorous academic program that can take students from a very underprepared level of education to get them to be college prepared so they can go on to finish their freshman and sophomore years and have the opportunity to go to the university of their choice…. Opportunities that they may not have had before they started coming here.
And a student can access our college at any point, whether they come directly from high school not very well prepared or as one of the top students in their high school.
What drew you to Santa Monica College?
The rich learning experience that was here and is here was what impressed me with this place. I’m familiar with many community colleges because of my background.
There are few community colleges that can come close to the learning opportunities that this place offers, and it’s recognized by others. We draw international students because of our reputation.
You have also added classes that will link students with local digital companies and to the film industry.
This is the entertainment capital of the world.
You take a natural population like that and we provide one of the key ingredients in creating this technical path for our students and the industry to combine all of these skills together.
Institutions of higher education, including community colleges, are charging higher tuition than in past years. Students at times are forced to extend their college careers due to the lack of availability of certain classes. How is SMC coping with these and other hurdles?
We face many, many challenges. The system that we have (in California) is set up to fund education in a general way. It does not give us extra to create excellence, so we see pockets of excellence, here and there, around the state. But not a lot.
And yet we find so many successful programs at Santa Monica College because we have had great leaders, a very supportive community that understands the value of education and a very good faculty.
How much has technology played a factor in education?
It has had a very large impact on education, especially since today’s students are much savvier than in past years. Many of our students are taking classes online and for many students it provides them with a certain level of comfort.
The Board of Trustees sought to impose a two-tiered system of education last year. That was eventually shelved, but the response from many in the student body resisting this proposal made national headlines.
We were giving students the opportunity to take a core class at a rate that they were willing to pay in a time and a way that they felt was worth it. Also, associated with that idea was we thought we could take some students out of the line that were lining up for these limited seats that are funded by the state.
There was some controversy before and after the college chose to cancel the winter session. Can you explain why the board took that position?
With the continuing budget reductions that we are faced with and with the uncertainty of a midyear reduction, the college board is not scheduling a winter session so that we can minimize the effect of any change that may happen with the tax proposal.
Pedagogically, it affects the smallest number of students and has the least impact on students’ progress.
How does Proposition 30, the tax measure sponsored by Gov. Brown, factor into the state of education, especially regarding community colleges?
We have lost 12 percent of our funding over the last few years. We’re faced with losing another 5 or 6 percent or more. If the tax proposals pass, we can stop the decline. (If Prop. 30 fails), this will have a devastating effect on education in California because we will have an immediate drop of $7-8 million.
Regarding the pepper spraying incident, where does the investigation stand?
We have an independent panel that is working very hard, getting information from a lot of different sources and various reports to examine it in a way that will be most objective. We’re looking forward to seeing the report, but we don’t have any conclusions yet.
What are your thoughts on the future of education?
If we want our future to be as bright as it was in the past, we have to do something about this. We need to stop looking at education as expenditure and start to look at it again as an investment by those who fund education.