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Our View: Sierra’s next prez should have vision, be much more visible

Our View
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The communiqué was short and delivered with little fanfare, but the message was clear: Sierra College is looking for a problem-solver to be its next president. The college’s seven-member board of trustees should involve the public as much as possible in the search and selection process. In a short letter released recently to college staff, President Leo Chavez announced he would step down as president effective June 30, 2011, citing he would rather leave “when things were going well rather than hang around too long and be pushed out” like many of his peers nationwide. It’s hard to fault Chavez’s logic. Education administrators, from small elementary school principals to large university presidents and chancellors, face enormous pressure balancing funding cuts with increased demand for classes and programs. The pressure is especially high at California community colleges, where fees are the lowest in the country —$780 per year compared to the national average of $2,062, according to Sierra’s annual community report. The dysfunctional state legislature’s inability to balance its budget and properly fund higher education only adds to the burden. Sierra also has a broad mission: Provide thousands of hopeful university students with the first two years of post-secondary education while offering vocational programs, job skills training and workforce development programs to thousands of others. Chavez has done a credible job in his four years at Sierra. He joined the college in July 2006 following the controversial departure of former president Kevin Ramirez, and stabilized a wobbly ship with his patience, intelligence and professionalism — attributes he demonstrated well in the last year alone. Earlier this year, he contracted with the Rocklin Police Department to provide security services on the sprawling campus. By most accounts, the relationship has improved campus safety while saving money. In February, Chavez and trustees directed staff to find ways to save the college’s respected agriculture, automotive and construction programs. While the programs were reduced and their long-term survival awaits a November decision, the lifeline gave many students a chance at certificates and degrees they can parlay into employment. Chavez has created a culture that listens to student concerns, makes reasoned, thoughtful decisions and engages the community in the process. Such was recognized this spring when Placer County recognized the college for developing innovative training and education programs that meet local employers staffing demands. “He has done everything the board has asked him to do and deserves immense credit for setting Sierra College on a fiscally sustainable path,” said Trustee Aaron Klein. Moving forward, trustees should involve Chavez, students, teachers, business leaders and other groups in attracting the best possible candidates for the job. A series of open forums on what stakeholders want in a new president should be called, and trustees should survey their constituents on attributes of a top leader. And the focus should be keenly on the Rocklin campus. Overworked and underfunded, the South Placer facility is in dire need of repairs, maintenance and new construction. Its curriculum, such as the vocational programs mentioned, is being stretched to the brink. The next president will need the steady hand of Chavez and the visionary leadership of Dr. Bryce Jessup, the recently retired president of William Jessup University across town in Rocklin. Charismatic and passionate, Jessup turned a trendy ex-furniture factory into the region’s only private residential university. During his tenure, Jessup’s visibility was unquestioned and his positive attitude was infectious, attracting both local and national business acclaim — and funding. Sierra trustees have a year to find Chavez’s successor, but that year will go by quickly. Start now, and give the college an opportunity to match the best and brightest candidates with the community’s needs.