The public got its first chance Friday to hear from a candidate for president and superintendent of SBCC.
Three other finalists are scheduled to speak Thursday, including Lori Gaskin of West Valley College in Saratoga, Willard Lewallen of West Hills College in Coalinga and David Viar of American River College in Sacramento.
After being introduced by SBCC political science professor John Kay, Oakley gave the audience a bit of his background.
Growing up near South Central Los Angeles, Oakley said, he “committed many of the mistakes that many of my friends committed ... but I had the support of parents and family that saw me through those challenges.”
Oakley said he didn’t choose to go to college right after high school, and wasn’t quite sure how to navigate the process.
“I see the faces of people like me, who grew up in Southern California, who have the same challenges,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going in this system.”
After college, Oakley served in the military for four years.
“I spent most of those years jumping out of airplanes,” he said. “The politics of the community college system are nothing compared to what I had to do for those four years.”
“It was the gateway to the opportunities that I now enjoy,” he said, adding that he then transferred to UC Irvine.
He has worked at Long Beach City College for 10 years, and has been president since 2007.
If chosen as SBCC’s next president, Oakley said, the most important first step is to establish a relationship with the Board of Trustees.
“The good news for you is that you are not alone in the struggles you are facing in Santa Barbara,” he said, noting that all community colleges are facing challenges, between budget challenges and accreditation.
Budget woes are complicated by a ballot measure that will be going before voters this fall, asking them to approve a tax plan that would help fund community colleges.
“We need to really think about what kind of college do we want to be over the next five years, given the pressures,” he said.
In the past, colleges have been rewarded for growth, but that isn’t the case today, according to Oakley. That will require leadership to examine what programs are viable to the workforce, creating a “difficult conversation,” he said.
SBCC’s turmoil with a recent critical report by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges wasn’t left untouched during Oakley’s talk. SBCC was recently put on warning status as the result of a complaint filed last summer alleging that the Board of Trustees was out of compliance with a number of accreditation standards.
“You obviously have a little issue with the accrediting commission,” said Oakley, noting that other community colleges are finding themselves in similar situations.
Long Beach City College was also on warning, he said, and Ventura College was placed on probation earlier this year.
“If you’re not on warning, you’ve done something wrong in the last 10 years,” he said, adding that he was very familiar with the commission and its president, Barbara Beno.
As for fixing the areas that are lagging, “I’m confident that can be done,” he said. “You have seven members of the board who believe in this college and believe that it needs to move forward.”
When asked about leaving his current position, Oakley said he hopes LBCC would be a better place after his service as president there. He oversaw $800 million in construction at the college, funded by two bond measures.
“We’ve transformed the college,” he said. “That would be my legacy, and that’s the kind of experience I would love to bring to SBCC.”
SBCC’s Continuing Education program also came up, and Oakley was asked what he thought the future of that program would be.
“It’s clear to me that the community values these programs,” he said, adding that a balance must be struck between what the community wants and the fiscal constraints the college faces.
Long Beach has a robust program for older adults, he said, and the program was recently converted to fee-based so it no longer affected the school’s state apportionment process.
“There was some turmoil at first, but we were able to do that,” he said.
Oakley also was asked about recent layoffs that took place at LBCC. College leaders realized that $5 million in reductions need to be made to the college’s budget, which amounted to 43 classified positions, as well as a dozen management positions. Not all of those people will lose their jobs, he said, and the college has done its best to remain transparent about the process.
“Certainly not everyone agrees with the cuts,” he said.
One questioner asked what grade the unions at LBCC would give him. Oakley said he listed former union presidents and negotiators on his reference list, and “I think they would tell you that I’m fair,” he said. “We’re going to disagree ... but we have to establish a respectful environment where we can have discussions to solve that process.”
In closing, Oakley thanked the audience.
“This is already a great college, and it would be a privilege to make it an even better college,” he said. “I think that’s possible.”