Eighteen applicants vied to become the Yosemite Community College District’s new chancellor. A committee then narrowed the field to two finalists, who then answered questions at public forums at Columbia College and Modesto Junior College.
But the board’s eventual choice for the important and challenging job likely surprised few: Former Columbia College president and Interim Chancellor Joan Smith won a three-year contract to head the two-college, 21,000-student district.
She was also, clearly, the right choice for the job.
Despite extreme economic circumstances, her four-year tenure at Columbia College was marked by accomplishment, progress and what Smith likes to call “doing more with less.”
Since last summer she has been the district’s interim chancellor, filling in for the retiring Roe Darnell while trustees began their search for a permanent chief. With shrinking budgets and far more Draconian cuts looming, the experience has been a baptism by fire for Smith.
Couple that with more than 20 years of teaching and administrative experience at Oxnard College and Ventura Community College, where she was vice-president for student learning, and you have a leader almost tailor made for the district’s top job.
Consider the highlights of her 2006-10 term at Columbia:
• With bond funds approved by voters in 2006, Smith guided the most ambitious campus building program since the college was constructed in the mid-1960s.
• She enhanced the college’s presence in Calaveras County with the district’s purchase of land for a satellite campus in Angels Camp.
• She has juggled a reduced budget and growing enrollment, somehow serving more students with less cash.
Smith’s strategy worked: Although the college lost about 16 percent of its faculty through retirement, during her administration it still offered full array of classes at about a tenth what four-year schools charge.
In addition, Columbia offers a host of vocational classes in areas ranging from nursing to auto repair. With valuable training, such classes give students an immediate leg up in today’s tight job market.
That Smith fulfilled her promise is clear. And, as she is most familiar with Columbia College, she will likely be an eloquent spokeswoman for the school and its needs during her tenure as chancellor.
None of which mean her job will get any easier.
On the day of her appointment, Smith warned that the college board must plan for “the most horrendous cuts” in its history, and that moves to shrink the state budget and the continuing moribund economy will finally force the Yosemite District to “do less with less.”
Worst-case cuts could slash more than 10 percent, or $13 million, from the district’s budget. And all this comes as more and more students are priced out of the four-year college market and looking to community colleges as an affordable option.
It amounts to a perfect storm of adverse circumstances for California’s two-year colleges.
In Joan Smith, however, the Yosemite district has chosen a chancellor qualified and able to weather that storm while keeping a sharp focus on its educational mission.