Jenn House, The Union Democrat

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


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


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


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.