Though guiding the return from more than a year of COVID-19-imposed distance learning is his most obvious immediate concern, new Contra Costa Community College District Chancellor Bryan Reece said his chief long-term mission is no less clear.

“Community colleges are social justice engines, some with 85 to 90 percent students of color, some whose families have had a lesser experience in the U.S.,” said Reece, who was formally appointed the college district’s new chancellor on Oct. 22. “We’re trying to change the trajectory of these families’ lives by injecting education into them.”

And he said the Contra Costa district’s existing work in that arena was a draw for him personally.

Reece said community colleges are the ideal place to promote social justice, to empower people to share this nation’s wealth, to close the equity gap that, for the past few decades, has been opening wider. Community colleges, he said, are already doing the lion’s share of starting disadvantaged students on the path to a rewarding career.

He knows from personal experience how it can transform lives, now and later, and hopes to help speed up his new district’s ongoing progress in this direction.

“I came from a difficult background, and education changed my whole life — it’s had a generational impact,” said Reece, who has written a soon-to-drop book about community colleges’ role in the social justice movement.

A change of direction

With three decades of work in higher education, including 18 years as a political science professor at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Reece had most recently served as president of Norco College and its 14,000 students in Riverside County.

Reece, who had been Norco’s president for three years, was fired in June 2019, with no official reason ever given.

Norco had been pursuing social justice goals for several years by that time, Reece said, and there was an “abrupt change in direction” on that issue among Riverside Community College District board members. Reece and five other administrators were fired at that point.

The primary conflict, Reece said, was over how to move ahead with social justice programs. He contends grass-roots decision-making at the college campus level works better with such matters than do governing board directives.

“We have to have strong engagement and creativity, and you kill that when you have these decisions coming from the district down.”

Chancellor Byran Reece

“We have to have strong engagement and creativity, and you kill that when you have these decisions coming from the district down,” he said.

And as was the case with the Riverside Community College District, Reece said he sees the Contra Costa Community College District’s three main campuses — Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Los Medanos College in Pittsburg and Contra Costa College in San Pablo — have distinct personalities and cultures. A one-size-fits-all solution to a social justice issues doesn’t necessarily work across the board, he said.

Social justice programs have evolved more-or-less separately at the Contra Costa Community College District’s three main campuses, Reece said, and the district’s support of that approach was one reason he wanted to come to the Martinez-based district. And while he said he found personnel on all three campuses and in the district offices who were closely attuned to that social justice mission, he also arrived to find a governing board with two members this year having acknowledged ethics violation complaints against them, and other board members accused of making that and other processes vindictive and overtly political.

To run across such acrimony wasn’t a surprise, Reece said, nor a deal-breaker.

“To me it felt there was a temporary issue that popped up, and that it’s de-escalating,” Reece said.

The four-year plan

The overriding mission of Contra Costa’s colleges, as with most public community colleges, remains two-fold, Reece said — to prepare students to transfer to four-year universities, and to help train students for jobs. The district, and DVC in particular, have for several years been at or near the top in percentage of students successfully transferring to a four-year school. And regarding jobs, Reece noted the college district has been working for years with area employers to provide the training they and prospective workers want, including through the district’s Guided Pathways program that helps set students on the course toward careers in fields that, oftentimes, are desperately searching for workers.

“More people than ever before will have to be part of this” beyond the district’s counselors, whom Reece said there aren’t enough of.

It was decided before Reece’s appointment that the district’s three colleges will remain on distance learning through the end of this 2020-21 school year. Doing that better, he added, will remain an ongoing process of “teaching faculty how to teach” as a matter of professional development.

Though the fervent hope is for in-classroom learning to return for the 2021-22 school year, Reece said that some lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic will be of use even after the district’s three campuses are bustling with activity again. Some classes could remain entirely or partly distanced, Reece said, and better availability of counseling and library services online could also result.

“We will emerge with new strengths, offering services online that we didn’t have before the pandemic,” he said.