“The Right Leader at the Right Time”: A Tribute to Chancellor Brice Harris

ASCCC President

In early April of 2016, one of California’s finest leaders will step down from his post as chancellor of the California Community College System. Brice Harris, who took office as chancellor in November of 2012, announced in Fall 2015 his plan to retire in spring.  Chancellor Harris has led the system with dignity and class, and under his direction the colleges have achieved outstanding results.  His confident and effective leadership and his personal charisma have earned the respect of everyone connected with the California Community Colleges.

When Chancellor Harris took his position, the state was just emerging from a devastating economic period, but the new leader of the system approached the situation with a positive attitude that coaxed and compelled others forward toward success.  Bill Scroggins, Superintendent-President of the Mt. San Antonio CCD, describes the situation of that time and the chancellor’s method of addressing the challenges:

When Brice Harris took the reins of our system in 2012, we were in the worst four-year period in our history. Brice was energized by this, calling the denial of access “a crisis in the making” for California’s future. Even then, he was optimistic, often saying, “I believe the best days are ahead of us!” He was right, largely because his leadership drove us to succeed.

Erik Skinner, Deputy Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, offers a similar perspective on Chancellor Harris’ visionary and positive leadership style:

Chancellor Harris was the right leader at the right time. The California Community College System was poised to implement a bold, transformative plan to advance student success, and we needed someone who could move it forward. His leadership, strategic skills, and first and foremost his relationships at both the college and state levels allowed him to chart the path forward for numerous ground-breaking reforms. His tenure as Chancellor is marked by an unprecedented level of innovation which yielded many positive changes that will benefit generations of community college students to come.

In the past three years, California community colleges have made huge strides in increasing student success:  course success rates, annual degree and certificate awards, transfers to the CSU system, and success rates in remedial English and math courses have all increased. At the same time, more than two thousand associate degrees for transfer have been developed and approved throughout the state, the system has signed a student transfer agreement with nine Historically Black Colleges in the southeastern United States, and major initiatives or pilot programs in the areas of institutional effectiveness, inmate education, career technical education and workforce development, online education, common assessment, educational planning, and community college bachelor’s degrees have all been instituted and are in many cases already showing positive results.  The chancellor’s influence has been a key factor in all of these achievements of the California Community College System.

Chancellor Harris’ leadership style and personal characteristics have been essential to the success that the California Community Colleges have enjoyed during his tenure.  Grossmont-Cuyamaca CCD Chancellor Cindy Miles offers the following comment on these qualities:

California’s community colleges may never again see such a consummate leader, communicator, and statesman as Brice Harris. In three swift years as our state chancellor, he applied his practical and political wisdom to guide innovative transformations in California Community Colleges that will improve the achievements and prosperity of our students and communities for years to come. With a wild array of competing constituencies and soaring demands, these have not been easy changes to enact. Despite the challenge, however, Brice is ever the gentleman with just the right words, broad smile, and laser focus on what matters.    

Constance Carroll, Chancellor of the San Diego CCD, likewise notes Chancellor Harris’ outstanding record in leading the system:

Brice Harris has done a phenomenal job as the leader of our enormous community college system.  Under his leadership, the colleges have seen their budgets restored after a ruinous recession and have received strong guidance to excel in ensuring student success.  Brice has been supportive of innovation, including the bachelor’s degree pilot, and he has lent his support to funding more full-time faculty.  Above all, Brice has been accessible to all of us, returning calls and emails within just a few hours despite the many demands on his time.  Brice Harris has achieved many things benefiting the California Community Colleges, always with a gracious and professional manner.

The comments from these respected district leaders highlight various important aspects of Chancellor Harris’ leadership style, including his support for creativity and innovation and his wisdom in terms of political, fiscal, and hiring issues.  However, they also indicate another important characteristic that has allowed the chancellor to advance the system in such significant ways: the relationships he establishes by being personally responsive and taking specific interest in each individual with whom he interacts. 

Chancellor Harris has served not just as an example but also as a personal mentor for many administrative leaders throughout the system.  Sunita Cooke, Superintendent-President of the Mira Costa CCD, tells this story of her initial experience with the chancellor:

I first had the opportunity to talk with Brice Harris when he was Chancellor at Los Rios Community College District.  I knew that he was highly regarded as a leader and led a well-run district. At a Community College League of California conference, I decided to introduce myself to him and sit down to pick his brain. As I talked with him, he displayed his humility and his humor. He did not rush to give me advice and tell me how I should do things. Instead, he asked me questions and when prompted, he shared his approach to similar issues. Most importantly, he gave generously of his time and experience.

This personal interest that Chancellor Harris takes in helping and acknowledging those around him extends not only to college CEOs and other administrators but also to Chancellor’s Office staff and to the leadership of other constituencies.  Pam Walker, Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs in the Chancellor’s Office, makes the following observation:

Brice Harris is an "old school" leader. He writes notes of thanks and of caring and to endorse great work and that's not a practice found today but everyone likes to be thought of. 

The personal touch that Chancellor Harris takes with all those around him is a characteristic for which many who have had the pleasure to interact with him will remember him, and that quality has been a key to his success in his position and the success of the community college system.

The chancellor’s charismatic and visionary leadership style has helped him maintain strong relationships with all constituent groups.  Larry Galizio, President and CEO of the Community College League of California, offers this comment:

Chancellor Harris is that rare person who inspires confidence, engenders respect, and is lauded as a highly effective leader by the multiple and diverse constituencies constituting California's Community Colleges.  The League Boards and Staff are grateful to Chancellor Harris for his intense focus on student success, institutional support, and exemplary leadership through economic recession and recovery. We will miss him dearly.

The sentiments of President Galizio and the League are shared by other organizations throughout the system, all of whom will feel the loss of the chancellor’s leadership.

Yet while Chancellor Harris has developed strong relationships with all constituencies, his fairness, common sense, and dedication to consultative processes have gained and held a special respect and admiration from the state’s faculty leadership.  Former Academic Senate President Jane Patton recalls her first interaction with Chancellor Harris:

My first encounter with Brice was on a Chancellor’s Office task force (way back when Kate Clark was president) about finance—and ways to reduce costs.  He entered the room lugging a huge stack (over a foot high) of reports that his district, Los Rios, had to file!  That dramatic visual made his point better than words could!  My first impression: that this was a guy with a firm grasp of reality.  My later experiences with him confirmed that impression.  

Jane Patton’s recollection of Chancellor Harris’ ability to illustrate and address a problem he wanted to see solved is an example of the chancellor’s direct, common sense approach to issues and to his desire to cut through unnecessary bureaucracy to achieve a goal.  This quality always helped him to bring conversations to a practical level that has moved his interactions and consultation with faculty in positive directions.

Jonathan Lightman, Executive Director of the Faculty Association for California Community Colleges, notes Chancellor Harris’ ability to work collegially with faculty and other constituencies through difficult moments:

Amidst the politically charged (and often tense) atmosphere of Sacramento, Brice Harris always demonstrated leadership through inspiration and vision, never through anger, threats, or intimidation. Whether or not we agreed on an issue, we remained on the same team—dedicated to the same institutions, faculty, and students. Brice will always be viewed as a true champion of the California Community Colleges and his leadership on behalf of our system will be missed.

The calm, inclusive approach that the chancellor always exhibited earned him the trust and confidence of all system constituencies and created a sense of teamwork that was key to the progress that the system has made.

My own experiences with the chancellor have led me to develop similar respect and admiration for him.  I first met Brice Harris when he was chancellor of the Los Rios District and we were both members of the Student Success Task Force in 2011.  Throughout that task force process, Chancellor Harris was consistently collegial and respectful of the faculty voice, often working with the faculty members of the task force to guide discussions in the directions that we believed would best serve the system. When he was appointed chancellor for the system, I knew we were getting a leader who would help us to move forward with fairness and wisdom.

Not only have I never had a moment to doubt that my initial expectations of Brice Harris’s performance as the system’s leader were correct, but if anything those expectations have been exceeded.  In my first meeting with the chancellor after I became ASCCC president, he stated, “I get pretty busy sometimes, but if you need me for something that’s urgent, just tell Karen [Gilmer, his executive assistant] that you really need to talk to me and she will get you through to me.”  The chancellor has lived up to that recognition of the importance of the faculty voice in all instances.  He has consistently respected and listened to input from the ASCCC and other faculty organizations, and I have been proud to both work with him and learn from him.

The contributions of Chancellor Brice Harris to California’s community colleges cannot be overstated.  He has been an inspirational and strong leader who has earned the respect of the entire system. The Academic Senate, like all of our system partners, thanks him for all of his efforts and for his leadership and wishes him the very best in his retirement.