California’s community colleges are fundamentally transforming their operations and outlook as they navigate the compounding impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse, and national reckoning with systemic racism.
Two new reports show that the disruptions forced schools to adapt at an unprecedented pace and create innovative solutions for online learning and student support. As the multiple crises have highlighted and exacerbated inequities, leaders from the nation’s largest and most diverse higher education system are hopeful that the momentum for action can be leveraged into more opportunities for students from low-income families and communities of color.
Turning on a Dime, about the response to the pandemic and economic calamity, was informed by interviews with 20 community college presidents; Toward a More Perfect Institution is based on a survey about racism and bias on campuses that was filled out by 41 community college presidents. The companion reports were produced by Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research at the UC Davis School of Education and funded by College Futures Foundation.
College presidents reported making changes over the course of mere weeks that previously might have taken months and years to do – moving classes online; setting up centers for food, technology, and other basic needs; and distributing emergency grants. Colleges have also played an important role in their broader communities, extending basic needs support to residents as well as providing resources such as protective equipment to frontline health workers.
Their response to the widespread national protests about institutional racism has been less publicly visible. Campuses have issued statements of solidarity and held town hall meetings, and college leaders said that they are integrating race and equity issues into strategic planning and professional development.
When asked about ways that racism shows up on campus, 20 of the 41 college presidents who answered the survey mentioned hiring and promotion practices. Classroom interactions and curriculum came in second, noted by 13 respondents. College leaders cited several barriers to changing practices and policies: many faculty and staff are uncomfortable with discussing race and racism, leaders face high risk and little incentive to challenge the status quo, and colleges operate under multiple layers of structure, in governance, finance, and hiring.
Still, as colleges continue to grapple with economic and social challenges, campus leaders said they have learned that change is not only necessary, it’s possible. “Not since Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” said one college president, “have I believed our society was this ripe for the transformational change needed to close equity gaps and restructure systems for justice less influenced by white power and white privilege.”