March 15, 2002

Commentary

The Time Is Now For A Latino Chancellor

by Jerome Orlando Torres

Over the past few days, an unprecedented number of prominent Latino community leaders and elected officials are mobilizing to advocate that the next appointments to the University of California Board of Regents representing Riverside County as well as the Chancellor for UC-Riverside be filled by qualified Latinos. The term for the current UC Regent, Sue Johnson, expired on March 1st. The current UCR Chancellor, Raymond Orbach, was recently appointed by President Bush to be the next Director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. His replacement could be named within weeks. The first and last Latino Chancellor in the UC System was Tomás Rivera who died on the job in 1983 while serving, coincidentally, as the Chancellor of UC-Riverside.

Why is this news story so important? For two reasons. First, it illustrates the growing state-wide political prowess of California Latinos. Second, it serves as a framework for local Latino leaders to emulate with regard to two similar key appointments in our local system of public education.

At the state level, in this post Proposition 209 climate, political conditions exist that could prove critical toward the success of this audacious campaign. Today, Latinos comprise 34% of the State's population. More and more are going to the voting polls. A fact not lost on politicians and their appointees. Governor Gray Davis has already shown his willingness to support high-level appointments of Latinos by his recent appointment of a distinguished Latino jurist, Carlos Moreno, to the California Supreme Court. Since Davis' election, the composition of the UC Regents has changed and so has their attitude toward the issue of cultural diversity. However, although students of color outnumber white students on the UC campuses, nine of the 10 Chancellors are white. The other is Asian. Conversely, four of the 23 presidencies within the CSU System are held by Latinos. As the key decision-makers, it is no wonder that Governor Davis and UC President Atkinson are being aggressively lobbied.

The National Alliance for Human Rights, based in Riverside, is spearheading this campaign. It has been joined by each of the 18 Latino members of the California delegation of the U.S. House of Representatives. National and state offices of distinguished Latino advocacy groups such as LULAC, MALDEF, MAPA, and the National Council of La Raza are mobilizing. Led by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, Democratic Majority Leader, it is anticipated that the 22 member Latino Caucus of the California Assembly and Senate will soon join the effort.

Looking at Riverside County it is easy to understand the aspirations of local Latino community leaders. Over the past 10 years, the number of Latinos has virtually exploded comprising 36% of the present total population. UC-Riverside has undergone a tremendous transformation as well. It is the fastest growing and one of the most culturally diverse campuses in the entire UC System. It has attained national stature as a center for teaching and research excellence. The campus has become a major force in the local economy of Riverside County. This transformation is the legacy of the outgoing Chancellor, Raymond Orbach. His shoes will be hard to fill.

Here in San Diego County, the winds of change are approaching as well. Today, Latinos comprise 27% of the County's total population. Latinos comprise no less than 22% of the population in 10 of the 18 incorporated cities. The largest concentration is in the City of San Diego.

Today, distinguished Latino educators have assumed chief executive positions at several local institutions of higher education. One of the two California State Universities in San Diego County has a Latino as President - Alexander Gonzalez at CSU San Marcos. Three of the County's five Community College Districts have Latinos serving as Chief Executives. They include Chancellor Omero Suarez at Grossmont-Cuyamaca, Superintendent/President Serafin Zasueta at Southwestern and Chancellor Augustin Gallego at San Diego. However, within the next couple years we could lose a critical member of this team. Four years ago, Chancellor Gallego stated he was leaving his position after 2002. Fortunately for all of us, his contract was extended for one more year. His prominence within the local community and higher education is beyond reproach. Who will fill the vacuum left by his departure once he leaves?

Yet, this key appointment in our local system of public education is only one of two I previously mentioned. The other, more immediate and vital, is the appointment of the next Superintendent of San Diego City Schools.

Four years ago, the Superintendent Search Committee, led by Rich Collato, gave token consideration to a highly qualified Latino educator, Dr. Peter Negroni, in favor of the locally popular, but vastly under-qualified, U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin. Downtown business interests successfully lobbied for Bersin's candidacy, and Board President, Ron Ottinger, became his champion. The result? The State's second largest school district has never been more polarized and demoralized. The governing body has been effectively fractured, co-opted and marginalized. Today, the Board of Education is viewed with derision and disdain. From the Eugene Brucker Education Center to the halls of elementary and secondary school sites, fear and suspicion has been institutionalized. Because of poor planning and implementation, a reallocation of over $100 million to support the so-called Blueprint for Student Success is being wasted. Last year's flat test scores leave many wondering if this year the bottom will fall out. Worse, there has been virtually no improvement in closing the historical academic achievement gap. For these reasons and more, the San Diego Education Association, representing 11,000 teachers, and the Latino Education Coalition both issued public "No Confidence Votes."

The contract of current Superintendent Bersin is set to expire on June 30th. Yet, it is presumed by many that his contract will be extended. Why? By any objective measure, Bersin has proven he is neither a leader nor an administrator. Beginning with the Business Roundtable and San Diego Dialogue, it is time to present the case to the array of Bersin apologists and supporters that the wrong person was hired for the job and it is time to move on. Despite what anyone says, Bersin is not indispensable to continuing the reforms needed to turn around San Diego City Schools. Other, more qualified Latino educators can handle the job. One of many examples is Superintendent Chaconas in Oakland Unified School District who is attempting the unimaginable.

If Latinos are to become full partners in the body politic of San Diego, then we must stop allowing our interests to be continually dismissed or ignored. The only question to ask is: "Are we ready, willing and able to use our collective political muscle toward this effort?" If not for our children, then for what? If not now, then when?

Jerome Torres is a political columnist and was a Policy Analyst for the Board of Education of the San Diego Unified School District. He can be reached at jotorres22@msn.com.

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