By Yvette tenBerge
It is 9:30 a.m. on September 10, and the members of the San Diego and Imperial County Community Colleges Association (SDICCCA) have come together at the County Office of Education for their informal, monthly meeting. Before taking his seat at the head of the table, Dr. Omero Suarez, Chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and President of SDICCCA, takes the time to greet each of the Chief Executive Officers of San Diego's six community college districts and representatives from each of its public, four-year universities who make up the association.
He takes his seat and then proceeds to guide all present through the two-hour meeting in which SDICCCA members chide each other about football losing streaks, tackle headaches such as parking shortages and discuss solutions to more widespread problems like drastic cuts in state funding for California community colleges and the public's lack of awareness as to all that community colleges have to offer.
The efficiency and ease with which Dr. Suarez, 54, is able to run a two-college district or an issue-packed meeting such as those held by SDICCCA does little to hint at the Chancellor's humble roots. One of eleven children, he was born in Brownsville, Texas to a poor, Mexican migrant family. This son of agricultural migrants considers himself an "educational migrant" who had already surpassed his goal of becoming a high school teacher long before the time he signed on as Chancellor of the district.
"I think it's nothing short of a major development that I am the Chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca District. I was the first person in my family to go to college and to a university, and I encouraged my younger siblings to pursue an education. Every one of them did," says Dr. Suarez, whose eyes begin to tear. "I think it's nothing short of a major development when one considers my impoverished background."
Dr. Suarez became Chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca District in October 1998. He quickly established a mission and five principles by which the district now approaches major challenges. This program, which he has dubbed "The Way Forward," focuses on unity, standardization, alignment, funding and facilities.
Founded in 1961, this two-college district serves as many as 31,000 students each semester. Grossmont College is located in El Cajon and is adjacent to Santee, La Mesa and San Diego. Cuyamaca College is located in Rancho San Diego, just south of El Cajon.
Together, these colleges offer 158 degree and certificate programs. Since the cost of taking one 16-week course averages as little as $33, it is not surprising that many San Diegans look to community colleges as anything from an affordable alternative to an expensive four-year university to a place to take a non-credit class on how to change a tire.
Like a salesman who genuinely believes in the superiority of his product, the Chancellor recites the philosophy that has carried him through life &SHY; the one on which he bases his work at the district. "My philosophy is to focus on very high standards, to bring together people who are the very best a what they do and to develop a vision. All this should be done in a very positive environment in which people are encouraged to be creative and participatory without being afraid of repercussions."
The most surprising part of Dr. Suarez' philosophy is not its ambitious nature, but the fact that district staff and employees claim that he has actually made it a reality. Despite the fractured state that the district was in before Dr. Suarez' arrival in 1998, these two colleges that once had a history of rivalry, now share a newfound sense of camaraderie.
Jim Custeau has been teaching at Cuyamaca College since 1979. He coordinates the Automotive Technology program and first became acquainted with Dr. Suarez when he served as the Academic Senate President. Although he lists a number of positives about the Chancellor and "honestly hasn't seen any weaknesses" in the way in which he runs the district, he believes that Dr. Suarez' biggest accomplishment has been to mend the deep rift between the two colleges.
"Clearly, the most positive influence he has provided is in the relationship between the faculty and staff of the two colleges. He has shown no favoritism, and I believe that he has been a catalyst in creating a more cooperative working relationship between the schools," says Mr. Custeau.
When asked about the Chancellor's character, Mr. Custeau sums up his answer with a story. "When [Dr. Suarez] was first hired, I called to welcome him to the district. During the conversation, I advised him as to what led to his predecessor's demise. I assured him that if he followed in her footsteps, his tenure at the district would be short," says Mr. Custeau, who went on to tell the Chancellor that he would be "very straight forward and honest with him at all times." "I then said, `I can't help it, it's the way my parents raised me.' Dr. Suarez responded by saying, `We're going to get along just fine, because that's the way my parents raised me.'"
It seems that much of the faculty at Grossmont agree with this assessment, as well. Dr. Suarez's strong leadership and "people" skills have virtually eliminated the confrontational environment that once existed. Mel Amov has been with Grossmont College since 1966 and is its most veteran faculty member. He is part of the history department with specialties in western civilization and ancient civilization.
"The confrontational situation which existed between the faculty and the district administration has been transformed into one of working toward resolution of issues that serve both the interests of faculty and administration. Most importantly, it facilitates our primary function of meeting the needs of our students," says Mr. Amov, who describes the Chancellor as "very intelligent and experienced" and finds him to be "adept at lowering the temperature when disputes arise." "This is not to say that we do not have issues, but instead of engaging in head to head conflict, we seek solutions with which both sides can live."
Rick Kirby coordinates the Cardiovascular Technology program at Grossmont College, and he has been a faculty member since 1972. Although he does not know the Chancellor on a "day-to-day basis," he has witnessed his ability to identify a problem and make a difference, first hand. Along with encouraging the vocational departments to create vital linkages with local high school programs, he has watched the Chancellor tirelessly fight to resolve the equity in funding issue that is crippling community colleges throughout the state. (Governor Gray Davis signed a bill Monday, October 15 that awarded community colleges $32 million of the $98 million they requested.)
"In tackling this funding issue, the Chancellor has mobilized the faculty to contact our elected representatives and the Governor to encourage equity in funding. I know that this has taken a major commitment. Throughout all of this, I am struck by his calmness and self-assurance on the job. He always looks me in the eye and let's me know that he's glad to see me. He makes sure that I know that he counts me as an important member of the team," says Mr. Kirby. "From my perspective, Dr. Suarez is an outstanding Chancellor."
The Chancellor's integrity, leadership skills and his ability to give credit where it is due have impressed a tough crowd. Dr. Suarez glances at his watch before pausing to answer one last question. "I would like to be viewed as someone who is open, flexible and bright. Someone who welcomes participation, but who knows that at the end of the day we all have a common direction."