Back to School

Brice Harris returns to campus leadership

Back Article Nov 1, 2012 By Douglas Curley

With our August cover story, “Closing Remarks,” Comstock’s celebrated Brice Harris’ announced retirement as chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District and his 21-year career in that discipline.

Apparently, retirement didn’t take.

Less than two months after officially stepping down from a 16-year run at the helm of the local, multicampus district, a press conference was hastily called at the California Community College Chancellor’s Office to announce Harris as the next head of the statewide community college system.

How did this come about? Harris insists it wasn’t clandestine or premeditated. He and his wife, Barbara (also recently retired), had planned on taking a little time off and traveling before delving back into Capital Region community service. It was Jack Scott’s unexpected decision to step down from the state chancellor’s position that upturned the Harris’ retirement apple cart.

“Before I publicly announced my retirement in January, I called Jack to let him know. I wanted him to hear about it from me, not the local newspaper,” Harris says. “He was appreciative. And then two weeks later he announces his retirement,” Harris continues. “He calls and asks me to apply for his position. I was really caught flat footed.”

The outgoing chancellor was not alone in encouraging Harris to take on the challenge. Several members of the state board and the Los Rios board also urged him on.

He applied, was offered the job and accepted.

As noted in the August cover feature, these are critical times for California community colleges. In addition to grappling with
recession-induced budget cuts over the past three years, the 112-college system is also adjusting to radical structural changes implemented by legislative decree, the recently signed Senate Bill 1456.

Harris will take over just as the historically open-door college system is to begin rationing enrollment by prioritizing goal-oriented students, such as those who want to transfer to a university or learn a vocation. And for the first time, more than a million community college students who receive fee waivers will be required to maintain a minimum academic standard and course completion rate.

The new law holds community college students responsible for identifying an academic or career goal, declaring a major and attending classes. A college won’t be able to banish students who don’t comply, but those students could be placed at the end of the line to enroll. If budget allows, colleges will still have to provide enough counseling and guidance to help students stay in school.

“I realize these are tough financial times for the system and the state as a whole,” Harris says. “However, I remain passionate about these colleges and what they can do for the betterment of California. I don’t believe the overall mission of the system needs to change. There are simply parts of the mission we can’t afford at this time.”

According to Harris, those elements include service to business and industry, community service education and lifelong learning opportunities.

“While these are valuable tenets of our mission, we just can’t do them right now.”

And how has putting off retirement impacted dynamics on the home front?

“I think, like any spouse who has also retired, Barbara was expecting there was going to be a little more ‘us’ time,” Harris says. “At the same time, I believe she’s excited that I’m looking forward to this opportunity.”

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For more than 40 years, Brice Harris has sat front row in the nation’s community college system. First as a part-time faculty member at a small campus in Kansas City, later as president of Fresno City College and since 1996 as chancellor of Los Rios Community College District. He has spent his career working within multi-college systems. This month, he retires.

Aug 1, 2012 Douglas Curley