Jack Scott: What I Learned by Leading the Nation's Largest Higher-Education System

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Jack Scott
March 18, 2012

Mr. Scott, who is 78, is retiring in September as chancellor of the California Community Colleges, a position he held for three years after 12 years as a state legislator and 23 years presiding over two of the system's colleges. Here's his story, as told to Katherine Mangan.

When California's Board of Governors offered me the job as chancellor, I said I'd intended to retire after completing my Senate term but would be willing to serve for a minimum of two and up to five years. So I did sort of split the difference.

Having served in the Legislature for 12 years, I knew the lay of the land. I could pick up the phone and talk to legislators on a first-name basis, and I had contacts with the governor's office. It was helpful, on occasions, to be able to count heads—to say to my colleagues, Here's the nine-member committee; you're not going to get anywhere unless you have five votes—and to know when a bill has to be changed to get those votes.

I was able to play a leadership role in a transfer bill passed into law in 2010 that created a systemwide approach to transfer between community colleges and California State University. Literally thousands of students will be able to finish their bachelor's degrees with fewer units of study, saving them time and money and saving the State of California a considerable amount of money. There wasn't a systemwide approach to transfer before. I discovered that there was a campus that required a course in the history of world civilization and didn't accept the history of Western civilization, and 60 miles away was another CSU campus that required the history of Western civilization and wouldn't accept the history of world civilization.

I was impressed with what a diverse population this system serves and how it transforms lives. I also saw the tragedy of so many people being denied education because the campuses don't have enough resources. California is making a pretty serious blunder in terms of its future by failing to sufficiently fund higher education.

Having served in the Legislature, I realize there are a lot of needs that have to be balanced. Even though I'll fight for education funding, I've heard the pleas of those who are served by our health-care system or our services for the poor or disabled. I'm not someone who simply says the Legislature should give us the money and we should spend it however we want. We have to spend these dollars well.

I don't spend a lot of time getting terribly frustrated over what I can't change.

Despite the fact that we've experienced a 13-percent cut in the past three years, and it's constrained all we'd like to do, I think the system's future is quite bright. Our enrollment hasn't gone down because of a lack of demand, just a lack of resources.

From the start, I knew the limits of working in such a decentralized higher-education system. I realized that the most powerful thing I had was the bully pulpit. I knew I couldn't send directives down. One of the reasons I accepted so many speaking engagements was that I could influence this institution by my appearances and persuasion.

The decision to retire had more to do with the time of life. It had nothing to do with dissatisfaction with the job. I want to have a little freedom in retirement to relax a little more, travel some, do some reading and writing and speaking engagements and perhaps even some consulting. And sometimes I'd like to be able to wake up in the morning and say, I don't have to do anything today.