SRJC’s new president, Dr. Frank Chong, settles into his office

Houston Smotherson, Features Editor
January 29, 2012

As the new President of Santa Rosa Junior College, Dr. Frank Chong is faced with issues regarding the budget and suspension of private sector funding like the Doyle Scholarship, but remains optimistic and feels that in general the college is very successful.

“Dr. Chong has a great deal of valuable experience that he brings to SRJC. This is a very large college and it will take some time to get to know faculty, staff and student leaders. I have heard nothing but positive comments,” said Tyra Benoit, dean of arts and communications studies.

While Dr. Chong is somewhat concerned about the budget cuts and lack of private funding for students, he is not trying to make drastic changes overnight. His first objective is to get to know the college and the community.

“I think the transition’s been going well and I’ve been feeling very welcome by everybody in the community. In fact I couldn’t ask for a better transition. I’m only the fifth president in almost a hundred years, so the pressure is on. But it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Dr. Chong said.

Dr. Robert Agrella, former SRJC president, has been overlapping with Dr. Chong for the past few weeks. “He’s got such a wealth of knowledge, which he’s been willing to share with me,” Dr. Chong said. “It’s really been a wonderful experience getting to know him. He knows the college like nobody’s business, so I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with him.”

Dr. Chong came here from Washington D.C., where he worked for the Obama administration promoting community colleges. In the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Obama spoke directly about the importance of community colleges in the process of economic recovery.

“I was very excited. I felt that part of my work was in his speech, and I feel really proud and pleased that the president realizes that community colleges are where it’s at. The challenge, as we all know, is the funding,” Dr. Chong said. “We need to get more federal and state support as well as funding from the private sector to do what we need to do. We’ve been cutting sections, and nobody wants to do that, but we can’t offer what we can’t pay for. The school is becoming smaller, but the need is growing—that’s not a good thing.”

Part of Dr. Chong’s job is to figure out what can be done to generate more revenue. About 80-90 percent of the budget is dependent on money received from the state. Dr. Chong said that many of the colleges he’s visited are working to diversify their funding base through federal grants and by working with the private sector to create programs as a way of meeting their staff training needs.

Before the financial crisis, the Doyle Scholarship was a great financial resource for SRJC students and Dr. Chong is working to get that back. He said reinstating the Doyle depends on the economy more than any other factor.

Dr. Chong would like to open a direct line of communication with SRJC students to ensure everyone’s voice is heard so SRJC can work together as a community and move forward. “I don’t assume that the way I communicate is the way students communicate, so I’m open to different suggestions,” Dr. Chong said. “Should we have a blog? Should you be able to Twitter me? I think we need to reach out and make sure we hear the pulse of the student voice. I’d like to find venues like clubs, or the journalism department.”

Chong also plans on conducting student forums.

“I value the student voice, and I think that students often get lost in the conversation, or they’re not even included in the conversation, but yet they’re our ultimate customer, so to speak.”

Associated Student President Jessica Jones has had several meetings with Dr. Chong. “Dr. Chong has been very supportive, communicative and transparent in all of the encounters and meetings that I have had with him so far. I respect his personable style of leadership and am empowered and excited to collaborate with him,” Jones said.

One area of SRJC Dr. Chong would like to improve is career advisement. In the State of the Union Address, Obama spoke about the importance of turning community colleges into “community career centers.” Dr. Chong said SRJC is already a career center, but in order to more precisely fit that definition, he wants to create ways to help students discover their passion so they can realize their educational goals more quickly without sacrificing quality.

“From the studies that I’ve looked at, students who come to a community college with a definite career goal are almost twice as likely to complete as those who are undecided. A lot of people are undecided—and that’s fine—our job is to help them get decided in a way that will help them find what they’re goal is,” Dr. Chong said. “It’s our job as a college to figure out how to take young people who aren’t sure what they want to do, and develop a process that’s friendly and usable and accessible.”

At the same time, Chong wants to keep an open door to lifelong learners. Traditionally, community colleges have served the needs of students interested in graduating with an Associate’s Degree, those who want to transfer to a four year college and those who would like to complete certificate programs to qualify for various careers. At SRJC there are also many students in the English as a Second Language Program. With such a broad spectrum of services, it can be difficult to measure the college’s success rate.

“I believe in data. I think statistics and research are really important as a measure of our success. But for me, success is really a community where people are focused on doing better,” Dr. Chong said.

“We, as a community, need to develop measures that we agree on, that are important. Certainly graduation and transfer rates, retention rates, students moving from basic skills to credit, job placement rates, the effectiveness of our ESL Program, are all important measures of success. But sometimes [students] don’t want to get jobs; they just want to learn because they love to cook. I absolutely support people having lifelong education. We just have to figure out a business model that will be affordable and can meet their needs.”

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